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A Skeptic Agrees to Play the Oscar Game

Our film critic indulges in a little Academy Awards forecasting, noting that the nominations represent compromise

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1993


WHAT do you think of the Oscar nominations?

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That is the question a critic's friends love to ask this time of year, and I try to be honest when I reply: To tell you the truth, I'd rather forget about the silly things. Some of the most eligible movies aren't on the list, and some of the most overrated pictures are dominating the competition.

Besides, if there's any truth to the notion that cinema is an art form - at least once in a while - shouldn't contests and prizes be a minor diversion on the sidelines, and not the most talked-about event of the year?

That's what I say when the Academy Award race begins - and a lot of good it does me! People still want to discuss every nook and cranny of the competition, and I must admit, it almost seems like fun once you suppress your skeptical instincts and get into the spirit of the game.

I take some comfort from the fact that my friends and I are reenacting a split-personality syndrome that overtakes Hollywood itself at Oscar time. Peter Bart, who edits the show-business newspaper Variety, summed this up nicely in a recent column. The movie world divides into two camps over the awards, he notes. To one group, the Oscars are "a glitzy, high-stakes contest designed to promote the stars and hustle the goods." To the other side, Academy Awards are about "professional achievements, not commer ce," and Oscar voters should approach them "as though they were awarding the Nobel Prize."

That's a humorous exaggeration, of course, but it's true the movie community has never resolved the old conflict between film as art and film as commerce. The actual nature of Hollywood movies, not surprisingly, lies somewhere in between. The ideal Oscar-winning picture - or performance, screenplay, or technical feat - should be an artful accomplishment and a commercially viable commodity. This leaves room for both box-office trash and high cinematic art to occupy their respective niches outside Academy Award territory.

I'm sorry there's little high art on this year's nomination list, but I'm also pleased there's little sheer junk. Like so much else in popular culture, the current Oscar contenders represent a many-sided compromise. The list won't please everyone, but it won't totally dismay many people, either. And that sort of middle-ground position is what keeps popular culture popular over the long haul.

As for the particulars of the 1993 race, the Best Picture list is a mixed bag. "Howards End" is a masterful film by any standard, proving that high art can indeed steer successfully into Oscar's good graces. "The Crying Game" is less cinematically polished, but it has an ingenious screenplay and a batch of superb performances; what remains to be seen is whether its frank view of unconventional sexuality will drive conservative Oscar voters to cast their ballots for one of its rivals.

Lower on the list, I don't rate "Unforgiven" as highly as many of my colleagues, although it's certainly one of Clint Eastwood's most ambitious and popular westerns.