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.

MY LIFE AS A NOMINEE: JONATHAN MYERSON, REAL LIFE, PAGE 4

NOMINATIONS IN THE LEADING CATEGORIES

BEST PICTURE

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)

BEST ACTRESS

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)

BEST ACTOR

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)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

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

BEST DIRECTOR

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)

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE

Central Station (Brazil)

Children of Heaven (Iran)

The Grandfather (Spain)

Life is Beautiful (Italy)

Tango (Argentina)

LAST YEAR'S WINNERS

Best picture

Titanic

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

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