ARTS: CINEMA: A night not to remember

The Academy Awards are 70 this year - and as institution and event, surely fading fast. David Thomson sorrowfully presents his annual Oscar tips

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN (and in this Clintonian land, such words now summon as much fragrant sense of lost history as muffins and petticoats, or Hutton and Washbrook), welcome to the 70th - and last - presentation of the Academy Awards, our Oscars.

All right, I lie; this isn't meant to be the last. But in an essay founded on the spooky hook of prediction, there should be room for earnest falsehood (the common currency of this republic) - by which I want to suggest that, having reached the estimable but retirable age of 70, isn't it time for the Academy to hang it all up? Or extend its solemn range for awards into the wilder territory of our acting? For example, most potent appearance by a silent-screen player - Monica Lewinsky, getting in and out of cars and history. The Full Monica, the mouth yearning to open, yet somehow sealed - if he didn't inhale, did she swallow?

And if you murmur that that last remark has scant place in a decent family newspaper, you're right, of course. Yet look around, dear ones, and observe that there are no decent family papers any longer, a process in which we have all played our part.

My mood is made skittish by the steady pressure of having to predict the winners (there is an accumulative strain in gambling that urges the player to take on absurd, self-destructive wagers), and in the fact that this year we are going to have to use the words "Titanic" and "Best Picture" in the same sentence. I have little against Titanic, except its disproportionate success. In fact, even before it opened, I predicted that it would win Best Picture. At that time, there were many in Hollywood who would have traded being on the real ship (at least some were saved) for having their money and their future in the movie. A mere three months ago, Titanic was mocked for having cost over $200 million; now it has taken in something like $1 billion worldwide, with no end in sight. A crucial New York Times review, by Janet Maslin, hit the keynote by saying that it was this generation's Gone With the Wind. Well, yes, often Titanic is every bit as foolish and flawed as much of GWtW. But, like the Selznick movie of 1939, it is a phenomenon (the status that now floats all defects in credibility, character, interest or seaworthiness). That's what I sniffed 10 days before the opening. For the show worked. The audience was going to come and come again - especially those teenage girls ready to sink or swim with Leonardo DiCaprio.

But Best Picture? Better than The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown, The Sweet Hereafter, Deconstructing Harry or The Wings of the Dove (not one of which was nominated), or even LA Confidential (which was)? Confidential won every critics' award in America, and it has the best ensemble acting of the year. But as one moviegoer told me at dinner recently, it never made him care, whereas in Titanic he cared and he found the show overwhelming. ("I Care" buttons carry a lot of weight here - and get people into dinners they don't deserve.) So Titanic, alas, gets Best Picture, and James Cameron wins best director - get ready for two inept thank-you speeches, enough to let you know why Titanic deserves one more Oscar (usually withheld), the one for worst dialogue.

This means that LA Confidential, As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting and The Full Monty will not get Best Picture. But The Full Monty cleans up on the Oscar for Best Deal of the Year, in that it cost $3.5 million, was purchased by Fox Searchlight for the US market for $50,000 and has earned ... "phenomenally". (Hot tip for next year: the Chutzpah Oscar for Accounting to Fox in their beguiling, multi-volume explanation of why the film is not yet, quite, technically, just going by the numbers, in profit yet.)

The nominees for Best Actor are Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, Peter Fonda in Ulee's Gold, Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog, and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. (By this you know that the Academy includes zero teenage girls - our President feels that group's pain, or whatever else he can reach.)

A tricky category. Nicholson is spectacular - if miscast; he has too much unsinkable charm for the role. A Fonda win would be sentimental reward for a "quiet" performance - ie, Fonda really isn't that good an actor, but this film masks his limits. Hoffman's movie producer is a fond impersonation of Hollywood's Robert Evans. Matt Damon is young enough to have other days. I'll pick Duvall, not because The Apostle (he also wrote, directed and paid for it) is so brilliant or coherent - much less a study of pentecostal preaching - but just because Duvall divined a role his great bow-legged ego could ride. He showed that even now, one sublime ego can always make a picture about itself - this is also the secret to the presidency, TV's abiding show.

In passing, let's marvel that Best Actor ignored Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco and The Devil's Advocate - both better than Scent of a Woman, for which he won - the jazzy Samuel L Jackson in Jackie Brown, Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter, and the Prez himself, whenever he drifted on camera.

Best Actress? It's a night for Brits, with Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove, Julie Christie in Afterglow, Judi Dench in Mrs Brown, and Kate Winslet in Titanic. All the US can muster is Hillary on the TV morning shows saying she and Bill have had this ugly suspicion thing from the outset, and Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets. Few in America have much idea who Judi Dench is; and maybe not many more now recall the glory days of Julie Christie. Kate Winslet can't win. Bonham Carter could, and I have to say (as an old non-admirer) that she's a new woman, with eyes that hold their own dark knowledge. I'd give it to her, but Helen Hunt keeps her movie together; she's decent and sane, and I think the Academy will trust the American.

For supporting actor, we have to choose from Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, Anthony Hopkins in Amistad (the only major nod for Steven Spielberg's high-minded yet low-interest picture), Greg Kinnear in As Good As It Gets, Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Forster does a swell job, but his picture was spurned. Hopkins could be eaten - with mustard. Kinnear plays a safe gay - note, the insolently lovely Rupert Everett was forgotten in My Best Friend's Wedding, but he wasn't safe. Reynolds had a great opportunity - and seemed stunned by it. And Robin Williams plays a therapist who cures a genius in Good Will Hunting. This writer loathes that film, but that is part of his solitude. It won nine nominations, it's a big crowd-pleaser, and it deals in psychic healing, which works in America for all except Arabs and OJ. Williams gives me the creeps, but he'll win because of the feelgood aura in which his film nestles - it is the dullest Gus Van Sant has ever made; but having found the touch, can he ever give it up?

