The Oscas: Shame on you, Oscar

David Thomson on tonight's Academy Awards - and why a Holocaust comedy should not even have been considered

W e start this year with a multiple-choice exercise: pick your own article, dependent on one of these three opening sentences:

1 When you're tired of Oscar, are you tired of life - or would you rather give life a try?

2 And so, we come to the 71st, the last Oscars of the 20th century - and do I hear a cry to let the sad century go on a little longer, if only Oscar can be dumped?

3 There's something in the air this year in Hollywood - an odd smell of panic, or the confusion of wanting to remember and forget at the same time. Or is it just that sickly sweet, self-savouring fart called Roberto Benigni?

Well, you're right: pick any of the three and you've got a forbidding article. To which I should add that, if you've ever thought of taking my Oscar predictions to the bookmaker's shop, be cautious this year. I wish I trusted my own hunches, or could escape my worst fears.

Let's begin with actors, for I love actors and acting. I'm fond of Shakespeare in Love, just because it revels in that wayward and happily vain way of life - pretending in public, and filling up one's own vacancy with the stuff of dreams. But although I've never looked to actors for wisdom or responsibility, still I was knocked sideways a couple of weeks ago when the Screen Actors Guild judged that the best performance by an actor in l998 was Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful.

Why worry, you might ask, isn't that also about the glory of pretending? It wants to think so. But I beg to suggest that it's about the ease of lying. Now, I know that many in Britain have been moved by Life is Beautiful - because the same disease has been at work in America. But someone in this paper has to say that Life is Beautiful is an obscenity and a grotesque piece of art.

The Academy shames even itself in giving the picture seven nominations, and the Screen Actors Guild belittles its own craft in awarding a prize to a babbling egotist who can't find his own off button. Benigni has not thought much about life; he is too preoccupied with his own smothering Humanity. He has not sufficiently studied the nature and practice of the Nazi prison camps where Jews were held. Nor, in his devotion to the idea of the benign trick, has he noticed how a child's mind works. It is hideously implausible that the child would be taken in by the father's ruse - and there is not the least ironic hint that the little boy is being kind to the father's stupid ploy (that would offer interest).

What remains is a complacent, uplifting entertainment that dodges the real experience of the camps, the true terror and lack of choice, and begins to add to the stealthy rumour that these camps were not quite as they were supposed to be. So they become easier to remember - and possible to forget. It is another part of the warping that may let children recollect the camps as places where someone like Oskar Schindler made heroic rescues.

Let me brush Benigni aside, thrust a gambler's call and a critic's hope together and say that Nick Nolte will take the actors' Oscar for Affliction - no matter that the film is as dark as many lives, and as hopeless; no matter that few have seen the picture. Ian McKellen is sly and touching in Gods and Monsters, but he has less to grasp than Nolte. Edward Norton is marked as a comer for American History X. Not even the Academy can comfortably give Tom Hanks a third Oscar. Affliction has no more comfort than authentic tragedy can deliver. But next to Benigni, it is robust and cheering.

When it comes to best actress, one performance stands on its own - Meryl Streep in One True Thing (yet another of the films Britain has not seen by Oscar day). Streep dies of cancer in the film and there is little heed for such bromides as life being wonderful or beautiful.

Streep won't win: her taste for death is too close to her awesome reputation. Her genius alarms the world, and casts kindness on the performances of girls. This Oscar will go to prettiness, promise, and the old notion that a princess is ready to be celebrated. Just as Grace Kelly got her Oscar more than 40 years ago for her one awful performance - in The Country Girl - so Gwy-neth Paltrow, I fear, will win this year. At which point, her patron frog, Harvey Weinstein, may or may not turn into a prince.

The range in best supporting actor is remarkable - if not as great as it might have been. I would have excluded Rush's portrait of dithery opportunism in Shakespeare in Love - it's not as striking as William Hurt in One True Thing, Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line, Jon Voight in The General, or Brendan Fraser (who gives the most difficult performance in Gods and Monsters).

I'll strike Robert Duvall (A Civil Action), because he was corny and cute in a way he finds too easy. I would love to see James Coburn honoured for Affliction. And I believe that Ed Harris should win for his wistful yet authoritative Christof, the director in The Truman Show - still the most daring and mysterious film of the year. In addition, Harris has a record of exceptional work that has come close before. One day. This year, I suspect, Billy Bob Thornton will collect for his courageous underplaying in A Simple Plan. This is one more film you haven't been allowed to see.

Best supporting actress is nearly reserved for non-Americans. So home- grown Kathy Bates has a real shot as the political agent in Primary Colors - if anyone remembers it. Then there's Brenda Blethyn - unspeakable, I found - in Little Voice; Lynn Redgrave, cunning and hammy in Gods and Monsters; and Rachel Griffiths - very good, even if her character stayed unbelievable - in Hilary and Jackie. Anything else? Yes, there's four minutes of Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. Four minutes shouldn't count as a supporting part. But who can forget them - or Dench's Mrs Brown from last year? I think she'll win, because she has the utter assurance and sexiness that once belonged to few except Claude Rains, and because her Queen enables the happy ending to ride along with the film's "unhappy" close. And once upon a time, Judi Dench was a hot, sexy, hoarse young broad who makes Paltrow seem like tissue paper.

Best original script? Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman for Shakespeare. Adapted screenplay? Scott Smith for A Simple Plan. Cinematography? It will likely go to Janusz Kaminski for Saving Private Ryan - it should go to John Toll, the only evident auteur on The Thin Red Line. Editing and sound - Ryan. Art direction and costume - Shakespeare in Love. Original dramatic score? I didn't hear one all year. Best foreign picture? Your turn, Mr Benigni.

