Film: The Oscars: Our odds-on favourites

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The Independent Culture
They're just a bunch of no names or three-names, yelled the New York Post, bewailing this year's Oscars' lack of star status: "Billy Bob Who? Armin Mueller Which? Kristin Scott Huh?" Here in Britain, where we recognise that three names help to confer genuine star status, we are looking forward to next Monday rather more.

Will the Brits triumph? And if they do, will it be a British triumph? The English Patient, with 12 nominations, has a British director, British actors in the lead parts, an American producer and American finance. It's made by an independent studio which just happens to be owned by Disney. "It's a British-led film," say the film's publicity people with linguistic dexterity.

Despite these inconvenient technicalities, the Oscars seem certain to bring a good deal of reward to British talent. But we shouldn't count our chickens. The Academy can suffer awkward fits of patriotism when deciding on its awards. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if that excellent black comedy thriller Fargo upsets the British hopes in at least one category.

Watch for two awards in particular. If Ken Branagh's Hamlet wins Best Adapted Screenplay, Branagh will have a tortuous acceptance speech to make. Since he has pointed out many times that he has used Shakespeare's full text, unamended, just what would he be getting the award for? His speech could be a rationalisation exercise worthy of Hamlet himself.

Watch out also for any success that Sling Blade might have. This Arkansas- based drama was viewed privately by President Clinton at the White House. Its lead actor and director, Billy Bob Thornton, is an old friend of the President, and its producer Harry Thomason tells me the President has been "pulling for it". What can this ungainly phrase mean? Unseemly presidential lobbying of the Academy?

And lastly, will someone somewhere explain the difference between Best Film and Best Director? Jerry Maguire is nominated for Best Film, but its director doesn't get a look-in in the directors' category. But if you are responsible for the Best Film, how can you then not be the Best Director? Unless the subtext is that, despite your direction, the acting, photography and costume design made this the best film of the year. All very confusing.

But for those who want to risk the price of a cinema ticket on the principal awards, here are the runners and riders and the odds according to our man on the sidewalk in Sunset Boulevard...

Best Film

The English Patient 7-4 favourite

Secrets and Lies 11-2

Shine 4-1

Fargo 2-1

Jerry Maguire 20-1

The last one is the only traditional all-American formulaic film up against all these arty challengers. And it lacks the stamina for this Group 1 race. The English Patient's epic romantic sweep should win this, unless an anti-Brit betting ring switches its support to Fargo.

Best Director

Milos Forman: The People vs Larry Flynt 10-1

Anthony Minghella: The English Patient 5-2 co-favourite

Joel Coen: Fargo 3-1

Mike Leigh: Secrets and Lies 5-2 co-favourite

Scott Hicks: Shine 5-1

Hollywood has warmed to Mike Leigh, and Secrets and Lies is critically acclaimed as his most accomplished film, funny and poignant with an undercurrent of inexpressible tenderness. Leigh himself says that his previous effort, Naked, was the better movie. But this could be a case of the trainer deliberately talking down his runner's chances. He should win his first and much deserved director's Oscar.

Best Actress

Brenda Blethyn: Secrets and Lies 7-2

Diane Keaton: Marvin's Room 13-2

Frances McDormand: Fargo 2-1 favourite

Kristin Scott Thomas: The English Patient 4-1

Emily Watson: Breaking the Waves 20-1

It would be lovely to see a long unsung British character actress like Brenda Blethyn win. But keep your money in your pocket. Or better still, put it on Frances McDormand. Her wisecracking pregnant policewoman (a character Mike Leigh could have invented) could send the British female contingent home as sulky as Madonna, who didn't even get a nomination.

Best Actor

Tom Cruise: Jerry Maguire 2-1

Ralph Fiennes: The English Patient Evens favourite

Woody Harrelson: The People vs Larry Flynt 6-1

Geoffrey Rush: Shine 4-1

Billy Bob Thornton: Sling Blade 12-1 (Republican odds); 5-4 (Democrat odds)

We know who would win if President Clinton were on the judging panel. But a Democrat president's taste doesn't necessarily count for much in the Los Angeles film world. If it doesn't, Ralph Fiennes should get his first Oscar (no, he didn't win one for Schindler's List, though everyone seems to remember wrongly that he did). It will be interesting to see if the commentator pronounces either of his names correctly.

Best Supporting Actress

Lauren Bacall: The Mirror Has Two Faces 10-1 on, all other betting suspended.

Juliette Binoche: The English Patient

Joan Allen: The Crucible

Barbara Hershey: The Portrait of a Lady

Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Secrets and Lies

No contest. A filly as popular in the Hollywood Hills as Red Rum was at Aintree. Sentiment alone rules that Lauren Bacall will win to the biggest applause of the night. And there is something rather amazing that in 1997 Humphrey Bogart's widow is up for her first Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor

Cuba Gooding Jr: Jerry Maguire

William H Macy: Fargo

Armin Mueller-Stahl: Shine

Edward Norton: Primal Fear

James Woods: Ghosts of Mississippi

No betting on such unproved young stallions. That rare Oscar category - one full of names few people have even heard of. Best thing to do at pre-Oscars dinner parties is nod sagely and mutter: "They're all very fine jobbing actors." As to who will win... hard to say. They're all very fine jobbing actors.