A comedian comes in from the cold

Woody Allen rehabilitated; British thespians applauded. Phil Reeves on how the Oscars are going down in LA

Once a year Hollywood is gripped by a mad-eyed fever, which turns otherwise fairly sane people into modern-day ancient mariners, compulsive conversationalists whose worst symptom is that they are utterly convinced that they are right.

It began on Tuesday, with the announcement of the nominations for the 67th annual Academy Awards, and it will remain upon us for the next six weeks. And this year, quite apart from the usual speculation about who will win, they have already honed in on three main topics.

The first is the rehabilitation of Woody Allen, who was never a Hollywood- type and became even less so after his recent scandal. Not only has he been personally shunned for months, it is also not unknown to encounter people who loudly announce that they have no intention of seeing another of his movies.

Bullets over Broadway - which stunned almost everyone by winning seven nominations - brought him his sixth nomination as a director and his 11th for screenwriting. It's Hollywood's version of an all's-forgiven back- patting hug (an embrace that he probably welcomes about as much as a poke in the eye).

The second is the snubbing of Hoop Dreams, the year's most acclaimed documentary which was widely seen as a shoo-in in its category, and even a strong candidate for best picture. Some critics have even pronounced the film - which followed two Chicago inner-city kids for four years as they pursued their dreams of becoming basketball stars - as one of the best of its kind in decades. But it won nothing, beyond an obscure editing nomination.

Yesterday Tinseltown was reverberating with allegations that the committee that chooses the documentaries is rife with cronyism, a charge which owed much to the fact the one of the nominated movies was co-directed by a former head of the branch. "For far too long, the documentary branch has been run as a private game reserve, as rife with obtuse favouritism as an outpost of Tammany Hall," thundered Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times' top film critic.

And the third is the excellence of the British stage community. Every now and then, the movie business snaps out of its infatuation with big- money movies and Instant Whip stars (Costner, Roberts etc) and is suddenly dazzled by the excellence of their counterparts on the other side of the pond. This year, apart from of course Miranda Richardson, their gaze fell on Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Bennett (for Best Adapted Screenplay), Rosemary Harris - all members of the National Theatre - and Helen Mirren, who's in the RSC.

Hawthorne was probably the biggest surprise - even though his performance in The Madness of King George is breathtaking and thoroughly deserving of the best actor's Oscar. Whether he'll win is another issue, but - for what it's worth - most of the lapel-prodding ancient mariner classes don't seem to think it likely.

At present, they divide into those who believe the academy's 4,000 members will decide to honour Paul Newman in his 70th year, and those who think Forrest Gump will steamroller everything, winning a second consecutive Oscar for Tom Hanks (a feat last accomplished by Spencer Tracy in 1938). There's a smaller corps of enthusiasts who believe that Pulp Fiction may yet take the day, although it's probably too weird and too violent to do so. "Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction represent two halves of America's tortured soul, the American Dream vs disillusionment," a friend of mine explained, "And in Hollywood the former will always win."

So now the chattering will go on until Oscar Day on 27 March. The airwaves will be filled with vacuous interviews in which the nominated stars expertly plug their wares to showbusiness reporters who are generally so star-struck that their questions have all the grit and courage of a freshly baked souffl.

Personally, I prefer Rosemary Harris's approach. When she was told of the news - by two press officers from the National Theatre during lunch in the canteen - she wasn't even aware that it was Oscar nominations day. She was absolutely delighted, of course - "There's a magic about the word `Oscar' " - but admitted that she wasn't terribly sure who chose the nominees. Then, like a true pro, she returned to rehearsing her role in Women of Troy without even telling the other members of the cast.

Several hours later, she was still thoroughly sanguine, happy to be nominated rather than nursing hopes of winning: "I've been in this business a long time, so I know there's no point in setting myself up for a fall," she said. Sadly, she is in performance on Oscar night, so she probably won't be able to be at the ceremony in person - denying us all an island of sanity in a feverish sea of people.

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