Bravehearts and statuettes

Oscars special: Susan Sarandon, the bookies' hot favourite to take the Best Actress prize at tomorrow night's Academy Awards, talks to Daniel Jeffreys As the nominees await their fate, David Thomson offers his Oscar predictions

THE AMERICAN picture business wondered and waited for much of 1995 - what was going to happen to Mike Ovitz and CAA, his agency? What would the OJ verdict be, and how would it go down? Were the new Los Angeles Dodgers for real? Well, the Dodgers folded - but watch for them this year. OJ got a "not guilty" that set in motion a reminder course for him of what it was like to be black, and blackballed, in America. Ovitz went from being an agent to an officer in charge of production. Meanwhile, the business kept waiting to see how DreamWorks would turn out. George Burns made 100 and stopped. Toy Story may have been the most prophetic film of the year - the first animated feature to be entirely computer- generated. Photography itself may be nearing its close.

The movies? Well, sure, they kept coming, and in this drab year all five nominees for Best Picture stand a chance - Apollo 13, Babe, Braveheart, Il Postino and Sense and Sensibility. It says even more that the one film of quality - Leaving Las Vegas - was not nominated for Best Picture (despite getting critics' awards in New York and Los Angeles). But it got four other nominations (for its stars, and for Mike Figgis as director and writer), which is a triumph after the alarm its distributor, MGM-UA, felt several months ago. Then, they feared this tough romance for fatalistic lushes and put their energies behind Showgirls - proof that a big launch can still hurl a capsule beyond our atmosphere. But then a few critics told MGM-UA what they had in Leaving Las Vegas, and the studio mounted a first-class campaign that set the picture up for awards and steady box- office. Still, alcohol and its white-lie mixer - the seven, 12 and 21 steps to sobriety - mean enough to enough Academicians to keep Vegas's fertile despair out of contention.

I don't know what to tip for Best Picture. So I'll start elsewhere. One of the highlights of the Golden Globes awards was Emma Thompson's acceptance speech, for the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility - she did it as a letter from Jane Austen herself. Everyone wants more of that, and surely Sense has to win something. So, no matter that the screenplay forsook not just Jane's irony but the novel's darker aspects, Emma will win, beating the screenplays adapted from another work for Il Postino, Leaving Las Vegas, Babe and Apollo 13.

In turn, this Oscar for Emma slides her out of line in the Best Actress category, where her fellows are Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County and Sharon Stone in Casino. That last nomination was greeted with the rapture of cynics, for Stone had hustled shamelessly for her own campaign (maybe the forces depicted in Casino do have some real clout). Streep was gorgeous in Madison County (so Italian she would have graced Il Postino), but people are too accustomed to her facility as a foreigner to appreciate the comeback she has made. It's not just her presence on a neighbouring page that makes me suggest Sarandon will win. She has been knocking at the door for years (Atlantic City, Thelma and Louise, Lorenzo's Oil, The Client), and she is touching and self-effacing as the nun who helps conduct a condemned man towards death and redemption. She'll win. That said, Elisabeth Shue gave the best performance by an actress in many years. But she has already won her reward: she altered the way in which she is regarded.

On the other hand, with a more showy performance I believe Nicolas Cage will win an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. His rivals make an odd list: Massimo Troisi, dead, alas, in Il Postino; Richard Dreyfuss in Mr Holland's Opus; Anthony Hopkins as Nixon; and Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. Nixon has been a disaster in America (it is the only Oscar-nominated film that one cannot see in the weeks before the awards), and many found fault with Hopkins' performance - stubbornly Welsh, unfailingly acted, but a distraction from the nation's fresh sense of how Nixon spoke, moved, fudged, chuckled and lied. Dreyfuss's film is a set piece of high-minded sentiment, and he does the one thing every actor wants to do - he looks like his real younger self in many scenes. But a win here would be a shock. Troisi is regarded fondly, wistfully, but at too great a distance. Sean Penn is the serious opposition: he is very good as the killer, and he has a great following in young Hollywood. But Vegas has to win something and Cage is a deserving recipient. Don't be surprised, though, if he's never as good again.

For some movie buffs, the Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars are the most interesting. So often, that's where the best work is done. For Supporting Actress this year, we have Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, Mare Winningham in Georgia, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Kathleen Quinlan in Apollo 13 and Joan Allen as Pat in Nixon. Winslet has both a real chance here and a great future. Winningham seems to have been nominated as a rebuke to the chronic mannerism of Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the lead role of her sister in Georgia - and who was ignored. Mira Sorvino is widely tipped, and supporting actresses do well in Woody Allen films. Quinlan's waiting wife in Apollo 13 is a cliche. The winner, for me, is Joan Allen, who has the best part in Nixon because Pat is the one person we know too little and want to imagine better.

Nixon was also loaded with fine supporting actors - James Woods as Haldemann, Paul Sorvino (Mira's father) as Kissinger, and Ed Harris as Howard Hunt. But Harris is nominated for his Mission Control in Apollo 13, an exuberant piece of stiff-upper-lip-ism, gently kidded by Harris's wise and haunted eyes. He has done so much good work for so long that he deserves to win, and I reckon he'll beat James Cromwell in Babe, Brad Pitt, who is awful in 12 Monkeys, Tim Roth in Rob Roy (less frightening and plausible than Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart), and Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects.

