Comment: Sociopaths, liars and adulterers: all American heroes

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The Independent Culture
A KIND of fin-de-siecle frenzy has descended on Hollywood. So few days left to the end of the millennium, and still so many great films to cram into the viewing schedule before the clock strikes 12 on 31 December.

Barely a day goes by without some new tantalising gem being promised on the horizon. The best Woody Allen film in a decade, proclaims The New Yorker. A Patricia Highsmith adaptation that nails the modern American zeitgeist with withering precision, Frank Rich of The New York Times argues about Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley. A stunning brace of performances from Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in Jane Campion's new movie, Holy Smoke, murmur the industry buzz merchants. And that's only what is being talked about this week.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the race was on to produce the last great movie of the first full century of cinema. But of course the real race is somewhat different, less to do with the achievements of 1999 than with the hype of 2000. For Oscar season is upon us - already - and the excitement being generated by the many genuinely impressive titles popping up these days stems not from their artistic merit but from the prospect of generating a barrelful of extra cash in the race for those golden statuettes.

It is an extraordinary spectacle, with studios taking out full-page ads in the trade papers to trumpet the virtues of their product (as though anybody would take it from them), and film critics falling over themselves to announce their personal choices of the year before they have even had a chance to see everything on offer - and, in some cases, guiltily admitting they have voted for films they have heard about only from other people. Several supposedly august voting bodies have already delivered their verdicts; one, the National Board of Review, saw fit to decorate Anthony Minghella as best director even though his film was not finished by the time voting took place.

There is simply too much to see and too little time in which to see it before 31 December, the date by which any Academy Award contender has to be released in the cinema, if only for a single showing. There are the high-profile literary adaptations (Alan Parker's Angela's Ashes; Scott Hicks's Snow Falling on Cedars; Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair), the keenly awaited follow-ups (Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, his first film since Boogie Nights) and the lavish costume dramas (Patricia Rozema's free-wheeling Mansfield Park; Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy).

Indeed, in a town with a notorious capacity for over-enthusiasm and an even greater capacity for memory loss, one cannot help but have the impression that the critics and judges are more excited by the films they have not seen than by the ones they were impressed and moved by just a few short weeks or months ago.

No matter. The Oscars resemble US presidential election races more and more each year, in no respect more strikingly than the fact that the campaign season seems to kick off ludicrously early, focusing on hype and image to the near-exclusion of considerations of substance. The critics' awards are the Hollywood equivalent of straw polls and caucuses; they may bear little or no relationship to the broader realities of merit or public taste, but they set the agenda for everything that follows.

The process is absurd at the best of times, but in a top-heavy year it is more absurd than usual. If Julianne Moore pulls off the feat of being nominated as best actress for more than one film - and she has popped up in Cookie's Fortune, Magnolia, End of the Affair, An Ideal Husband and A Map of the World - how on earth is the Academy supposed to decide which Julianne Moore is the most adept exponent of her craft? If, as is being widely touted, John Malkovich is nominated as a supporting actor for his appearance in the absurdist comedy Being John Malkovich, how can the Academy, in all conscience, deem that he played himself less than perfectly and give the award to somebody else?

The Academy's time-honoured method for navigating such eddies is to select a broad cross-section of nominees - a costume drama here, something edgy there, one film to placate the critics, another to appeal to younger audiences, another again to acknowledge the backroom politics that drive the awards process. The trick, if possible, is to select a best picture that is at once a crowd-pleaser and a money-maker, a story with epic sweep and grand emotion, even at the risk of being rather cheesy. Forrest Gump or Titanic have fitted the pattern nicely in the past.

This year, curiously, this approach looks as if it won't work. By some miraculously subversive coincidence, there isn't a prestige film out there that isn't also deeply troubling in ways that, in any other year, would have had the Academy running a mile. In a field brimming with talent, there appears to be no safe option.

Take the most acclaimed film of the year, American Beauty, which is already racking up critics' awards right and left. Sam Mendes's film debut is a dark, mysterious, brilliantly cinematic examination of suburban American life and its discontents. Not only is it too high-brow and depressing for mainstream Hollywood, it also features masturbation, pot-smoking, adultery played for laughs and troubling questions of sexual identity. Mary Poppins this is not.

What about The Insider, Michael Mann's reconstruction of the real-life story of a tobacco industry whistle-blower who risked everything to denounce his former bosses on the CBS news magazine Sixty Minutes, only to see his interview segment withdrawn by the network's lawyers? The film is rivetingly told and features two stunning performances, by Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, but it is also takes a hatchet to the US system of corporate control over industry, politics and the media. Could a highly corporatised entertainment industry really embrace such a film? Hardly, especially given that it performed poorly at the box office. Eliminating these two possible contenders shines the spotlight on The Talented Mr Ripley, which has the advantages of an Oscar-winning writer-director (Minghella previously made The English Patient), a gilded young cast (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, to name just the Oscar-blessed among them), strong plot and characterisation drawn from an impeccable literary source, a period setting and a succession of sun-kissed Italian locations.

But the film also has a sociopathic killer for a hero, a strong strain of homosexuality and, as Frank Rich points out in his New York Times essay, a corrosive critique of the great American yearning for success through self-redefinition. "Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody," says the main character, Tom Ripley. It is a line that identifies the very wellspring of evil within him; unfortunately, it is also a mantra that all Hollywood lives by.

Where else can the Academy turn? Tim Robbins's Cradle Will Rock is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Thirties America suffused with the socialist idealism of the time. Way too political. Magnolia is another ensemble piece, this time set in Los Angeles's suburban San Fernando Valley. Too long and too offbeat for Academy tastes. Even the leading foreign-language contender, Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother, has to be about transvestites and prostitutes. Curses!

The Academy's dilemma is, of course, the audience's undeniable gain. Directors and producers seem not to be playing by the rules any more, which might explain why there is so much great work out there. Studio bosses may still go for the crass and obvious when it comes to summer blockbusters, but they seem to have learned to let go when it comes to prestige projects - largely under pressure from the ever-vibrant independent sector.

If the Oscars reflect, in some small measure, the talent on display, so much the better. If they find some way of copping out as usual, then perhaps it is time for audiences to reflect that true cinema is not, after all, measured out in Academy Awards and that a good film doesn't have to be a best film to be worth watching.