FILM

THE OSCAR WARS

The Elizabethan Age and the Second World War square off in Tinseltown's homage to itself

March 22 1999
FILM

THE OSCAR WARS

The Elizabethan Age and the Second World War square off in Tinseltown's homage to itself

March 22 1999

THE OSCAR WARS

FILM

The Elizabethan Age and the Second World War square off in Tinseltown's homage to itself

For once, it’s a horse race. After last year’s Titanic deluge, the 71st annual Academy Awards this Sunday are shaping up to be a real contest. With uncanny coincidence, the nominated movies are squared off in an epic showdown between love and war. In one corner, we have the civilizing influence of brave Elizabethan women making a theatrical entrance in a man’s world—(Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth) . In the other, we have scared men trying to survive the barbaric theatres of the Second World War—Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Life Is Beautiful. All the best-picture nominees are period films—Oscar has always liked a costume party. The producers designing the big production numbers for this, the century’s final Oscar pageant, must feel they have died and gone to millennial heaven. What will it be? Cotillions of Elizabethan ladies in whiteface? War-blackened infantrymen stepdancing from landing craft?

Although vaudeville ace Billy Crystal has bowed out of the emcee job this year, there is no shortage of monologue fodder for Whoopi Goldberg. But do not expect a lot of snappy one-liners about Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful—unless they come from Benigni himself. The Italian director’s sweetly miraculous tour de force is nominated for seven Oscars, a record for a foreignlanguage film. Here’s hoping he wins one of them—for the sheer pleasure of seeing Benigni fly onto the stage like Robin Williams on helium and waylay the presenter. When he won the runner-up prize at the Cannes film festival last May, he embraced every member of the jury and kissed the feet of its president, Martin Scorsese. Accepting the best-actor prize from the Screen Actors Guild recently, he lifted Helen Hunt off her feet and twirled her around. Roberto is on a roll. Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love are, of course, the favourites for best picture. Considering the age and conservatism of the academy, the safe bet is Ryan. Steven Spielberg’s opus triumphs on three fronts, with critical acclaim, historical gravity and massive box office success. But the battle is Spielberg’s to lose. His film was considered a shoo-in ever since it was released last July. Then, Shakespeare swept into view before Christmas and snagged the lion’s share of nominations— 13, two more than Private Ryan.

While Oscar is usually a snob about romantic comedy, he has a soft spot for playing dress up with history and literature. This makes Shakespeare the belle of the ball. Aside from offering a sublimely witty escape from the horrors of this century, it is also a thoroughly modern movie about show busi-

ness. Oscar loves nothing in the world better than show business.

Meanwhile, after years of escalating rivalry between Hollywood studios and so-called independent films, the 1999 Academy Awards mark a watershed. Miramax Films, which is owned by Disney, has cornered the market on brokering classy independent fare. In previous years, it has championed Pulp Fiction, Good Will Blunting and The English Patient. This year, it is pushing Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful with a zeal that has caused its studio rivals to cry foul. No one greases Oscar’s palm with more gold than Miramax—it has spent $23 million promoting Shakespeare, including $1.6 million on a blitz aimed directly at the academy’s 5,557 members.

Politics and money mean a lot to Oscar. Not to mention clothes. After all, he is a naked, gold-plated guy with a sword between his legs. But what about art? Are the dark-horse nominees more worthy? Well, Elizabeth looks artful, with lots of jagged camera work and stark lighting, but aside from Cate Blanchett’s brilliance, its beauty runs skin-deep. If risk is a hallmark of art, Life Is Beautiful deserves recognition. But it will probably win for best foreign film, beating out Brazil’s Central Station, a richer, more muted tale of a boy separated from his parents.

That leaves The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s lyrical antidote to Spielberg’s literal melodrama. Malick’s is a far more interesting, provocative film, despite its uneven execution and curdling mysticism.

Ryan has a devastating beginning and end, but goes soft in the middle, hopscotching through a minefield of combat clichés. The Thin Red Line never seems to begin or end: like war itself, it is all middle.

For those who watch, however, the Oscars are about the stars, not the movies—what they wear, and how they act when they win or lose. In the best-actor race, Ryan’s Tom Hanks is the only big-time star and a solid favourite with Las Vegas odds-makers. But

he has won twice before (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump), and does anyone really want to see him get up there and blunder through another outburst of gushing, scripted spontaneity? Why can’t actors act when they win awards? After Hanks, the Vegas favourite is British thespian Ian McKellen for Gods and Monsters, followed by Nick Nolte (Affliction), Benigni, then Edward Norton American History X). Watch out for Benigni—his surprise win at the Screen Actors Guild, which represents the academy’s largest voting block, could foreshadow an upset. Nolte gives the performance of his life as a desperate loser in Affliction, Paul Schrader’s austere tale of father-son abuse in a snowbound New England village. But it is doubtful that enough academy members saw, or liked, it.

The actress race is more clear-cut. Although Fernanda Montenegro was spellbinding in Central Station, if the academy embraces an older, unglamorous Portuguese-speaking actress, it will be a strange and wondrous thing. Meryl Streep dies convincingly of cancer in a bad movie (One True Thing)—been there, done that—and Emily Watson does an amazing impression of an oversexed cellist who dies of multiple sclerosis in the arty melodrama Hilary and Jackie. But the race comes down to an Elizabethan duel between Blanchett, an Australian, and Gwyneth Paltrow, an American. Blanchett is slightly favoured, perhaps because hers is the more severe role. But give it to Gwyneth. She was sexy, passionate, smart—and she put the love in Shakespeare in Love. (Pity her conspicuously un-nominated co-star, Joseph Fiennes.)

The supporting categories are anyone’s guess. Among the men, Billy Bob Thornton deserves to win for his uncanny turn as a simpleton in A Simple Plan, but the role is somewhat derivative of Sling Blade. The Golden Globes chose Ed Harris, The Truman Show’s eye in the sky. But the actors guild picked Robert Duvall for his performance as a wily lawyer in A Civil Action—and he seems the safest vote. The competition is equally tough in the female support category, in which Kathy Bates (Primary Colors) and Lynn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters) are strong contenders. But if there is any justice, Judi Dench, who put the crowning touch on Shakespeare, should win.

Meanwhile, Spielberg has a lock on best director. Original script most definitely goes to Shakespeare. And watch Ryan and Shakespeare divvy up most of the technical awards, although The Thin Red Line should take cinematography and Elizabeth has an edge

in makeup. As for the remaining categories, who knows? Who cares?

But Canadians can root for the National Film Board’s Sunrise over Tiananmen Square, up for best documentary short. Expect director Norman Jewison to give a wryly crafted acceptance speech for the Irving G. Thalberg award, which recognizes his body of work. And ex-pinkos everywhere can hope the camera catches a mortified expression on the face of Hollywood leftie Warren Beatty (Reds, Bulworth) when veteran director Elia Kazan— who ratted on his Hollywood friends during the McCarthy blacklist era—gets an honorary award. Oscar loves a good bit of history. □