By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

They are Hollywood's Super Bowl, March Madness, the World Series, all rolled into one -- they are the Oscars, and the controlling event of the weekend, although we must come clean and admit this difference: We've never checked out Jim Calhoun on the Final Four red carpet and marveled at his cleavage, never ogled Bill Belichick's tight sweatshirt in the Super Bowl pregame locker room and said, "Is it really that cold in there?"

Not that I was wondering those things -- just checking out Salma Hayek and Hilary Swank on the Oscar pregame show while writing The Cooler.

That pregame show itself is rife with sports analogies:

There's Jamie Foxx, looking cool, confident, strong -- a Tom Brady figure coming out of the huddle, walking tall in the knowledge his sensational turn as Ray Charles is a lock for Best Actor, the same way Brady walks tall in pressure situations, always knowing Adam Vinatieri's foot was just a fourth down away.

There's Annette Bening, looking tight and uneasy -- like she's expecting to lose Best Actress to the more popular role played by Swank. Bening summoned up the glum look of the close-but-no-cigar Syracuse teams of Jim Boeheim, waiting to be ousted by Coach K's Duke team, or John Thompson's Georgetown squad.

There's Virginia Madsen, looking tremendous, out of nowhere -- like a blast off of ESPN Classic, where you forgot just how good the 1976 Phoenix Suns were until you caught the replay of the NBA Finals at 3 a.m. one night.

There's Laura Linney, looking somewhat overmatched -- a No. 15 seed from the movie equivalent of the Big West Conference, the low-budget "Kinsey," facing a No. 2 seed like Kentucky, in the form of "The Aviator"'s Cate Blanchett. Linney looked truly just happy to be there, to get mentioned on Selection Sunday and wave at the cameras on the way in.

It's all there for you, if you look hard enough. Marty Scorsese -- his body of work veritably Wooden-esque, from "Taxi Driver" to "Goodfellas" to "Raging Bull," although Marty's artsy spectacles are beginning to take on a slightly-deranged look. You get the feeling that if he loses out on a few more Oscar bids, he'll start wearing more and more outrageous specs -- beginning to take on crazed dimensions not unlike the spectacle of Gene Keady's combover. Halle Berry -- will she ever not look fantastic? She's like Greg Maddux, winning at least 15 games 15 years in a row.

And Clint Eastwood -- the silver-tipped champion, year in, year out, gloriously re-inventing himself from early-career spaghetti western cowboy to elegant late-career artiste, summoning up images of -- who else? -- the classy Joe Torre, morphing from forgettable early career stints with the Cards and Braves, until he eventually rode high atop the Yankee Empire in his golden years. Sweet.

On, then, to the Weekend List of Five:

1. Sports in the Best Picture Nominees
As always, sports play a huge role in the Oscars. This goes way back. I remember "Breaking Away" getting nominated in 1979, "Heaven Can Wait" in 1978, "Field of Dreams" in 1989, "Jerry Maguire" and "Seabiscuit" in recent years, and of course, the gold standard, "Rocky" actually winning Best Picture in 1976. Given that Oscar is unafraid to embrace sports movies, it makes a guy wonder how "Slap Shot", "Major League" and "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" somehow got dissed. But sports disses are part of Oscar's legacy -- given the chance to nominate Paul Giamatti, the son of the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, for turning in some sensational work in "Sideways," Hollywood choked. Too many Pete Rose fans in the corner offices of the major studios, apparently.

Still, sports were represented, as usual. "Million Dollar Baby" somehow turned the freak show of women's boxing into a poignant tale of lost souls connecting. In "Sideways," Miles and Jack performed an American bachelor party ritual and played golf, minus the stogies and gratuitous leering at the cart girl. Leo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett played some serious stick as Howard Hughes and Kate Hepburn strolling the links in "The Aviator" -- likely turning what you and I would call a $2 Nassau into what Howard Hughes would call a $2 million Nassau. "What do you say we make this interesting, Kate," Hughes might have said at the turn, "and play for the rights to own TWA?"

2. Speaking of golf ...
The Cooler, of course, is a PGA Tour-friendly place -- but the Accenture Match Play Championship isn't exactly a Nielsen-friendly place. The deal is, match play is a bizarre, sometimes beautiful, sometimes unfair, thing. The cheap, quick thrill of watching Tiger Woods get taken down by a guy named Nick O'Hern -- whose mailman probably doesn't even know O'Hern is a professional golfer -- soon gets replaced by the dull ache that we now have a Match Play event without Tiger Woods, and with Nick O'Hern. All of which is a long way of saying: David Toms vs. Chris DiMarco in the Final.

