Who’s afraid of Mike Nichols?

The Oscar nominations were announced last week, and, as in every year, everyone has his list of “Movies That Were Robbed.” Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is on a lot of those lists. Perhaps the most audacious film of recent years, it garnered only three nominations, all in minor categories. (One was for Best Score, puzzling given how over-the-top the music often was.) Many can’t understand how Sideways racked up the nominations, including Best Picture and Director, while its star, Paul Giamatti, was left out in the cold. And it was supposed to be the Year of Jude Law–I’m certain I sat through one set of movie previews that only featured films with the British heartthrob–but he didn’t get a single nomination.

Of course, I have my own list. It’s nearly inexplicable to me, for example that the cleverest film of the year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, received only two nominations: Best Original Screenplay and Kate Winslet’s nomination for Best Actress. This movie is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece, the one in which he finally uses his inimitable talent to tackle the big things.

But the biggest travesty of the Oscar nominations was the lack of recognition given to veteran director Mike Nichols’ Closer. To my mind, this was 2004’s best movie. But the only nominations were those given to Clive Owen and Natalie Portman in the Supporting Actor and Actress categories. (And even this is confusing–the film focuses on two couples, and Clive Owen has almost as much screen time as Jude Law.) They won both those awards at the Golden Globes earlier this month, but the film also had Globe nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.

Closer began life as a stage play, and sometimes it shows. There is a little of the self-conscious dialogue common to so many of the films that were first plays. But only a little, and it is quickly forgotten as one is immersed into the love lives of two London couples: Jude Law and Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Obituary writer Law is happy with Portman, an American waif who has inspired his first novel. Until he meets Roberts, a photographer taking his book jacket picture, and cannot stop pursuing her, even through her marriage to aggressive and successful doctor Owen. “You’re wonderful,” Roberts tells Owen. “Don’t ever forget it,” he responds. But inevitably, she does.

Time passes in the movie, with no explicit indication of how much. The film is like a series of vignettes, but they are blended seamlessly, in no small part because of the forceful acting of the four principals. Natalie Portman, in particular, is a standout. She holds her own amongst the impressive talent assembled, looking fierce and tiny throughout. “She has the moronic beauty of youth, but she’s sly,” Owen’s character comments.

On its face, the movie is a searing psychological portrait of two couples–like Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–and an exploration of infidelity–like his The Graduate and Regarding Henry. But what makes this film so compelling is that it goes beyond Nichols’ previous work, and tackles subjects films rarely do in a seriously intelligent way. Closer is about the chances that men and women get when they least deserve them. But most important, it is about truth.

One of the biggest questions Closer explores is whether honesty really is the best policy. Law’s character insists on it–and it never fails to ruin him. Most of us say we want relationships in which we are completely honest with our partners. But maybe it is lies that keep us together. One character leaves another not when he tells her an uncomfortable truth, but when he forces her to tell him.

Perhaps Closer was just too much for Academy voters. Because the film is devastating. “You women don’t understand the territory . . . because you are the territory,” Clive Owen says in a declaration of war. Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber, who also penned the play, take us into places most of us don’t even want to remember about our real life relationships. Three of the five Best Picture nominees–RayFinding Neverland, and The Aviator–are based on true stories. The Academy loves that kind of movie. But Closer gets closer to the heart of human love and life than most biopics, a rather superficial genre on the whole, even try to.

Despite being made by a director who makes the U.S. his home, using Americans for half his cast, the film seems to be better appreciated across the pond. Opening in the United Kingdom two weeks ago, the film went to the top of the weekend box office charts. Interviewed recently, screenwriter Marber has a good suggestion as to why this might be so:

Most mainstream American films are about redemption: the hero goes on a journey, and becomes a better person as a result of their suffering or experience. I never felt like Closer ever had a particular message. I’m not that kind of writer. I was just telling a story that I hoped would hold the audience’s attention for a couple of hours. No one improves, there aren’t great moral lessons to be learnt. The people who don’t like it perceive it as a slab of nihilism.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.

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