FILMS/ESSAY

Is Oscar out of his mind?

With a barbaric Scot pitted against a talking pig, the Academy Award nominations seem nuttier than ever

Brian D. Johnson March 18 1996
FILMS/ESSAY

Is Oscar out of his mind?

With a barbaric Scot pitted against a talking pig, the Academy Award nominations seem nuttier than ever

Brian D. Johnson March 18 1996

Is Oscar out of his mind?

With a barbaric Scot pitted against a talking pig, the Academy Award nominations seem nuttier than ever

FILMS/ESSAY

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Oscar. Naked, covered in gold and armed with a sword between his legs, he is Hollywood’s household god. Everyone worships him, but no one expects him to be fair. Oscar does, after all, have a tradition to live up to.

Denying best-picture honors to such classics as Citizen Kane and Raging Bull, he has consistently favored fashion over art and sentiment over substance. He likes to be dazzled. He loves period epics, accents, triumphs of the human spirit and heroes who overcome enormous disabilities.

He likes movies that make money. But he also wants to like movies that make a difference.

And Oscar has become more than a little confused. Last year, he was torn between Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction—a sentimental studio film full of special effects versus a black-humored independent film with a twisted story line. Predictably, Forrest Gump—a period epic about a hero with an accent and a disability who scores a biathlon-scale triumph of the human spirit— won hands down. This year, however, Oscar’s split personality seems to have advanced to a full-blown case of multiple-personality disorder.

The March 25 Academy Awards, to be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, offer the wackiest, most eclectic group of best-picture nominees in recent memory. They include the tale of a talking pig who aspires to be a sheepdog {Babe), an adventure about three American astronauts lost in space {Apollo 13), the fable of an Italian postman who learns romance from an exiled Chilean poet {Il Postino), an epic about a bloodthirsty Scot who skewers enemy soldiers on sharp sticks {Braveheart), and a decorous portrait of lovelorn ladies biding their time in Jane Austen’s England {Sense and Sensibility).

Only two of them—Sense and Sensibility and Apollo 13—are obvious choices. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which leads the pack with 10

Oscar nominations, is a gory, boneheaded spectacle. Babe, the first talking-animal movie to be nominated in 28 years (since Doctor Dolittle) is a cute picture for kids, but not nearly as smart and innovative as Toy Story. II Postino is a wonderful movie—ranked number 1 on this critic’s top 10 list for 1995. But as the first foreign-language film to be nominated for best picture since Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers in 1973, it is another unlikely candidate. (No foreign film has ever won the top Oscar.)

Lost in the shuffle, meanwhile, are Dead Man Walking, Leaving Las Vegas, Nixon and Casino—heavyweight contenders that were not nominated for best picture. In some cases, the reasons are obvious. The 5,000-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously conservative. Many Academy voters were so offended by Martin Scorsese’s grimly violent Casino that they stomped out of screenings. And Nixon has lost too much face, its dramatic virtuosity overshadowed by a prejudice against Oliver Stone for playing fast and loose with history.

What is most aggravating, however, is the omission of Leaving Las Vegas and Dead Man Walking, the year’s two most powerful American

dramas. Both are stories of unconditional compassion. Leaving Las Vegas, the exquisitely tragic story of a suicidal alcoholic, was perhaps just too bleak for the Academy. The death-row drama of Dead Man Walking is another downer. But it has attributes that once would have seduced Oscar with ease: great performances, an evenhanded treatment of a serious moral issue (capital punishment) and a bona fide triumph of the human spirit. In post-O.J. America, a culture obsessed with the equation between justice and vengeance, it is the year’s most significant film.

Oscar’s myopia seems symptomatic. In Hollywood, the gulf between provocative drama and crowd-pleasing entertainment is widening. And the upbeat tone of this year’s best-picture nominees reflects a backlash against the provocateurs—directors such as Scorsese and Stone—along with a swing towards family values. The his and her favorites are the space-capsule adventure Apollo 13 and the time-capsule romance Sense and Sensibility. But it is a hard call. The sword-and-kilt spectacle of Braveheart appeals to an

The Academy itself is made up of 13 crafts, from actors to cinematographers, and all its members may vote to nominate best picture. In the other categories, however, actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, and so on. This year the procedure has produced a startling discrepancy. The serious dramas that were snubbed for best picture dominate the acting categories. In fact, eight of the 10 best actor and actress nominees appear in movies not nominated for best picture.