The above list omits Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, James Cromwell and Guy Pearce in LA Confidential, all of whom should have been nominated and given a quarter share of the prize.

The supporting-actress category is made foolish in that it does not include Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown (the best job by a Fonda all year - though Aunt Jane was brilliant staying awake at Atlanta Braves baseball games - Ted Turner owns the team); Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm; Kirstie Alley in Deconstructing Harry, and that woman standing next to Monica (in the recurring footage of Bill hugging the beret girl) and starting to wonder if she's on scandal camera yet.

The actual nominees are Gloria Stuart, really 87 but playing 101 in Titanic, Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting, Joan Cusack in In and Out and Kim Basinger in LA Confidential. Can the Academy let a sweet old lady who does a very nice job stay in her seat? They left Lauren Bacall sitting last year - though no one accused her of being sweet. Julianne Moore gave the best performance in the group - and she'll win the Oscar for most freckled beauty, too. Minnie Driver is a mystery to me. Joan Cusack is wildly funny - and it is nearly as comic that Basinger was the one acting nomination for LA Confidential. So it's Cusack or Stuart - I'll go for Cusack, who has been good in everything for years, while Stuart hasn't been seen in anything for decades.

The candidates for best original screenplay are As Good As It Gets, Boogie Nights, Deconstructing Harry, The Full Monty and Good Will Hunting, written by its likeable young actors, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. That's reason enough for the latter to win, though the script for Harry looms over it in intricacy and levels of voice (assets often regarded as unfair in pictures now). Boogie Nights is weakest on the page: too slow, and then too fast. Its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has nearly enough talent to get away with three names. But his first film, Hard Eight, is more satisfying. The script for The Full Monty deserves credit for the film's impact. Its writer, Simon Beaufoy, says he hopes to move on to tougher material, instead of doing The Full Monty Go to Rio. Place your bets.

For screenplay adapted from another medium, we have LA Confidential, Donnie Brasco, The Sweet Hereafter, Wag the Dog, and The Wings of the Dove. This ought to be a cert for Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland's masterful rendering of James Ellroy's very complex novel, LA Confidential.

Art direction: very likely Titanic, or even Kundun, with its recreation of Lhasa - but I'd actually give it, for the authentic feeling of Los Angeles in the Fifties, to Confidential.

Cinematography: give it to Roger Deakins for Kundun, a film so hopelessly beautiful that it nearly obscures the growing loss of identity that once was Martin Scorsese.

Editing: I'd go for LA Confidential again, not just for the shocks and the violence, but because editing helped make the narrative line swing.

Music: I suppose that James Horner will win for Titanic - if only because of its enormous CD sales.

Let me add that an honorary Oscar this year goes to Stanley Donen who, in his time, directed or co-directed On the Town, Royal Wedding (with Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceiling), Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game, Charade and Two For the Road. (If you wonder about wit, progress, style, delicacy, taste and grace - and I know you do - just look at Astaire and Hepburn in Funny Face some time.)

In this place last year, I reminded the Academy that it had never given anything to Robert Mitchum. He died in July. I don't mean to have a similar impact on real life, but why not nudge the members and ourselves with word that the quite unique Richard Widmark, who will be 83 this year, got a nomination for his debut in Kiss of Death, and nothing ever since in an "ever since" that includes Yellow Sky, Night and the City, No Way Out, Pickup on South Street, The Cobweb, a staggering Dauphin in Preminger's Saint Joan, and many others.

I have joked at the expense of the Academy and America. Yet the national debacle is more and less than funny. The film of the year - the Oscar- winner for Serendipity, at least - should be Wag the Dog, made in three weeks during a hiatus in Barry Levinson's large and dull Sphere, about a president in such trouble because of his wandering dick that a war is arranged somewhere as a diversion. It is a small film, the true match for our banana-skin republic. Many of its jokes are in the sweet spot of our racket. Yet nothing rivals or shames the authentic, lustrous, shy bogusness of William Jefferson Clinton himself.

To try to show what I mean about acting's erosion of experience, let me tell a story. My wife and I were watching an old episode of NYPD Blue (better-written, more intriguingly shot and cut, than most American films). At its close, Russell (Kim Delaney) and Simone (Jimmy Smits) were naked together in or on bed. We both sighed: who doesn't dream of cops to go to bed with? But then, we said, imagine Mr Delaney or Mrs Smits having to watch such scenes, and watch themselves being watched watching. Then imagine Kim and Jimmy getting home to hers and his at the end of the day and saying, "Oh, honey, come on now, we weren't really getting it on - we were just pretending." So who dares to make love with such deft actors?

But that's what the sweet-glancing Bill is saying if we dare wonder, "Aren't you President?" - "Come on, honey, that's only pretending." Of course he's right: in three years he'll be free, still slick, and, most likely, in Hollywood, wagging his tail and its tale.

! `The 70th Annual Academy Awards' are broadcast live in the early hours of Tuesday (2-6.10am, BBC2); edited highlights follow that evening (10.20pm, BBC1).

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