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Critic's Notes : Kudos, Outrage for This Year's Oscar Nominations

February 21, 1988|SHEILA BENSON

For this 60th milestone year of the Academy Awards, the voters seem to have composed a fairly respectable slate of nominations. There's only one major outrage among its co mmissions: The six nominations for the mainstream tawdriness of "Fatal Attraction." Omissions were another matter, one we'll get to shortly.

If independently produced pictures dominated the field last year, this was the year of major nominations for films--and directors--with non-American roots, for stories that unfolded in China's Forbidden City, in a pastoral Swedish town or in bombed-out, wartime Britain. Chauvinism is the last thing these voters can be accused of: The 60th will be a generously international year.

However, independents might be a little wary of their place in this year's proceedings, as compared to 1987's. To be sure, films from non-major distributors were recognized; such movies as "The Dead," "The Whales of August," "Anna," "Street Smart," "Dark Eyes," "My Life As a Dog," "Gaby--A True Story" and "Dirty Dancing."

(There were times when it felt as though Columbia had tried to make "Hope and Glory" a little film as well, but it got big in spite of them.) But there were fewer independents among the Big Eight--the combined acting categories, and the direction, screenplay or best picture slots. And the nominations were spotty, not across-the-board recommendations for a single film.

"The Dead," which might conceivably have harbored an nominee in Anjelica or John Huston, for Marie Kean or for the film's music or editing, had simply adapted screenplay and costumes. Some might feel that way about "Whales of August's" two leading actresses, the Misses Davis and Gish.

And if Norma Aleandro's nomination for "Gaby" in the supporting actress category meant that enough of the membership had seen that relatively obscure film to put her in contention; in heaven's name, what about Rachel Levin, whose selfless creation of Gaby Brimmer was the center of the picture? Or did too many people not realize that this was a creation of acting, not the skillful use of a handicapped actress ?

If you searched for one thread that ran through the acting lists, it might be that the academy, supposedly fusty and staid, doesn't seem averse to a fresh wind blowing through these categories. Reportedly, the actors' branch has been actively seeking new members, and its influence already seems to be felt. There are a refreshing number of first-time nominees, a healthy percentage of whom weren't born yesterday: Olympia Dukakis ("Moonstruck"), Morgan Freeman ("Street Smart"), Sally Kirkland ("Anna"), Anne Ramsey ("Throw Momma From the Train"), in addition to Robin Williams ("Good Morning, Vietnam"), Albert Brooks ("Broadcast News"), Denzel Washington ("Cry Freedom"), Anne Archer ("Fatal Attraction"), Holly Hunter ("Broadcast News")--and a pair whose "first-time" listing seems to be some outrageous misprint, although it isn't: Sean Connery ("The Untouchables") and Ann Sothern ("Whales of August.")

At the same time, there are omissions among the other branches that cut close to the heart, and absolutely defy logic. You will not read it here first, I know, but it's still worth wondering how it is possible that two films, "The Last Emperor" and "Hope and Glory," can be cited for best picture, and their directors, Bernardo Bertolucci and John Boorman, as best directors, and not have a nominated performance among them. Not for John Lone ? For Ian Bannen? For Sarah Miles? Very peculiar.

Conversely, if three of the "Broadcast News" cast (William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter) were worthy of nomination, how was it that their director, James Brooks, wasn't? (In this respect, this snub seems slightly different from this year's Steven Spielberg Situation, in which "Empire of the Sun" received six important nominations and its director none. Unlike "The Color Purple" contretemps of two years ago, none of "Empire's" nominations were for its actors.) You could question "Ironweed's" two major acting performance nominations and no mention of its director, Hector Babenco, except that "Ironweed" is far less universally admired than "Broadcast News."

Personally, I find a special delight among the lists, the best actress showing of Sally Kirkland for "Anna" and Morgan Freeman's supporting actor nod for "Street Smart." Their nominations might suggest that critics' groups really do have some function in this world, apart from the periodic gathering of truculent bands of basically unsociable writers. (And perhaps, as voters watch "Street Smart," they'll find Kathy Baker's funny, resilient, exquisitely detailed performance as Punchy in there too. It's never too late to discover great work.)

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