Among the five best actor candidates—Nicolas Cage {Leaving

industry built on Cecil B. deMille pageantry. And even the pig, the ultimate underdog, might just sneak up the middle.

Las Vegas), Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking), Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), Richard Dreyfuss (Mr. Holland’s Opus) and Massimo Troisi (II Postino)—

Cage is the clear front-runner, followed by Hopkins and Penn. Cage has already swept the other major awards, including the various critics prizes and the Golden Globes.

With Nixon, Hopkins pulls off a feat of characterization that would normally give him a lock on the Oscar, but the prejudice against the film will work against him. Penn’s genius, meanwhile, is too dark and too subtle for Oscar’s tastes. As a heroic music teacher in Mr Holland’s Opus, Richard Dreyfuss is too earnest, unless the Academy is desperate for sweetness and light.

Troisi is the dark-horse candidate. And his story itself is the stuff of a Hollywood movie. The co-writer and driving force behind II Postino, Troisi postponed heart-bypass surgery in order to make the movie. He died, at 41, just hours after filming wrapped. Only three other performers have been nominated after their death (including James Dean twice, for East of Eden and Giant). Only one actor has ever received a posthumous Oscar—Peter Finch, for Network (1976). And no actor has ever won for a foreign-language role.

But who knows? In the final balloting for the Oscars, all Academy

members get to vote in all the categories. And considering their choices for best picture, anything could happen. II Postino’s ebullient American distributor, Miramax Films, has been waging an unusual campaign to win votes with a blitz of TV commercials. The movie, still playing after nine months in theatres, continues to broaden its audience. And Oscar loves a sentimental favorite.

The best actress category offers an unusually strong field this year. Susan Sarandon, as the nun who helps a condemned killer confront his conscience in Dead Man Walking, is the favorite. After four nominations, she is overdue for a win. But Sharon Stone, who proves her mettle as a hooker who gets married to the mob in Casino, is on a roll. Her flashy graduation from sexpot to serious actress has that quality of moral conversion that Hollywood likes to canonize.

Among the other nominees, Elisabeth Shue is equally deserving for her performance as a hooker in Leaving Las Vegas. But relatively unknown actresses who turn in careermaking performances usually win Oscars only in supporting roles. Meryl Streep, meanwhile, was superb in The Bridges of Madison County, but she has won twice before. And unless a sweep sets in, Emma Thompson’s role in Sense and Sensibility seems too modestly self-effacing for an Oscar. Expect her instead to win for best adapted screenplay.

In the supporting categories, meanwhile, all the nominees are first-time candidates. On the male side, it comes down to a contest between Brad Pitt’s babbling psychotic in 12 Monkeys and Kevin Spacey’s slippery gangster in The Usual Suspects. Also nominated are Tim Roth (Rob Roy), Ed Harris (Apollo 13) and James Cromwell (Babe). As for supporting actress, Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) and Mare Winningham (Georgia) give stoical performances that are outstripped by Joan Allen’s shrewd portrayal of a long-suffering First Lady in Nixon. But she faces stiff competition from Kate Winslet’s winsome romantic in Sense and Sensibility and Mira Sorvino’s dumb hooker in Mighty Aphrodite.

That makes a total of three hookers. Women’s roles may be getting better, but aside from Sarandon, all the other nominated actresses portray prostitutes, lonely wives or rejected lovers. Sharon Stone plays all three. Something is awry in Hollywood when the most liberated woman in the movies is a nun.

The weirdness of this year’s nominations, however, makes them wonderfully unpredictable. Usually at least the best director award is easy to call. Nine times out of 10 it goes to the winner of the Directors’ Guild of America prize. But this year the Guild’s award went to Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, who is not nominated for an Oscar. The only mainstream Hollywood candidate is Bravehearf s novice director, Mel Gibson. And for the feat of keeping track of himself and an army of extras, he may well win.

In one area, the Oscars have not wavered from tradition. As usual, the year’s most sensational documentary was ignored. After snubbing The Thin Blue Line (1988), Roger & Me (1989) and Hoop Dreams (1994), the Academy’s clique of documentary makers failed to nominate Crumb, a devastating portrait of cartoonist Robert Crumb and his grotesquely dysfunctional family. Oscar does not like to be reminded of such things—mad artists, suicidal drunks, lethal injection chambers, lying presidents. But a talking pig, now that’s another story. □