Let's look next at some of the "technical" Oscars, before closing on the biggies. Photography is contended for by Stephen Goldblatt for Batman Forever, John Toll for Braveheart, Emmanuel Lubezki for A Little Princess, Lu Yue for Shanghai Triad and Michael Coulter for Sense and Sensibility. It's good to see A Little Princess getting some attention, but John Toll's work on Braveheart is so sophisticated and varied, so sensual and romantic, it wins. I'd also give Costume Design to Charles Knode for Braveheart - for that film is infused with a sense of the way costume affected behaviour. But there's strong competition from Jenny Beavan and John Bright for Sense and Sensibility, Shuna Harwood for the modish fascism of Richard III, and James Acheson for the flagrantly over-dressed Restoration.

Best Dramatic Music is James Horner for Apollo 13 or Braveheart, John Williams for Nixon, Patrick Doyle for Sense and Sensibility, and Luis Bacalov for Il Postino. Horner is clearly pre-eminent, and the music for Braveheart - often as torrential as waterfalls - is more interesting than the pomp and mystery score for Apollo 13. So Braveheart collects another statuette.

Sound was exquisite, subterranean (sub-oceanic, even) and visceral in Apollo 13, Batman Forever, Crimson Tide and Waterworld. The winner, I'd guess, will be Apollo 13 or Tide for their sounds of power and explosion.

The Editing Oscar pits Apollo 13, Babe, Braveheart, Crimson Tide and Seven, ignoring the year's tour de force in editing (Thelma Schoonmaker on Casino, nearly bringing life to that inert structure). I'm sure that all five are deserving, but rather less so than those cases - not nominated - where editing actually saved movies that were disasters in script and shooting, but which played finally on screen.

And so, the biggies: Original Script, Director and Best Picture. I find that Braveheart has been creeping up in the last few paragraphs. Perhaps that's all it will get: there have always been movies that won technical awards, but no more. This year, I'm not so sure. Mel Gibson's Braveheart was released in America in the first half of the year. But Paramount reissued it in time for the balloting, and it stood up pretty well as an old-fashioned epic, with conventional but deeply felt values. It's not a great film, but there are none such in competition.

The nominations for Best Original Screenplay are Randall Wallace for Braveheart; Woody Allen for Mighty Aphrodite; Christopher McQuarrie for The Usual Suspects; a trio, including Oliver Stone, for Nixon; and an octet for Toy Story. Nixon's out. Toy Story would make too crowded a stage. The Usual Suspects is a mind-twisting game, but no more. Mighty Aphrodite is Woody Allen again - his 12th Screenplay nomination. A notable absentee is Aaron Sorkin for The American President. I think Braveheart will win, for a script that sustains the movie's three hours, finds an intriguing balance in the two women in Wallace's life, and makes some nice points about compromise and idealism.

If this hunch is correct, then Gibson - a popular character in Hollywood - will win as Director. Mike Figgis is the more deserving for Leaving Las Vegas, but he's not an inside figure. Tim Robbins has a chance for Dead Man Walking, and Michael Radford is there for Il Postino, again. But Il Postino may be one of those films, much nominated, but empty-handed at the end of the evening. Chris Noonan is the real opposition, for Babe. I pick Gibson.

And if that's correct, then I've worked it out: Braveheart will be Best Picture. Babe is the serious rival, and there are many people in LA who will defiantly opt for its porcine charm. But for Babe to win would be a concession of defeat - that it's hardly possible to make films about people anymore. So I see Braveheart as this year's surprise. And why not, for doesn't the word "braveheart" sum up the undimmed energy of the man who will win this year's honorary Oscar - Kirk Douglas? Kirk never won a thing, though he was nominated for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life, and might have got other nods for Ace in the Hole, The Big Sky or Lonely Are the Brave.

It's when you recollect that Douglas was overlooked for 40 years that you look at this year's Best Picture nominees and realise that, say, 20 years ago, the list was Rocky, All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network and Taxi Driver. Go back another 30 years and it was The Best Years of Our Lives, Henry V, It's a Wonderful Life, The Razor's Edge and The Yearling. There is no way we can comfort ourselves that anything is getting better.

So let us conclude this report on a dismal year by noting some of the names that will not be called next Monday night: not just Leaving Las Vegas for Best Picture; but Morgan Freeman for Best Actor in Seven - a strange, disturbing and even evil picture in which Freeman stood up for honour and kindness; Nicole Kidman for Best Actress and Joaquin Phoenix for Supporting Actor in To Die For; Patrick McGoohan for Supporting Actor in Braveheart; John Travolta overlooked for Get Shorty; The Celluloid Closet not noticed in the Best Documentary category.

Also missing this year is David Letterman, whose dire performance as host last year has led to the return of Whoopi Goldberg and the steady decline of Letterman's late-night TV show. It's as if he can't understand or get over the mess he made, and so he's come to hate himself, TV, the audience, America - not the craziest instincts, let's admit.

The Oscars ceremony is broadcast live tomorrow night, 2-6am (ie Tuesday morning), on BBC2; with highlights at 10pm-12m't on Tuesday, BBC1.

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