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COMMENTARY : And the Winner for Best Actor Is . . . Barbra Streisand?

April 04, 1993|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

During the lead-up to last week's Academy Awards show, there were four suggestions, spawned by controversy and fueled with the fresh-squeezed juice of sour grapes, for basic changes in the way certain Oscar categories are handled.

Each of those suggestions has validity, and each would markedly improve the overall integrity of the awards. But only one, a call for an overhaul of the rules governing the selection of documentary features, is likely to be given serious consideration. The academy won't give the others a moment's thought, because to make those changes would cause itself problems far more irritating than the annual whine of critics.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the issues and why the suggested changes will or won't fly:

The category: Best picture.

The problem: Nearly every year, a movie receives multiple nominations, including one for best picture, without its director being nominated. It happened this year with Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men," last year with Barbra Streisand's "The Prince of Tides," and most absurdly with Bruce Beresford's "Driving Miss Daisy," the 1990 Academy Award winner that, as Billy Crystal quipped, "apparently directed itself."

How it happens: The best picture nominees are voted by the academy membership at large, while the directing, acting, screenwriting and other categories are determined by the individual branches.

The suggested change: Make it automatic that the movies of the five nominated directors become the nominees for best picture.

Why it won't happen: The academy leadership is part of the film industry leadership, and isn't about to acknowledge that directors have more to do with the quality of films than their producers.

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The category: Acting.

The problem: As Barbra Streisand remarked during the awards show, men and women will be equal in the eyes of Oscar only when gender is irrelevant to achievements. Which is to say, why have separate categories for the lead and supporting performances of men and women?

How it happens: From the beginning, in 1928, there have been best actor and best actress categories. In 1936, the academy added best supporting actor and best supporting actress.

The suggested change: Merge the four categories into two, one for best actor (the word "actress" is gradually falling out of use among actors themselves) and one for best supporting actor.

Why it won't happen: Eliminate two of the most publicizable and dramatic elements from the Oscar show? Are you nuts?

Why it shouldn't happen: Given the patriarchal nature of the American film industry, women might never win. (Emma Thompson over Al Pacino? Marisa Tomei over Gene Hackman?)

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The category: Best foreign-language film.

The problem: The nominees are often unworthy, and sometimes of suspect origin. This year's Uruguayan nominee, "A Place in the World," was disqualified when the academy learned it was actually an Argentine film in disguise.

How it happens: The academy has no control over the films submitted for consideration. Only one non-English-language film can be entered by foreign countries, and its artistic merits are graded in the often-corrupt political environment surrounding government and arts agencies.

The suggestion: Change the eligibility rule to include only foreign-language films that have opened in this country during the previous calendar year. In other words, make them subject to the same rules governing English-language features.

Why it won't happen: In this case, the carriage comes before the horse. Academy Awards recognition has a major impact on the economic fortunes of foreign-language films and often gets them released in the lucrative U.S. market. Hollywood is also very cozy with foreign governments because nearly half of the theatrical income from American movies comes from abroad.

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The category: Documentary features.

The problem: Critically praised and commercially viable documentaries are rarely nominated. In the last few years, the category has overlooked Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," Jenny Livingston's "Paris Is Burning," Michael Apted's "35-Up" and Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's "Hearts of Darkness."

How it happens: While every other nominating group is made up of the filmmakers' peers, the documentary committee consists of academy volunteers from any branch. The rules of eligibility are so easily met that nearly any film can qualify, resulting in an unmanageable glut of entries.

The suggested change: In an essay that appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times, "Brother's Keeper" co-producer Joe Berlinger proposed that the academy limit the nominating committee to documentary filmmakers, tighten up the eligibility requirements, and redefine the documentary feature as a nonfiction film more than 60 minutes in length. (Currently, 30 minutes is considered feature-length.)

Why it might happen: The academy is embarrassed by the documentary committee's nominations every year, and while it has nothing financial to gain from helping shoestring documentary filmmakers, it also has nothing to lose from making the nominating process more equitable.

An academy spokesman said last week that the rules committee has already decided to tighten the eligibility requirements for the documentary feature, and will consider the other suggestions during the off-season. As for the other controversies, what other controversies?

"The Academy Awards wouldn't be the Academy Awards if people weren't complaining about them," the spokesman said. "It's all part of the show."

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