With ‘The Hobbit’ looming, we revisit the record-tying Oscar haul for ‘Return of the King’

Yesterday’s unveiling of the trailer for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was greeted with feverish enthusiasm not just by the legions of “Lord of the Rings” and Peter Jackson fanboys (and girls), but by the equally excitable clan of Oscar pundits too.

That’s hardly surprising: as Kris wrote yesterday, when one is talking about the follow-up (or, shall we say, prequel) to a blockbuster trilogy that amassed 17 Academy Awards and 30 nominations, it’s fair to guess the new film will at least be in the conversation next year. Particularly when most of the original creative team is involved: production designer Grant Major has been replaced with Dan Hennah, while Ann Maskrey fills in for Ngila Dickson on costumes, but otherwise, we’re partying like it’s 2003 here.

True to form, I haven’t watched the trailer, but my own blind prognosis for the new film’s awards performance has little to do with how good it turns out to be: there was such an aura of finality to the 2003 Oscar race’s crowning of “The Return of the King,” a sense of dues paid and collective achievement recognized, that I’d be surprised if the Academy feels obliged to go there again, outside the likely slew of technical citations.

Since his triple win nearly eight years ago, Jackson’s Academy stock has dropped with the crafts-only recognition for “King Kong” and the outright disaster of “The Lovely Bones”: this return to the Tolkien well will need to wow even more than its predecessors to have a hope of replicating their awards-season success. (I suspect the second film in this two-part project would be the likelier horse anyway: the “Rings” films had to wait for their closing chapter to really hit home with the Academy, after all.)

In all the time I’ve been following the Oscar race, there has never been a more inevitable Best Picture winner than “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”: its victory was written on the wall not just at the very outset of the 2003 season, before the film had even been seen, but a full two years earlier. When “The Fellowship of the Ring” failed to nab top honors despite a whopping 13 nominations and a quartet of technical trophies — losing to a film with as obviously short a shelf life as “A Beautiful Mind,” to boot — it was clear the Academy voters were merely biding their time until the full extent of Jackson’s achievement in adapting Tolkien’s epic was out on display. 

Similarly, when “The Two Towers” earned a lukewarm total of six token nominations the next year, without even a director citation for Jackson, one could sense voters were merely keeping the trilogy on the back burner, reminding us they hadn’t forgotten it entirely, until the next year. (For my money, it’s the most compelling and vividly realized of the three films, but it was always going to pay the price for having no real beginning or end.) That “The Return of the King” turned out to be the most awkwardly constructed and overbaked of the trilogy was of no consequence: Jackson would have had to randomly insert “Irreversible”-style sex scenes between Frodo and Gollum, or at least replace Ian McKellen with Larry the Cable Guy, to derail the third film’s Oscar chances.

As “The Return of the King”‘s unprecedented clean sweep of all 11 categories in which it was nominated — a sweep assisted by its absence from the acting and, more surprisingly, cinematography fields — made for a grindingly monotonous Oscar ceremony, there was something both wearying and inarguable about its success. Even as someone who wasn’t a particular devotee of the films, I couldn’t deny that the Academy was doing the right thing by acknowledging this particular cultural phenomenon: it’s a win that will age well, even if one thinks there were finer films in the mix.

But did it deserve all even awards? Taking a cue from Kris’ similar “Titanic”-themed post a while back (appropriately enough, one of the films with which “King” shares its all-time Oscar record), let’s break it down, category by category:


Jackson’s film beat out “Lost in Translation,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Mystic River” and “Seabiscuit” for the win here — and it’s indicative of just how non-existent the competition was this year that it’s still hard to guess which of the nominees even placed second. None of those films have anything approaching the cultural cachet of the “Rings” films, so fair play to the Academy. Still, “The Return of the King” would only place fourth on my personal ballot: Sofia Coppola’s woozy, whispery anti-romance had my heart in 2003, and probably still does, though “Master and Commander” looks more robust and for-the-ages with every viewing.


Here, Jackson beat Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Peter Weir (“Master and Commander”), Clint Eastwood (“Mystic River”) and wild-card nominee Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), who thankfully elbowed “Seabiscuit” out of this race. It wouldn’t make any sense to give a film as wholly helmer-steered as “King” the Oscar without giving it the Best Director prize too, but in my dreams, this was a tight three-person race between Coppola, Weir and Meirelles: their directorial achievements are so vastly different in scale and reach that they can hardly be compared, but ultimately, I’d have liked to see Coppola predate Kathryn Bigelow’s ceiling breaking win by seven years.


