COVER

OSCAR HOPEFULS WITH SOME HEFT

This year's slate of best-movie nominees is the strongest—and most eclectic— in years

Brian D. Johnson March 24 1997
COVER

OSCAR HOPEFULS WITH SOME HEFT

This year's slate of best-movie nominees is the strongest—and most eclectic— in years

Brian D. Johnson March 24 1997

OSCAR HOPEFULS WITH SOME HEFT

COVER

This year's slate of best-movie nominees is the strongest—and most eclectic— in years

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Ever since Citizen Kane lost the 1941 best picture award to How Green Was My Valley, it has been clear that the Oscars are about sentiment, not justice. But there is usually some logic to the voting. The academy tends to favor the uplifting, the romantic and the epic over the dark, the strange and the subtle. Heroes with a disability, mental or physical, have a distinct edge. And an Oscar-winning picture should possess at least an air of dignity or consequence. Last year, the academy appeared to lose its grip entirely as Braveheart, a battlefield spectacle to warm the heart of a soccer hooligan, beat out Babe, an Australian tale of a talking pig. But the academy suddenly seems to have recovered its sanity. This year’s slate of nominated films is one of the strongest in years.

It is also one of the most eclectic. Consider the heroes, and heroines, of the movies vying for best picture on March 24: a charred survivor of a plane crash who sold secrets to the Nazis to fulfil a promise to his dying lover (The English Patient)-, a pregnant cop who catches a killer in the act of feeding the last few inches of his accomplice into a woodchipper (Fargo)-, a pianist who suffers a nervous breakdown in mid-performance and finds salvation in a romance with a wealthy astrologer (Shine)-, a neurotic, workingclass white mother whose family comes unglued after a black daughter she gave up for adoption tracks her down (Secrets and Lies) ; and a high-powered sports agent who falls from grace and pins his fortunes on a jive-talking, underachieving black football player (Jerry Maguire).

Any of those movies would be a worthy winner, except one. Jerry Maguire does not deserve to be nominated. Not that there is anything wrong with it. As a night out, it is entertaining enough, a better date movie than most. The performances are spirited. Ingenue Renee Zellweger makes a surprising splash. Tom Cruise, who is nominated for best actor, ricochets through his scenes like a squash player at the top of his game. And writerdirector Cameron Crowe has put a fresh spin on the romantic comedy formula, sending Jerry Maguire spiralling into box-office orbit ($205 million worldwide, and counting). But it is still a formula film, a lightweight confection that does not belong in the same category as the other nominees. In a field dominated by independent productions, it also happens to be the only nominated movie that

comes from a Hollywood studio and features a major star.

And the fact that it boasts five nominations, including best picture, only underscores how desperate Hollywood is to celebrate something, anything, it can call its own. After the list of nominated actors was announced—with names like Brenda Blethyn, Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush—one U.S. newspaper headline asked in exasperation: “Who are these people?”

As the schism between the studios and the independents deepens, movies are becoming polarized into two distinct species. There are the rides, the special-effects extravaganzas that rule the market by dint of sheer sensory stimulus. (Last year’s four top-grossing movies—Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible and The Rock—have no nominations outside technical categories.) Then there are films that are about something, stories with dramatic integrity that do not let visual gimmick-

ry overwhelm writing and acting.

But there was once a time when intelligence and spectacle could actually be found in the same movie— in such legendary epics as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

The English Patient recalls that tradition. The most ambitious of the five nominated films, it strikes a rare balance between the sweep of a Hollywood epic and the interior landscape of a literary imagination.

British writer-director Anthony Minghella has decoded Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s poetic novel, and amplified the romance without abandoning the ideas.

There is something miraculous about the book’s transformation to the screen. Imagine pitching the story to a studio executive: “OK, there’s this horribly burned Hungarian cartographer being tended by a Canadian nurse in a ruined Italian monastery during the Second World War, and while the nurse falls for a Sikh bomb-disposal expert, we flash back to a doomed adulterous romance in the desert between the cartographer, who betrays his country, and his colleague’s wife, who betrays her husband.”

The movie is the year’s Big Romance. But behind the glow of grand emotions is an intricate maze of metaphor. It is a story that maps the edges of identity. And its pleasures are more esthetic than emotional. As the adulterous lovers, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas both give performances that are well-guarded exercises in nuance. Juliette Binoche, as the vulnerable nurse, of-

fers the only direct avenue for the viewer’s empathy.

It is amazing that the movie works as splendidly as it does, and that a piece of Canadian literary fiction has become part of American pop culture. Last week The English Patient even generated its own subplot on Seinfeld—Elaine gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired by her boss because she does not share their reverence for the movie. “It sucked,” she says. “Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert and just die already. . . . Those sex scenes, puleeze, give me something I can use. You know, sex in the tub, that just doesn’t work.”

