How? Well, rather against the spirit of the democracy that is allegedly sweeping the world, these much-awaited awards are voted on by a body of only just over 5,000 people. The nominations are even more elitist. The Academy has branches - actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on - and the nominations are determined by just the members of the relevant branch. That means about 1,350 actors, fewer than 300 directors and only 150 cameramen (many of whom are retired from the business). If that seems too narrow a concentration of power, remember in addition that no one voting needs to have seen any of the films.
Why? Well . . . let's just say that the search for dignity, congratulation and box-office hype is eternal, and because, by now, the Oscars' evening is an American event, like the Super Bowl or Hallowe'en. The American audience on television will be around 120 million. For that, the ABC network pays the Academy dollars 2m (enough to fund its excellent research library) and pulls in dollars 11m in revenue from advertisers.
And it? The Oscar is 13 inches high and weighs 8 1/2 pounds - it feels heavy. Made of tin, antimony and a topcoat of gold plate, each statuette costs about dollars 100 (this from Anthony Holden's very useful book, The Oscars). On the other hand, the right Oscar can add dollars 20m to a movie's gross. It is called Oscar, the legend goes, because when Margaret Herrick, the first Academy librarian, saw the statuette in 1931 she said it looked like her Uncle Oscar. Or was it Oskar?
The Best Picture award this year will go to Schindler's List. This is easy, isn't it? I pick that one first because Best Picture helps determine so many other awards. And one might as well add straightaway that Steven Spielberg will win Best Director for Schindler's List. Spielberg is overdue. In the nearly 20 years of his career, he has brought astounding bounty to the business, yet he has never won Best Picture or Best Director. In addition, he comes to the party this year with an unnominated bodyguard called Jurassic Park. There's no need for the Academy to take that one seriously, no matter that it is the fattest film of all time (the biggest at the box office). But no one can ignore it. Then there's Schindler's List itself - a great film (?), a very moving film, and an important event. The movie could have been several degrees less good, and still have the credentials, the class, the subject of a winner.
But many observers felt in the autumn - when few reckoned that Spielberg could rise to the challenge - that The Piano was going to take Best Picture and Best Director. That would have been an extraordinary achievement: a female winner, a modest art-house film from New Zealand, and a picture of rare psychological depth. Jane Campion may yet win Oscars for films less striking than The Piano. But Spielberg is an unstoppable winner this year: at last Hollywood has to honour the brilliant kid.
The nominees for Best Actor are Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Liam Neeson in Schindler's List, Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father, Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day and Laurence Fishburne (he used to be Larry) in What's Love Got to Do with It? Hopkins and Day-Lewis have won too recently. Fishburne was terrific as Ike Turner, but the nomination is probably his reward. Neeson is good in a very tricky part, but Schindler is in an odd way not quite a lead role. I believe Hanks will win - alas. I share Quentin Curtis's opinion that Philadelphia is feeble stuff, and the likeable Hanks is not much more than a cipher wearing grim make-up. Before it opened, the business feared that Philadelphia would flop. In fact, the film has done well, and so Hollywood is suddenly proud of its 'courage' in dealing with a tough subject. Philadelphia gives no reason for that antiquated smugness, but Hanks will benefit from the surge of bogus responsibility, and that old faithful - play sick, handicapped or dying if you want an Oscar. In addition, Hanks had another hit this year, Sleepless in Seattle.
The Best Actress nominations are Holly Hunter in The Piano, Debra Winger in Shadowlands, Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day, Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation and Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It? Bassett's is another token nomination, and her performance is overshadowed by the appearance of big Tina herself at the end of the picture. Thompson, like Hopkins and Day-Lewis, is a winner already, although the Academy knows that all three are likely to win again some day. Winger ought to have been nominated for another film, A Dangerous Woman, in which she is so good you forget how confused the film is. But Winger does not cultivate her career or resist making enemies.