Jackson and his collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens defeated “American Splendor,” “City of God,” “Mystic River” and “Seabiscuit” in the one category that most awards pundits weren’t expecting the film to triumph in — and I must confess, I think this is a pretty silly award to give an adaptation this undisciplined in its structure (let’s not speak of its surfeit of endings, since plenty of others already have). Admittedly, it’s not a vintage field, but I’d have made the same choice as the Writers’ Guild of America: in “American Splendor,” Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman inventively riffed on Harvey Pekar’s quicksilver graphic source material to create a singularly cinematic script.


After scoring nominations for all three films, Grant Major finally won here, beating “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “The Last Samurai,” “Master and Commander” and “Seabiscuit.” For my money, Major’s most dazzling work was on “The Fellowship of the Ring,” where he was unlucky to come up against the delirious designs of “Moulin Rouge!,” so I’m glad he has a trophy to mark his spectacular realization of Tolkien’s world. Still, on a single-year basis, my vote would have gone the same way as BAFTA’s: William Sandell’s finely textured, claustrophobic housing of an entire society on a single ship in “Master and Commander.” 


Nigila Dickson and Richard Taylor’s wardrobe of sackcloth and royal robes was an easy pick for the win over “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “The Last Samurai” (for which Dickson scored a second nomination that year), “Master and Commander” and “Seabiscuit” — yes, the Academy’s art direction and costume branches dully matched 5-for-5 in their respective nominee fields. Still, I guess repetition is the name of the game here: as with the previous category, BAFTA opted for “Master and Commander”‘s sullied naval finery here, and again, I side with them. (The intricate color-coding of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is close behind, however.)


Jamie Selkirk beat “City of God,” “Cold Mountain” (cut by a giant of the field, Walter Murch), “Master and Commander” and “Seabiscuit” here: it’d be easy to snarkily blame the editor for the film’s more bloated areas, but he’s also responsible for its propulsive action sequences, so this win is really a case of swings and roundabouts. Still, Daniel Rezende’s pulsating, razor-sharp shaping of “City of God,” which seemingly gives the film the perspective of an entire city, would handily have earned my vote in this field.


After winning for “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001, Richard Taylor (also a winner this year for costumes) claimed another trophy in this field over “Master and Commander” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (that’s the first one, in case you’ve lost count). And, as much as I like the subtle, dirt-stained character work in Peter Weir’s film, who can argue with that? (Fun fact: Taylor was also part of the winning FX team on “Fellowship,” bringing his Oscar tally for the trilogy to four, spread across three categories.)


In another repeat of a “Fellowship” victory, Howard Shore beat Danny Elfman (“Big Fish”), Gabriel Yared (“Cold Mountain”), Thomas Newman (“Finding Nemo”) and James Horner (“House of Sand and Fog”) here — a field with several heavyweight composers on less-than-heavyweight movies, so it’s not hard to see why Shore’s unfailingly stirring orchestral swoops again carried the day here. But it’s not my favorite of the nominees: Yared’s artful incorporation of rootsy early Americana into his typically lush work on Anthony Minghella’s uneven epic has the most replay value for me.


Trivial category that it may be, I can make my peace with every one of “The Return of the King”‘s win but this one: Annie Lennox’s tune-averse closing credits dirge “Into the West” would be an uninspired winner in any year, but it was an especially dreary choice in a creative, diversely retro field that included one spot-on genre parody from a Christopher Guest film (“A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from “A Mighty Wind”), one sly, narrative-aiding chanson pastiche (“Belleville Rendezvous” from “The Triplets of Belleville”) and a pair of gorgeous, period-specific folk tributes from “Cold Mountain” (Sting’s “My Ain True Love” and T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello’s “The Scarlet Tide”). Any of these four would have made a credible winner, but it’d have warmed my heart most to see the eccentric Gallic flavor of “Belleville” rewarded here.


Another very easy win for the film (and somewhat surprisingly, the trilogy’s only victory in this field), ahead of “The Last Samurai,” “Master and Commander,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Seabiscuit” — and again, it’s hard to make a solid case for denying the overwhelming, bigger-is-better sound work across the films. “Master and Commander” is no less satisfying in this department, but since it aptly received its due in the Sound Editing field (where “King” wasn’t even nominated, and would surely have scooped a record-breaking twelfth statuette if it had been), I’ll gladly let Jackson’s film have this one.


The only category where every film in the trilogy emerged triumphant — and it was a no-brainer every single time. Due respect to the rock-solid FX work in “Master and Commander” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the Academy really didn’t consider the broadest field of films this year, I must say), but this win couldn’t, and shouldn’t, have been denied. 

So, there you have it. Even I’m a little surprised that, despite my admiration for Jackson’s colossal achievement, I’d personally given the film only three of the 11 Oscars it won. But what about you? Cast your mind back to March 2004, and have your say in the comments below.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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