Oscar's Likely Picks in the 'Year of the Indies'

Critics, pundits, and even movie buffs are sometimes accused of anti-Hollywood snobbery. All they like is oddities, eccentricities, and obscurities, the argument goes. Why can't they appreciate high-tech blockbusters, glossy entertainments, and chummy star vehicles like everybody else?

There's never been much truth to these complaints, but the current Academy Award race has tossed an interesting new twist into the situation. If anyone is showing world-weary impatience with Hollywood this year, it turns out to be - Hollywood!

That's the way things appear, at any rate. According to conventional wisdom about the latest Oscar nominations - with just one big-studio entry, "Jerry Maguire," showing up in the best-picture sweepstakes - independent filmmakers have conquered the world. Or at least the hearts of industry insiders, who seem to favor offbeat productions like "Fargo" and "Secrets & Lies" over hyped offerings like "Independence Day," the box-office champ of 1996, and "Evita," which failed to swing a nomination for Madonna despite her earnest display of public longing for the award.

Other categories confirm the change in academy tastes. Billy Bob Thornton, whose very name hollers "outsider," rode his low-budget wonder called "Sling Blade" to slots in the prestigious best-actor and adapted-screenplay races. "Shine," a classical-music epic from Down Under, more than tripled the number of nominations earned by pop star Barbra Streisand for "The Mirror Has Two Faces," and Kenneth Branagh's four-hour "Hamlet" picked up as many as "Twister" and "Independence Day" combined.

Has the millennium arrived early? Not exactly. Peter Bart, editor of the trade paper Variety, greeted the barrage of apocalyptic Oscar coverage by recalling a few pertinent facts. For one, most "indie" companies - Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Fine Line, and so forth - are owned by traditional "majors" that have controlled Hollywood for years.

For another, indie enthusiasm is not exactly new. Bart's own paper ran the headline "Independents Day for Oscars" no fewer than four years ago, when "Howards End" and "The Crying Game" were high-visibility contenders. Pictures like "The Trip to Bountiful" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" won statuettes way back in 1986.

Two lessons emerge from all this: Hollywood is still in the driver's seat when it comes to mass-market screen fare, and indie Oscars a decade ago didn't squelch a vigorous parade of major-studio contestants in the intervening years.

It's also possible that academy members - younger than they used to be, since newcomers have lowered the average age - have now grown nervous about slighting their own home-grown products. Could they backtrack on their boldness by giving TriStar's studio-bred "Jerry Maguire" a sweep in all five categories where it's nominated?

Not likely. True, thoughtful handicappers are giving Tom Cruise's personality-driven picture a good chance for the original-screenplay award, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is favored to win the supporting-actor race for his portrayal of an athlete who loves his family more than success. Some say Cruise himself has a shot at the best-actor prize, too, unthinkable as this sounds to his detractors.

But best picture? Observers widely agree that "The English Patient" is the heavy favorite, given the academy's longtime love affair with sumptuous cinematography and stories set in "exotic" locales. Anthony Minghella may ride its coattails to victory as best director and author of the best adapted screenplay, and John Seale will certainly sail in for best photography. This would give Minghella's romantic epic a semi-sweep, even if Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are shut out in the best actor and actress races, as expected.

For best actor, it would apparently take a Martian invasion to stop Geoffrey Rush from snatching the statuette in the same nimble fingers that caress the "Rach 3" in "Shine." New trends or no new trends, the academy still loves acting that's highly visible - almost every role in the best-actor nomination list involves some sort of illness - and no recent character calls for more performance pyrotechnics than "Shine" hero David Helfgott.

As usual, of course, the most probable winners aren't necessarily the best possible winners. In the most talked-about races, only Brenda Blethyn's likely best-actress victory for "Secrets & Lies" is a clear case of academy preferences serving the cause of artistic justice.

Mike Leigh and "Secrets & Lies" would be ideal winners for best picture, director, and original screenplay, but they aren't favored in any of those races. Bright newcomer Edward Norton will probably lose to Gooding despite his excellence in the mostly dreadful "Primal Fear," and both Barbara Hershey in "The Portrait of a Lady" and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in "Secrets & Lies" are more memorable than sentimental favorite Lauren Bacall in "The Mirror Has Two Faces."

And where are actor Nick Nolte for "Mother Night," actress Laura Dern for "Citizen Ruth," director Spike Lee for "Get on the Bus," and camera wizard Robby Mller for "Dead Man," among other thrilling achievements not even nominated? Even in the Year of the Indies, academy members have overlooked some superbly original work.

Here's hoping talented independents are able to build on this year's successes and thrive more vigorously still in Oscar races to come.

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