Best picture and director? For me, those awards belong to The Truman Show and Peter Weir - whereas only Weir is nominated (along with Benigni, John Madden for Shakespeare in Love, Spielberg for Private Ryan, and Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line).

I am an admirer of Terrence Malick, and a regular re-viewer of Badlands, but I don't think my guy was "there" on The Thin Red Line. It's John Toll's film, because Malick seems to have lost confidence or momentum once he saw Saving Private Ryan, and started slashing performances and pumping in voice-over to make up for incoherence. There's another problem with that film: it ignores the reality of Guadalcanal and the Pacific War, and opts for being a reverie on nature and damage. In the end, that feels like artistic vanity prepared to pass over the feelings of those who fought there. Yes, James Jones's soldiers - in the novel - hated the war and the military system, but they took for granted the necessity of their duty. For just as there were once prison camps and fascist plans for the world, so there was a war that had to be fought.

Which brings me to Saving Private Ryan, the film that will win best picture and best director. Steven Spielberg is a rare creature, so important to our time that we need to pay him very close attention. I have stressed before in these pages the inhuman way he can move from trash to the gravest material (from Jurassic Park to Schindler's List) with barely a blink, let alone a thought. That facility is alarming, especially when put with his skill as a dramatist and storyteller. But if it seems to deny or affront old-fashioned artistic integrity, then maybe we are starting to grasp our own future.

There's a side to Spielberg that knows this, and responds with strenuous efforts to regain his integrity and our history. That impulse made Saving Private Ryan. Some complain that its startling opening trails away into the conventional - that year 2000-ish movie technology is treating the mindset of 1944. Fair point, but Spielberg is first exposing us to the sensual terror of battle so as to prepare us for the commitment that comes later - grudging, sour, but true to l944. Some say it is jingoistic, and there should be some allies around to modify the American glory. It might be better if, at the crisis of command, Tom Hanks was revealed not as Jimmy Stewart, the ideal small-town American father and teacher, but as a divorcee, a drunk even, an outcast - until he found war.

Never mind. Ryan is Spielberg's most mature and complex film so far - even if it has the air of a brilliant teenager aping complexity. But nothing detracts from its wish to honour the mood or the quiet steadfastness of the Second World War. The basis for its story - the quixotic principle that a nation will go only so far in shredding one family - is a model for the attempt at decency in the face of holocaust. Its very naivety is touching, just as in America at large the marvelling over that last "honest" generation is both appealing and disturbing. For that teenage conscience desperately seeks a new role and duty.

The Truman Show, I repeat, is a large, dangerous piece of art. Saving Private Ryan is only as good as it gets for someone trying to get past adolescence.

Maybe that's not enough for best picture. But in recent years, that Oscar has gone to far less. In the last year of the century, we are at the same time eager to be new and desperate not to lose the old. That confusion lies behind tonight's great event - the moment when Elia Kazan appears. There is so much in Kazan to remember that the three-hour show could be given over to a lesson. Whereas, his late prize could signal forgetting and oblivion. Never mind forgiveness. It is a question that haunts every film-maker as to whether the medium can still make an entertainment that touches "everyone" without compromise. Still, asked to choose between Benigni and Spielberg this year, I will take Saving Private Ryan and realise that I might not be alive, or writing in English, but for all the Ryans.




Elizabeth (odds 33-1)

Life is Beautiful (6-1)

Saving Private Ryan (1-4)

Shakespeare in Love (3-1)

The Thin Red Line (25-1)


Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (15-8)

Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station (25-1)

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (4-11)

Meryl Streep in One True Thing (33-1)

Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie (33-1)


Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful (9-4)

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (5-1)

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (9-2)

Nick Nolte in Affliction (4-5)

Edward Norton in American History X (33-1)


Kathy Bates in Primary Colors

Brenda Blethyn in Little Voice

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love

Rachel Griffiths in Hilary and Jackie

Lynn Redgrave in Gods and Monsters


James Coburn in Affliction

Robert Duvall in A Civil Action

Ed Harris in The Truman Show

Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love

Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan


Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful)

John Madden (Shakespeare in Love)

Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line)

Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan)

Peter Weir (The Truman Show)


Central Station (Brazil)

Children of Heaven (Iran)

The Grandfather (Spain)

Life is Beautiful (Italy)

Tango (Argentina)


Best picture


Best actress

Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets

Best actor

Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets

Best supporting actress

Kim Basinger in LA Confidential

Best supporting actor

Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Best director

James Cameron (Titanic)

Odds supplied by William Hill

Is there no justice? Big names that missed out

Do you trust Oscar? Before you answer, consider that the following movies were not even nominated for best picture: City Lights; King Kong; The Shop Around the Corner; Sullivan's Travels; Meet Me in St Louis; Notorious; The Third Man; Rear Window; East of Eden; The Searchers; Some Like It Hot; Psycho. Then recollect that none of these 12 performances was even nominated: Cary Grant in His Girl Friday; Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt; Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca; Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity; John Wayne in Red River; James Cagney in White Heat; Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train; Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop; Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success; Anthony Perkins in Psycho; James Mason in Lolita; Al Pacino in The Godfather. Finally, note that these 12 directors never won or have never won for direction: King Vidor; Joseph von Sternberg; Ernst Lubitsch; Alfred Hitchcock; Howard Hawks; Orson Welles; Arthur Penn; Otto Preminger; Sidney Lumet; Stanley Kubrick; Robert Altman; Martin Scorsese. DT

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits