The oddest thing about movies in 1996 has proved to be the way Hollywood apparently listened to its toughest critics. As the year unwound, the big-name studios were doing terrific business with product that few esteemed. Twister, Mission:Impossible and Independence Day dominated the summer and shattered records. But their technical excellence far surpassed their artistic merit. A lot was written about the retreat of the business from making box-office pictures that also won raves and Oscar nominations. I'm thinking of a mainstream that stretches from Gone With the Wind through Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, and All About Eve to The Apartment, the Sound of Music, The Godfather and Schindler's List. All of those won Best Picture in their day and filled theatres. Schindler's List played only a modest number of theatres, maybe, but it has just had its American network TV debut (without commercials - Ford sponsored the whole event, and never asked for so much as a red car on the streets of Krakow) and an audience of 65 million.
But Hollywood needs to think well of itself: that's how American it is. And its dream has been to roll in money while winning cultural respect. In a way, that's why Oscars night holds such sway in America still: beyond the immediate contest, profound myths about the pursuit of happiness are being affirmed.
Not this year. When the nominations were announced, early on the morning of 11 February, mainstream Hollywood was nearly shut out. Four of the Best Picture nominees were either foreign or "independent" - which means far more economical, less beholden to big money, and closer to being the work of uncompromised individuals. Those pictures were Fargo, Secrets and Lies, Shine and The English Patient. The one "Hollywood" film was Jerry Maguire. Similarly, in the top six Oscar categories, independent and foreign outplayed mainstream by two to one. The clearest proof of how the wind was blowing was The English Patient. The adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-sharing novel had been set up by the independent producer, Saul Zaentz. But he had to deal with Twentieth Century-Fox to raise the money, and the studio then backed off at the last moment - allegedly because they wanted someone better known than Kristin Scott Thomas in the female lead. At that point, the smaller, art-house distributor Miramax stopped in (they are owned by Disney, but they operate in reasonable freedom), and they have built the picture to 12 Oscar nominations and close to $50 million at the box office. (The English Patient cost $30 million, which is cheap for such an epic scale).
The nominations were encouragement for companies like Miramax, and for anyone urging more adventure in American film-making. And those nominations were the decision of 5,000 or so members of the Academy, all voting for their particular arts and crafts. Still, the town was stung. Variety, the trade paper, responded with a snooty article that estimated (rather mean-spiritedly, I thought, that all the independent films together accounted for under five per cent of the domestic box office. So there!
It is rather more likely that this hard wisdom will prevail than that a major studio will want to remake Breaking the Waves. For the summer of 1997, Hollywood is readying nearly a squadron of films that will cost over $100 million each (Titanic; Men in Black; Speed 2; Alien Resurrection; The Lost World of Jurassic Park; Batman and Robin; Starship Troopers). One doubts that many of those will be among next year's Oscars, though Alien Resurrection brings Sigourney Weaver back to life. Hollywood has one more big-budget item that offers plenty of embarrassment. Last year, Disney's Michael Eisner fired Mike Ovitz, former agent supreme, as his number two after Ovitz had served 18 months. It had been a mistake. Eisner said Ovitz had been a fish out of water. But the poor fish swam away with a contract settlement (cash and stock) valued at well over $100 million. Some Disney shareholders got angry at this, but nothing could disturb the serene insanity with which the Hollywood club looks after its own greed.
All of this needs to be weighed in picking the Oscars this year. Hollywood is pouting; it is resentful; it may strike back and stand by its own kind of guys. That is why I have some doubts over Best Picture. The English Patient was winning, until the nominations. It happens to be as good a picture as the Nineties has produced; it is also that mix of epic and intimacy that Hollywood has always cherished. What's more, Saul Zaentz is getting the Irving Thalberg Award, the most prestigious of all the prizes, saved for people who regularly make money and dignity seem like true brothers.
Zaentz has already won Best Picture twice before - for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. In the history of Hollywood, only two other men have won Best Picture three times - Darryl Zanuck, for How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman's Agreement, and All About Eve; and Sam Spiegel, for On the Waterfront, The Bridge Over The River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. But suppose that enough Academy members reckon they need to support home-grown product - then Jerry Maguire could win Best Picture. As well as being big box office and widely liked, Maguire is a very deft, funny and touching picture that tells a story about how American successes can discover true love and moral purpose along the way. It pleases everyone; it has Tom Cruise's best performance yet; and it is the work of a real movie-maker, Cameron Crowe. It shouldn't win. It could. I'll go for The English Patient just because it's in a different class.
That settled, Anthony Minghella should get two Oscars for Patient - for directing and for adapted screenplay. In many respects, that second Oscar is the most deserved. Ondaatje's book did not make any movie obvious or easy. Minghella made changes and sacrifices (he cut all the scenes set in England, for instance), and yet he found a movie. This took astonishing skill and it must overwhelm the other contenders for adaptation (Arthur Miller for The Crucible; Kenneth Branagh for Hamlet; John Hodge for Trainspotting; and Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade).
Similarly, I pick Minghella for direction over Joel Coen for Fargo; Miles Forman for The People vs Larry Flint; Mike Leigh for Secrets and Lies (surely this is not as taut as the films he was making a few years ago); and Scott Hicks for Shine. The latter is an intriguing case. When Shine opened in America, it rode a huge wave of emotion. A lot of people tipped it as a big winner. That mood has passed, in great part because of a disastrous concert tour in America by its subject, David Helfgott, who proves to be a poor pianist and a nervous wreck. Nothing matches the confidence and sweep of The English Patient.
Logically, therefore, I should go for Ralph Fiennes as Best Actor in a group that includes Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt, Geoffrey Rush in Shine, and Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Thornton's nomination is a fond eccentric nod to a maverick. Geoffrey Rush's performance is a tour de force, even if technically he is only a supporting actor (Helfgott is played at different ages by three actors). He could get an Oscar, just as he won the Golden Globe. But that award came before the real Helfgott raised doubts about this inspirational film. Harrelson is too monotonous as Flynt - and very few want to see the real Flynt get any credit. And Fiennes? He doesn't quite seem to need it - there's an aloofness in the actor that chills Hollywood. I think Cruise will win: the mainstream sentiment can get behind a popular, still very young actor (only 34) who also sustained Mission: Impossible this year.
For Best Actress, the nominations are Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies; Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room; Frances McDormand in Fargo, Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient; and Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. (Clear proof of this year's tendency away from "stars", for the Academy overlooked Madonna in Evita, Debbie Reynolds in Mother and the truly deserving Courtney Love in The People vs Larry Flynt). The choice here is between Blethyn and McDormand, I believe. Watson is an outsider, Scott Thomas is touched by Fiennes's remoteness , and Keaton is not forceful enough. America has been much taken with Brenda Blethyn, and few Academy members realise how far her performance comes out of Mike Leigh's tendency to caricature. But I have a hunch for McDormand's steady, stoic cop at the centre of Fargo (an esteemed film) and for the body of her work.
For supporting actor, we have Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry Maguire; William H. Macy in Fargo; Armin Mueller-Stahl in Shine; Edward Norton in Primal Fear; James Woods in Ghosts of Mississippi. Norton's is by far the best performance - and he did good work in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and as the lawyer in Larry Flynt. So be it. No one, I think, can muster the will to prevent Cuba Gooding Jr coming on stage with all his enormous charm, cocking his head, winking at the camera and saying, "Show me the money!" That line from Jerry Maguire has become an American catchphrase, for it has the perfect mix of ironic distance and unalloyed desire. (There's a nice footnote in the way that Gooding Jr - who plays a guy loyal to his agent in 'Maguire' - has since dumped his small agent for big-time representation.)
There are four superb performances in the best supporting actress category - Joan Allen in The Crucible, Juliette Binoche in The English Patient (exquisite and closer to a complex portrait of goodness than anyone has come in decades); Barbara Hershey, whose Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady would have won a bow from Henry James; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who is the heart of Secrets and Lies. I would happily give Oscars to any or all of them. I hate to have to pick a winner.
There is no need: the Academy will honour the one conventional performance in the group, Lauren Bacall's in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Old Hollywood will strike again. Bacall has been around since 1944; she stands for Bogey, Hawks, Huston, and for two eternal performances, in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, that she has never come close to matching. Truth to tell, she is not a very good actress - when she was a kid she did everything without thinking; now she thinks and the thinking is like underlining - and that shows in the Barbra Streisand film. But it's a fancy part and Bacall, as they say, has paid her dues.
In original screenplay, we have the Coen Brothers for Fargo; Cameron Crowe for Jerry Maguire; John Sayles for Lone Star; Mike Leigh for Secrets and Lies; and Scott Hicks for Shine. Here is the chance for Fargo - released early in the year - to win an award. It's not just that the script is so dry and comic; it's that Fargo is a subtle study of decency.
