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'Emperor' Leads Topsy-Turvy Oscar Race : American Directors Are Shut Out for the First Time in Academy History

February 18, 1988|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

For the first time in Academy Awards history, no American was nominated for directing, even though big studio favorites swept the best picture nominations in a topsy-turvy 60th Oscar race.

"The Last Emperor," Columbia's Bernardo Bertolucci-directed film about Chinese emperor Pu Yi, topped the list with nine nominations, including best picture, best directing and best screenplay adaptation.

But Steven Spielberg and James L. Brooks were among several prominent American contenders passed over for the coveted directing nominations.

Brooks' "Broadcast News" picked up seven nominations, including best picture, best original screenplay and three acting nods, including Holly Hunter for best actress. Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" scored six nominations, including cinematography and editing, but was bypassed in the major categories.

In the 1985 race, the academy's directors' branch similarly bypassed Spielberg for "The Color Purple," leading to a major debate about the awards process among studio executives and Hollywood's creative community.

The lead acting categories this year were heavy with Hollywood perennials.

Most notably, Oscar veterans Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep took nominations for their roles as a pair of boozy down-and-outers in "Ironweed," possibly boosting the hard-to-sell Tri-Star film at the box office just as it goes into wider release. Other predictables included best acting nominations for Cher ("Moonstruck"), Glenn Close ("Fatal Attraction") and William Hurt ("Broadcast News").

But nine out of 10 supporting actors and actresses were first-time nominees.

They included seasoned actor Sean Connery for "The Untouchables," Denzel Washington for "Cry Freedom," Albert Brooks for "Broadcast News," and an unlikely trio of older actresses, Ann Sothern for "Whales of August," Olympia Dukakis for "Moonstruck" and Anne Ramsey for "Throw Momma From the Train."

Despite high expectations in the pre-Oscar handicapping, neither Barbra Streisand ("Nuts") nor Steve Martin("Roxanne")garnered an acting nomination.

In a year when the movie market was glutted with independent releases, major studios nonetheless walked away with the best picture nominations, and the lion's share of other honors.

Columbia has two shots at best picture, with "Hope and Glory" and "The Last Emperor." Among other best picture nominees, Fox released "Broadcast News," Paramount released "Fatal Attraction," and MGM/UA released "Moonstruck."

Despite its hot streak at the box office, Walt Disney Co. was virtually shut out of the race, except for comedian Robin Williams' nomination as best actor for his role as a manic disc jockey in "Good Morning, Vietnam." Columbia, plagued by management instability and a poor box-office record, by contrast, led the studios with at least 15 nominations.

In a selection that is likely to trigger some fierce debate in coming weeks, the academy's directors' branch gave the best directing nominations not only to Bertolucci, an Italian, but also to Britons John Boorman ("Hope and Glory") and Adrian Lyne ("Fatal Attraction"), Canadian Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck"), Swede Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog).

The list of those passed over for that honor reads like a "Who's Who" of American directors, and includes Spielberg, Brooks, Stanley Kubrick ("Full Metal Jacket"), Oliver Stone ("Wall Street") and the late John Huston ("The Dead").

Reached at his hotel in Berlin, Brooks said he was "so busy feeling good" about the raft of other nominations for "Broadcast News" that he didn't even notice the absence of Americans on the directors' list. "I don't think we want to start an America First movement. Let's not bring back Wendell Willkie," the director quipped, referring to the GOP's 1940 pro-business presidential candidate.

Others in Hollywood argued that the absence of U.S. directors simply showed that European producers and financiers often back more imaginative movie projects than those produced wholly under the aegis of the big studios.

"It reflects the fact that foreign financing is the more intelligent and courageous way to get great movies made," said Bill Block, an agent who recently left ICM to form the InterTalent agency. "Most of those films (on which foreign directors have worked) were co-productions, or relied on" some non-studio money.

When the academy bypassed Spielberg for directing "The Color Purple" in 1985, Warner Bros. responded with a statement expressing "shock and dismay" at the action. This time around, a spokesman for Warners, which released "Empire of the Sun," kept mum. "I think the better part of valor is to say, 'No,' " he remarked when asked for a comment.

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