Film: Fading starshine

THE OSCARS: Ryan Gilbey takes a cool look at this year's victors

Hollywood, we have a problem: the Oscars have lost all the dumb, airy pizzazz that used to make them essential viewing. Everybody you spoke to maintained that the 68th Academy Awards were going to be unpredictable. What they actually meant was: how did those movies get to be scrapping it out for Best Picture? As usual, there was nobility and bravery in the acting categories. Susan Sarandon, Elisabeth Shue, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslett, Kevin Spacey, Mira Sorvino - all these could have quite respectably won. These were actors who brought a dignity not normally located in the nominations process.

And in the end, there was nothing but justice in those departments: Mira Sorvino got her Best Supporting Actress statuette, and that was a vote not just for her batty performance (the Academy applauds comedy only in the Best Supporting ... categories) but for the fact that she redeemed Mighty Aphrodite, Woody Allen's most arrogant and shapeless work in years. And Kevin Spacey's win, too, for Best Supporting Actor (in The Usual Suspects), was a vote of gratitude for providing a human focus in a film that was designed to wrongfoot us.

The real triumphs were for Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) and Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking). The Best Actor and Actress categories are where things frequently go awry, and awards are handed out not for performances of greatness but as a way of apologising for other performances that were unjustly ignored (such as when Jeremy Irons won for Reversal of Fortune instead of his tour de force a year earlier in Dead Ringers). This year was different: neither Cage nor Sarandon has ever been better, or more fearless, than they are in those films.

It stung that those movies themselves - Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas - were not deemed fit to slug it out in the main Best Picture arena. But that was a matter of public relations - Mike Figgis's film may have been too bleak and oppressive to hold much sway in the post-Forrest Gump morality-conscious Hollywood, while Tim Robbins' work, though meticulously balanced, remains defiantly political.

It was a bad, boring year for the Oscars in every other sense - you can tell because the hottest news was that Sharon Stone had changed her outfit at the last minute. This year was about business and stability. Whoopi Goldberg was back on board as host. The promotional campaigns in the run- up to the ceremony, and all its preparations, had been meticulously choreographed, but there was a new emphasis in those campaigns: all the Best Picture nominations, except Sense and Sensibility, were available on video in the US as the awards approached. Unusually, the academy had reached into its memory to pluck the winners.

The situation has almost been mirrored in the UK: Braveheart and Apollo 13 are both released on video this month. In effect, those two films, which were always the favourites for Best Picture, had never left our screens. But in the past six weeks, a carefully orchestrated campaign of re-release was mounted. It's a process of continuous promotion - whereas films used to complete their run, hang around in limbo for months and then emerge on video, now the chasm has been filled. Unlike previous years, when films that were yet to reach the UK were battling it out at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this year you're never more than five minutes away from an Oscar-nominated movie. The list of nominees has rarely been this current, which is why the academy was often accused of voting for whatever film they saw last.

To match the sluggish pace, all the other winners from Nick Park to Emma Thompson slotted predictably into place. Still, there was a pleasant surprise when Jon Blair's film Anne Frank Remembered won Best Documentary. Reviewing it after its screening on BBC2 last year, Thomas Sutcliffe acclaimed the film, noting that it personalised suffering in a way that few films do: "Looking at archive films of the camps, it's too easy to forget that behind every hollow face lies a whole world, almost infinite in its particulars. Jon Blair's film, by concentrating so closely on one life, reminded you."

Ultimately, the Oscars were disappointing because there were no films here to get stewed up about, the way you could over Forrest Gump. There was no movie to use as a punch-bag, no temper tantrums, no wretched Tom Hanks speech, not even an embarrassing musical number. And if the Oscars ceremony can't give us a reason to argue and boot the TV, then what use is it?

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