Three years ago, it was Kevin Sutherland vs. Scott McCarron. Before that, Andrew Magee vs. Jeff Maggert. Good guys? Tax-paying citizens? Men who obey the speed limit, wait for elevators to clear of passengers before boarding, and never carry more than 15 items into the 15-items-and-fewer line? Sure. Just ... not ... exactly ... Arnie vs. Jack in the 1962 U.S. Open, you know what I mean?

3. Did Leo Mazzone Ever Climb a Tree for Bobby Cox?
Staying on the Match Play Championship, I hope you all got the chance to see Retief Goosen send his caddie, Colin Byrne, to climb a tree in search of his errant tee shot in the semifinal. If we're supposed to enjoy sports because it reminds us of our innocent youth, it may not get any more innocent or youthful than the alpha male in a situation sending the beta male to search for a lost ball.

This was the script of my childhood, at least. Tennis ball lost in the bushes during a pickup ballgame on the street? Send the youngest kid in to look, then make him feel important by playing the "See It?/Got It?" call-and-response as the little kid wanders through the weeds.

Older kid, waiting outside the weeds: See it?

Younger kid, face-to-face with bugs, snakes and thorny bushes in the weeds: No!

Older kid, bored already: Got it?

I'd like to think soft-spoken Retief tossed out a few "See It/Got It?" lines to Byrne, who was up in the branches, risking getting his eye poked out, before shaking loose a ball that, alas, was not Goosen's. Goosen probably made Byrne fetch him a ham sandwich at the turn as penance.

4. Spring Chatter
I trust all of you, like me, are hugely enjoying perusing the morning sports pages, reading the sweet buzzwords of spring training ... Opening Day starters ... batting practice ... promises of pennants ... angry denials of steroid accusations ... ponderings of libel lawsuits ... mmm. Just sounds like ball, doesn't it? Nothing, to me, screams spring ball like a color photo of The Boss himself, forever dressing the part of Outrageously Rich Guy Out Of Touch With Modern Fashion. I enjoyed a portrait of George Steinbrenner with his arm around Jason Giambi in Sunday's New York Times, his accoutrements in full bloom: Quasi-Members Only jacket, silver wrist bracelet, coiffed gray mane, and the coup de grace, the dark shades that are part-FBI agent, part-Guy Heading Into An Adult Theatre In The Mid-Afternoon.

The Boss -- let's face it, we'd be be a poorer sports landscape without him.

5. Final Oscar Thoughts
Couldn't shake the feeling that Chris Rock, while a very funny guy, was a minor-leaguer on the big-league stage of the Oscars. Bob Hope? Yes. Johnny Carson? Yes. Billy Crystal? Yes. Rock? As Tom Hagen said to Tessio in "The Godfather": Can't do it, Sollly ... Who exuded more masculinity: Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, or Prince? ... Best acceptance speech of the night, by a mile: The dude who sung in Spanish -- in tune, original and, best of all, brief ... Although his work as Jeff Spicoli makes him a lifetime Hall of Famer, and though he remains one of our generation's best actors, Sean Penn's humor-ectomy in real life is starting to wear thin. Yo, pal: Lighten up ... What was up with bringing all the nominees on stage for those lesser awards, then announcing the winner? It was an internationally broadcast recreation of the playground Pick-A-Team draft. Thing is, you know all of these guys who get into Hollywood are the kids from high school drama class, so they spent their entire adolescence NOT getting picked in lunchtime softball games, anyway. Standing on the stage, and hearing "Born into Brothels" win Best Documentary, it had to rip open old teenage wounds for those artistes who watched somebody else get "picked" by the Academy ... And finally, I know elsewhere on this site, "Million Dollar Baby" has been cuffed around, pilloried and generally marginalized. Here? Clint has an All-Access pass to The Cooler. Way to go, cowboy. Between "Unforgiven", "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby", you've re-introduced the long-lost concept of understated art to American cinema.

I will say this, however: I still think Snoop Dogg's effort in "Soul Plane" was cruelly overlooked. But, them's the breaks.

E-mail Brian Murphy at page2murphy@yahoo.com.



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