The totally realised depth of The English Patient makes it the outstanding contender for many of the craft awards. For example, its art direction (Stuart Craig) leaves the look of The Birdcage, Evita, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet seeming flashy or decorative. The feel for period in Patient is a labour of love, even if the decor isn't fancy. I would also pick it for cinematography (John Seale) over Evita, Fargo; Fly Away Home and Michael Collins. But its most deserving winner would be Walter Murch for editing. The long-time collaborator of Francis Coppola, Murch is a master- craftsman and a genius with sound. Anthony Minghella has conceded how far Murch helped him discover the final form and texture of The English Patient in post-production. Finally, the Oscar for dramatic score should go to Gabriel Yared for The English Patient.
That's a lot of Oscars for one film (though I'm not giving any prizes to the three nominated and deserving actors). Anything like this many awards will keep The English Patient alive at the box office for a few months more - it has opened in Britain only just in time for the Oscars. That may help others follow its example and show Saul Zaentz as a worthy holder of the Thalberg award.
Elsewhere, I think The Nutty Professor will win for make-up; When We Were Kings, the Muhammad Ali story, may win best documentary. The Portrait of a Lady could got one Oscar, for costumes. The foreign Oscar rests between the Czech Kolya and the Russian Prisoner of the Mountains. There will also be an honorary Oscar for the 77-year-old Michael Kidd, who did the choreography for The Band Wagon, It's Always Fair Weather, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Guys and Dolls, among others. Aged 80 later this year, but overlooked, is a man named Robert Mitchum who once in his life, for The Story of GI Joe, got a supporting actor nomination. And no more. How long is a guy expected to hang around?
The Oscars ceremony will be broadcast live on BBC2 in the early hours of Tuesday (2-6am). Highlights will be shown later in the day on BBC1 (10pm-12m't).
NOMINATIONS IN THE LEADING CATEGORIES
BEST PICTURE The English Patient; Fargo; Jerry Maguire; Secrets and Lies; Shine
ACTOR Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire; Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient; Woody Harrelson, The People vs Larry Flynt; Geoffrey Rush, Shine; Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade
ACTRESS Brenda Blethyn, Secrets and Lies; Diane Keaton, Marvin's Room; Frances McDormand, Fargo;
Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient; Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves
SUPPORTING ACTOR Cuba Gooding Jr, Jerry Maguire; William H. Macy, Fargo; Armin Mueller- Stahl, Shine; Edward Norton, Primal Fear; James Woods, Ghosts of Mississippi
SUPPORTING ACTRESS Joan Allen, The Crucible; Lauren Bacall, The Mirror Has Two Faces; Juliette Binoche, The English Patient; Barbara Hershey, The Portrait of a Lady; Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets and Lies
DIRECTOR Anthony Minghella, The English Patient; Joel Coen, Fargo; Milos Forman, The People versus Larry Flynt; Mike Leigh, Secrets and Lies; Scott Hicks, Shine
FOREIGN FILM A Chef in Love, Georgia; Kolya, Czech Republic; The Other Side of Sunday, Norway; Prisoner of the Mountains, Russia; Ridicule, France
SCREENPLAY (written directly for the screen) Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Fargo; Cameron Crowe, Jerry Maguire; John Sayles, Lone Star; Mike Leigh, Secrets and Lies; Jan Sardi andScott Hicks, Shine
SCREENPLAY (based on material previously produced or published) Arthur Miller, The Crucible; Anthony Minghell, The English Patient; Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet; Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade; John Hodge, Trainspotting
ART DIRECTOR The Birdcage; The English Patient; Evita; Hamlet; William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
CINEMATOGRAPHY The English Patient; Evita; Fargo; Fly Away Home; Michael Collins
ORIGINAL MUSICAL OR COMEDY SCORE Emma, Rachel Portman; The First Wives Club, Marc Shaiman; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alan Menken and Stephen Schartz; James and the Giant Peach, Randy Newman; The Preacher's Wife, Hans Zimmer
ORIGINAL DRAMATIC SCORE The English Patient, Gabriel Yared; Hamlet, Patrick Doyle; Michael Collins, Elliott Goldenthal; Shine, David Hirschfelder; Sleepers, John Williams
COSTUME Angels and Insects; Emma; The English Patient; Hamlet; The Portrait of a Lady
FILM EDITING The English Patient; Evita; Fargo; Jerry Maguire; Shine.
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