A Skeptic Agrees to Play the Oscar Game

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

WHAT do you think of the Oscar nominations?

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.

"Scent of a Woman" has little to show for its good intentions beyond Al Pacino's bravura performance. "A Few Good Men" is the kind of effective but empty-headed entertainment that deserves to finish last.

My favorite for Best Actor is Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X," especially since my recent viewing of actual Malcolm X footage has confirmed what a superb job Mr. Washington does of capturing both the inner and the outer selves of this complex leader.

More realistically, though, Mr. Pacino is the likely winner for Best Actor, largely because Oscar voters have long been partial to big stars playing characters with disabilities.

Stephen Rea is a long shot for "The Crying Game," and Mr. Eastwood is probably too grizzled in "Unforgiven" for Academy tastes. Robert Downey Jr. is a talented young man, but the failings of "Chaplin" defeat him.

Emma Thompson in "Howards End" is the likely favorite for Best Actress, since just about everyone has been won over by her performance. Susan Sarandon is a bit too spiky in "Lorenzo's Oil" and Catherine Deneuve's acting in "Indochine" gets too much competition from the scenery and history that swirl around it. Mary McDonnell in "Passion Fish" and Michelle Pfeiffer in "Love Field" are high-grade talents stuck in minor projects; don't look for winners there.

If excellence wins over flashiness in other key races, James Ivory or Robert Altman will win as Best Director for "Howards End" or "The Player," respectively. It's disgraceful that the dark brilliance of "The Player" wasn't recognized in the Best Picture category - but this makes it nearly certain that Mr. Altman will be an also-ran in the Best Director category, having committed the sin of attacking Hollywood's hypocrisies in a Hollywood production.

Neil Jordan and "The Crying Game" deserve to win for Best Original Screenplay, and the strongest contenders for Best Adapted Screenplay are "The Player," by Michael Tolkin, and "Howards End," by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

This year's big Oscar scandal is the Best Feature Documentary race. "Brother's Keeper," about a rural community's response to a publicized murder case, was not nominated even though it has received much acclaim elsewhere and should at least be in the running. At the same time, "Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II" did receive a nomination, even though it has been called into question on grounds of accuracy.

Such things shouldn't be allowed to happen - especially when superb documentaries like "A Brief History of Time" this year, and "35 Up" and "Roger & Me" in recent years, have gotten the same idiotic snub that "Brother's Keeper" is unjustly getting now.

If you want to keep skeptics like me a little way in your corner, Oscar, gaffes like these must be avoided.

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