Fargo, which leaves no room for parody, serves as the ultimate antidote to epic romance. Its landscape is snow, not sand. And, as a black comedy, it has a more tightly contained agenda. But Fargo is the one perfectly crafted film among the nominees. Written and directed by the Coen brothers, it takes place in the middle of nowhere, in Brainerd, Minn. The characters wear parkas and speak in accents worthy of Bob and Doug Mackenzie from the Great White North. Watching Fargo, you get the sinking feeling that a bunch of Americans have just made the Great Canadian Movie.

Frances McDormand deserves to win the bestactress Oscar for her role as the pregnant cop who unravels a plot by a jittery car salesman (William H. Macy) to have his own wife kidnapped. But McDormand faces stiff competition from The English Patients Scott Thomas and from Brenda Blethyn, whose dithering charm as the neurotic mother in Secrets and Lies is irresistible. Emily Watson, who gives the year’s most emotionally wrenching performance as a self-sacrificing bride in Breaking the Waves, is also a credible contender. Diane Keaton is nominated for her slight role as a dying mother in Marvin’s Room, but her only apparent advantage is that she is the biggest star in the category.

Fargo’s Macy, meanwhile, is nominated in a supporting role, but his lowkey performance stands little chance against Edward Norton, who should win for accumulating an amazing body of work in his rookie year. He was dazzling as the lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flynt and as a callow suitor in Everybody Says I Love You, but was nominated for his spine-tingling turn as a murder suspect in Primal Fear. The flamboyant Cuba Gooding, Jr., who gives Cruise a run for his money in Jerry Maguire, is also a strong contender for the supporting actor prize.

Fargo, unlike most American movies, is not a flashy picture. It is dry, existential and wickedly funny. There is an unforgettable scene of Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), with half his face blown off, burying his loot in a snowbank on a barren stretch of roadside—then marking the spot with an ice scraper. That is not the kind of landscape that traditionally wins Oscars.

Shine, which has seven nominations, seems tailor-made for the academy’s tastes. In the tradition of Rain Man and Forrest Gump, it is an uplift-

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ing story of a man afflicted by mental illness who triumphs over adversity. While The English Patient remains the clear favorite for best picture, Shine's star, Geoffrey Rush, is the safest bet in the best-actor category. He is up against Cruise, Fiennes and Woody Harrelson—whose strong performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt is tainted by charges that the movie has sanitized a pornographer. And dark-horse nominee Billy Bob Thornton, playing yet another hero afflicted by mental illness, has been generating a lot of excitement for his low-budget tour de force, Sling Blade.

Based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, who is currently on tour in North America, Shine divides his life into three phases, using three different actors. Rush plays the oldest incarnation, the post-breakdown David, a wildly effervescent free spirit. His words tumbling forth helterskelter, Rush talks in a kind of breathless scat that could not be scripted. He also does a passable impression of playing the piano. It is, in other words, a virtuoso feat of acting.

Using a flashback structure, writer-director Scott Hicks spins the story with finesse. But it has frustrating gaps. While much time is devoted to the child-prodigy years (with Oscar nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl portraying David’s domineering father in a supporting role), there is almost nothing about the painful aftermath of the breakdown— the decade before the ex-mental patient stumbles out of the rain into a piano bar.

But all that mental illness might not have been so uplifting.

Secrets and Lies comes from a director who has done his share of exploring the dark side. Mike Leigh’s previous film, Naked (1993), was a scalding one-man descent into millennial hell.

In Secrets and Lies, without sacrificing an ounce of realism, the British filmmaker finds the brighter side of family dysfunction. Unlike Shine, it is a little too long. There is a slow stretch of groundwork before the story finally clicks into gear—with the first phone contact between the black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and her white birth mother (Brenda Blethyn). But from that point on, the drama is riveting.

Issues of gender, race and class loom into focus without ever seeming forced. And Leigh’s ensemble cast, who improvised the script during months of rehearsal, acts with a naturalism that is simply not found in Hollywood movies. Nominees Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste connect with jawdropping chemistry, especially in the scene of their first meeting, a restaurant conversation that Leigh shoots in one remarkable, uninterrupted take. The success of Secrets and Lies, which won the grand prize at Cannes last May, is as miraculous, in its own way, as that of The English Patient. It is a movie with no stars, no romance, no diverting bouts of mental illness—just emotions laid bare.

Predicting Oscars is a foolish form of prophecy. It might seem safe to forecast that The English Patient will win for best picture, director, cinematography and adapted screenplay; and that Geoffrey Rush will win for Shine. But who knows? Hollywood loves its movie stars, and there are precious few in the running. Anyone scanning the ballot for familiar names might just put a tick beside Tom Cruise. After all, an academy that shows such fondness for displays of mental disability cannot be counted on to make sane decisions. □