FILM : An Academy of dunces

Who will walk away with the Oscars next week? In Hollywood, the bets are on. Phil Reeves considers the odds

It's a shame that it's illegal to bet on the Oscars in Nevada. A short trip over the mountains that separate California from Las Vegas could have paid dividends this year. Though there is, of course, only one movie worth putting big money on before next week's awards ceremony: Forrest Gump.

Despite the popularity of Pulp Fiction, most people agree that Gump's 13 nominations (one short of the record), its glowing reviews, and its $350m worldwide revenues, amount to a convincing case that it will be chosen as Best Picture, and that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will finally recognise the work of its director, Robert Zemeckis.

But that's as far as one dares go. A sizeable bet on Tom Hanks as Best Actor might prove a little rash. Nigel Hawthorne is not without a chance for his stunning performance in the British movie The Madness of King George. Nor can Paul Newman or John Travolta be written off.

There are those in the LA film industry who privately concede that, in terms of pure acting, the performance by Hawthorne (who is little known in the US)is the classiest. "I think Nigel is a discovery. I think it's a performance of a lifetime and he deserves the Oscar," said Sam Goldwyn Jnr, whose company funded the $10m movie along with Channel 4. He points out that Hawthorne "got screwed" when the lead in Shadowlands was given to Anthony Hopkins, even though he had won a Tony for his stage performance in the part. Hollywood may feel like making amends.

Tom Hanks's chances are not helped by winning the Best Actor's Oscar last year for Philadelphia - it's rare for the Academy to give it to the same person in two consecutive years. But the awards ceremony is, at bottom, an international trade show; Forrest Gump is a blockbuster, and having the starring role gives Hanks a distinct edge over small-budget competition like Madness.

Paul Newman, who was 70 this year (the Academy can be sentimental about such details), is a contender, not least because of the Academy's residual guilt over nominating him six times over 28 years in the Best Actor's category before finally awarding him the Oscar in 1986 for The Color of Money. He has, however, received two honorary Oscars, including one last year. And, although Hollywood admired his work in Nobody's Fool, the reaction to the film has been warm rather than red-hot.

Just as Hawthorne has a chance, albeit slim, of victory, so too does Miranda Richardson as Best Actress for her performance as T S Eliot's horribly neglected first wife in Tom & Viv. At 37, she now has a body of work which the Academy may wish to recognise, having been nominated in 1992 for Damage, and greatly impressing critics with The Crying Game. The problem is the movie. Although first-rate, it may be a little stark, and too high-brow. As Entertainment Weekly says: "As far as Hollywood's concerned, Eliot's the guy who wrote that musical about the singin' kitties." The favourite is Jessica Lange, for Blue Sky.

As for the other British nominees, it would be unwise to deck the streets with bunting. The chances of Four Weddings and a Funeral winning Best Picture are slender. Annie Hall was the last comedy to win, in 1977. Rosemary Harris (Tom & Viv) and Helen Mirren (Madness) face stiff competition for the Best Supporting Actress's trophy in Dianne Wiest (Bullets over Broadway). So too does Paul Schofield (Quiz Show), who's up against Martin Landau, whose performance in Ed Wood is widely seen as a shoo-in as Best Supporting Actor.

And what of Pulp Fiction? It is probably too violent, too maverick, too grubby, too threatening to the Academy's values for its members to fully endorse it, despite its seven nominations. John Travolta stands a chance of capping his comeback. But the academy may feel that Tarantino needs to serve more time before he gets honoured.

Still, it'll be fun to watch them beeping out the expletives in the clips. And who knows? Hollywood's been wrong before.

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