Like It or Not, Oscar News Is Puzzling

Despite his befuddlement, a Monitor critic predicts Academy Awards winners

Whether you love the Academy Awards or hate them, you have to admit one thing: Any way you look at it, the horse race doesn't have a speck of sense about it. Or sensibility, for that matter.

Take the case of ''Dead Man Walking.'' By the Academy's own reckoning, this admirable drama was put together by some of the finest talents 1995 had to offer: director Tim Robbins, actor Sean Penn, and actress Susan Sarandon, nominees one and all. Yet the movie they created was shut out of the best-picture race by the likes of ''Babe'' and ''Braveheart.''

''Leaving Las Vegas'' suffers the same inconsistency. It's directed by nominee Mike Figgis, acted by nominees Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, and boasts a nominated screenplay to boot. Yet it's nowhere to be found in the best-picture list.

More craziness emerges when one ponders the presence of ''Apollo 13'' and ''Sense and Sensibility'' among the best-picture contenders. Why aren't their directors, Ron Howard and Ang Lee, worthy of nominations? Did these popular entertainments somehow manage to make themselves?

Compounding such contradictions are the perennial problems of comparing cinematic apples and oranges. Who's a better filmmaker - Mel Gibson for orchestrating action in ''Braveheart,'' or Michael Radford for capturing subtle emotions in ''The Postman (Il Postino)''? Does the high-tech traditionalism of ''Apollo 13'' outshine the literary traditionalism of ''Sense and Sensibility''? In what universe can movies as different as ''Babe'' and ''The Postman'' be said to play in the same ballpark?

Questions, questions. And all beside the point for moviegoers who cut straight to the bottom line: What names will the envelopes hold when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestows its statuettes in Los Angeles on March 25?

And the Oscar goes to ...

In the best-picture category, I'll base my predictions on a process of elimination. As the first non-English-speaking nominee in more than 20 years, ''The Postman'' is a long shot. ''Babe'' may be too cutesy and ''Braveheart'' too old-fashioned for Academy voters.

That gives the advantage to either ''Apollo 13,'' which has a box-office bonanza to back up its bid, or ''Sense and Sensibility,'' the most respected and respectable entry in the recent Jane Austen sweepstakes. (I'd rather have ''Clueless'' in the race, but as I said, the Oscars don't make sense.)

In the best-director slot, Robbins and Figgis deserve extra credit for making films with clear social consciences, depicting the evils of capital punishment and the self-destructiveness of unbridled sensuality with harrowing force. Hollywood usually favors amusement over instruction, though, so their chances are low. Radford and Chris Noonan (for ''Babe'') made their movies far from the Hollywood mainstream, and while that doesn't put them out of the running, it gives Gibson an unusually good shot at the prize.

Picks for acting

Cage is the most deserving competitor for best actor, but his hard-drinking character in ''Leaving Las Vegas'' is so relentlessly self-destructive that voters may opt for Penn's hard-bitten convict - no happy-face candidate either - or Anthony Hopkins's excellent ''Nixon'' portrayal. The notion of Richard Dreyfuss copping an award for ''Mr. Holland's Opus'' is unthinkable, but stranger things have happened.

Back in nonsense territory, Oscar inexplicably forgot to nominate the year's best actress - Jennifer Jason Leigh in ''Georgia,'' another superb movie with a gloom-and-doom problem - so it's fine with me if Meryl Streep wins for her brilliant technique in ''The Bridges of Madison County.'' More likely is Emma Thompson, if only because her intelligent acting in ''Sense and Sensibility'' provides the sole effervescent note in a nomination list dominated by convincingly sad characters.

''Antonia's Line'' could easily earn the Netherlands an Oscar for best foreign-language film, since feminism is fashionable even when presented this simplistically. It's also the only nominee in its category to reach American theaters to date.

Money is fashionable in Hollywood, too, and if ''The Postman'' wins for best adapted screenplay - or for anything - give part of the credit to Miramax Films for spending an alleged $1.5 million on publicity aimed squarely at Academy members. If you think such spending skews the race - or if you're wondering why other popular items, from ''Pocahontas'' to ''Waterworld,'' hardly figure in the competition - console yourself by remembering that the Oscars aren't about logic, they're about self-promotion and self-congratulation for the film industry.

''More Cents Than Sensibility,'' said a recent trade-paper headline, and that pretty well sums up the situation.

* The 68th annual Academy Awards will be telecast live Monday, March 25, beginning at 9 p.m. on ABC. Whoopi Goldberg will host the festivities, which will be held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center.

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