Jack Nicholson and Steve Martin. There are two names you don't expect to see paired in a film story. But strange bedfellows are often produced by critics' ballots and Nicholson and Martin were united Saturday after tying for best actor of 1987 in balloting by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Nicholson, who won the same award outright from the New York Film Critics Circle last week, won for his roles as a homeless person in "Ironweed" and the devil in "The Witches of Eastwick." He also appears briefly in James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News," but the L.A. critics specifically excluded that performance from their best actor award.
Martin was named for his role as the nozzle-nosed fire chief in "Roxanne," an upbeat updating of the classic tragicomedy "Cyrano de Bergerac."
The Los Angeles critics also deadlocked in their voting for best actress, naming both Holly Hunter ("Broadcast News") and Sally Kirkland ("Anna"), but a clear favorite among the year's best movies emerged in John Boorman's "Hope and Glory."
Boorman's film, an autobiographical look at the London Blitz seen through the widening eyes of a 7-year-old boy, earned him awards for best direction and best screenplay. The movie was named best picture.
The New York critics' group earlier in the week threw their weight behind James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News," a satirical look at the people and pressures behind network news. The New Yorkers voted Brooks awards for direction and screenplay and named "Broadcast News" best picture.
The influential critics' groups, whose awards inevitably become centerpieces of Oscar campaigns, did agree in four categories. Both gave Nicholson and Hunter at least shares in best actor and best actress awards. They also named Vittorio Storaro best cinematographer for his work on the lush epic "The Last Emperor," and they agreed that Morgan Freeman's caustic pimp in "Street Smart" represented the best work by an actor in a supporting role.
They disagreed about best supporting actress. The Los Angeles group voted for Olympia Dukakis, who plays Cher's befuddled mom in "Moonstruck." Vanessa Redgrave (second in the L.A. voting) won the New York award for her role in Stephen Frears' "Prick Up Your Ears."
Do these awards mean anything more than a free meal for those winners who show up at the awards luncheons?
They absolutely do. Despite the general contempt for critics that many studio marketing people privately acknowledge ("The feeling's mutual," the critics might add), a symbiotic relationship has evolved that becomes a virtual partnership at this time of the year.
The announcement of winners of Los Angeles and New York critics' voting, conveniently conducted in mid-December, is like the opening of dove season to Oscar campaigners. If tradition holds, newspaper ads for "Broadcast News" and "Hope and Glory" will bear their respective stamps of critical approval right through to the Academy Awards in March.
Critics awards help winnow down the list of films that academy voters feel obliged to see before casting their nominations ballots in February. They rekindle interest in movies that were released earlier in the year ("Roxanne," "Street Smart," "Prick Up Your Ears") or they underscore the value of films in very limited release (Sally Kirkland's "Anna").
Occasionally, they give hope to backers of an underdog, as the New York critics did last week by naming Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog" as the year's best foreign-language film. (It placed second to Louis Malle's "Au Revoir, Les Enfants" in the L.A. voting.)
"My Life as a Dog" was released in Sweden two years ago and is not eligible for an Oscar nomination in the foreign-language category. But Skouras Pictures, its American distributor, has been promoting the film heavily in Los Angeles, and the critics' award will fuel whatever chance it has of getting other nominations.
The critics' awards often have no impact at all. A few years ago, the New York group stunned the film community by naming Steve Martin best actor of the year for "All of Me." Academy voters recovered in time to exclude Martin from a much-deserved spot on their Oscar ballots, and they will likely do so again this year, despite Martin's critically honored work in "Roxanne."
More than anything else, the critics' awards are useful as signals of sophisticated film-going tastes. You have to concede critics their passion for movies (why else would they sentence themselves to as many as 500 hours a year in darkness?) and most of them have tremendous knowledge of the medium.
(It seems pertinent to add here that there are no critics from local television stations on the membership rosters in either New York or Los Angeles.)