I would love to see Channing win anything. Her rather foolish Manhattan socialite in Six Degrees is very funny and more touching, and she has had hard luck in movies for a long time. But I think Holly Hunter will win: it's clear how versatile she has become, and she carries The Piano, a film that many voters will be trying to reward.
The most vexed decision for me is Best Supporting Actor. The candidates are Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, Pete Postlethwaite in In the Name of the Father, John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire and Leonard DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? The last three can be eliminated, even though Postlethwaite is heartbreaking and Malkovich made one of those mannered murderers beloved by connoisseurs. But the choice is between Fiennes and Jones, and it's complicated (I feel) by the curious omission of Ben Kingsley in Schindler's List. For me, he is the heart of the film. Fiennes is frightening, brilliant and (for Americans) new: everyone wants to see more of him. He could win, but I have a hunch that Tommy Lee Jones will sneak the Oscar. He's been around, he's paid his dues, he's getting better, and he's the force that drives the very implausible Fugitive forward. Without him, the film could have collapsed.
Then there's Best Supporting Actress: Rosie Perez in Fearless, Holly Hunter in The Firm, Anna Paquin in The Piano, Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence and Emma Thompson in In the Name of the Father. Again, this is hard to call. Peter Weir's Fearless is a brave and uncommon film - about shock, death and grief - that few people went to see. Perez was fine (so was Jeff Bridges in the lead) but in the end the movie didn't please enough. In The Firm, Hunter delivers no more than a broad, funny turn. It helps her case for The Piano, but it hardly counts here.
Paquin is a dark horse, and she is helped by figuring in a series of semi-mystical television commercials playing now for the telephone company MCI. These are so arresting that they remind us of the blithe child in The Piano. In addition, there is a clever (and costly) campaign of print advertisements for The Piano, in which the creative participants talk about one another. If Thompson wins for her fabricated lawyer in In the Name of the Father . . . I promise never to do another of these pieces again. So I think Ryder is going to win: The Age of Innocence is notably absent from the nominations, even though it was a favourite of many critics, and Ryder seems set for a long career.
For the Best Original Screenplay the five contenders are Dave, In the Line of Fire, Philadelphia, Sleepless in Seattle and The Piano. Ron Nyswaner's Philadelphia could win for worst screenplay, or for the one that most impeded a film. In the Line of Fire (written by Jeff Maguire) is a good example of preposterousness being made to work smoothly. Dave and Sleepless are okay, although not as original as Groundhog Day. But the winner is The Piano with a personal Oscar for Jane Campion and a picture that owes so little to any previous films - even if it feels like the Brontes.
The Best Screenplay Adapted from Other Material has these nominations: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese for The Age of Innocence, Terry George and Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for The Remains of the Day, William Nicholson for Shadowlands and Steven Zaillian for Schindler's List. No beating about the bush, and with no disrespect to Spielberg: Zaillian's script for Schindler is masterly in allowing everyone else to do such good work. Zaillian also directed a good film last year - Searching for Bobby Fischer - and he's someone to watch.
Quickly, I predict that Farewell My Concubine will get Best Foreign Picture, and that the Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction and Music will go to Janusz Kaminski, Allan Starski and Ewa Byaun, and John Williams, all for Schindler's List (but why was Michael Nyman not nominated for the music on The Piano?).
There are other oversights. Robert Altman is nominated as Best Director for Short Cuts, but no actor from that dazzling ensemble gets a nod: not Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Madeleine Stowe or Julianne Moore. And while I'm about it, I'd like to give private awards (just the antimony) to Don Baker for his IRA man in In the Name of the Father; to the whole cast and Stephen Frears for The Snapper; to Diane Keaton amid the silliness of Manhattan Murder Mystery; and to Al Pacino and Sean Penn who might have made something better out of Carlito's Way.
Finally, instead of praising Philadelphia, why not an award to the life, films, writing and defiance of Derek Jarman?
The Oscar ceremony is broadcast on UK Gold and UK Living, 7-10pm Tues; highlights are on BBC1, 9.30-11.30pm Tues.
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