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Calendar's Big Oscars Issue : Robert Wise, the Jury : A filmmaker and past academy president who's really entitled to say 'It's No "Citizen Kane" ' assesses the best picture crop--plus his favorites

March 20, 1994|TERRY PRISTIN | Terry Pristin is a Times staff writer

Who could be better qualified to assess the Oscar contenders for best picture than a director and producer whose career has spanned most of the modern era of filmmaking?

Robert Wise picked up his first Oscar nomination more than a half-century ago, when his editing of the 1941 "Citizen Kane" was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Wise, who entered the movie business in 1933 as an assistant editor at RKO, directed his first film, "The Curse of the Cat People," in 1944, and his 39th, "Rooftops," in 1989. His films, including "West Side Story" (1961) and "The Sound of Music" (1965), have won a total of 19 Oscars and 67 nominations.

In an era when many directors find themselves typecast--a predicament Steven Spielberg was in until "Schindler's List"--Wise can boast a tremendous number of genres to his credit. Among his other movies are "The Set-Up" (1949), considered one of the best boxing films ever made; "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951); "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956); "I Want to Live" (1958); "The Haunting" (1963); "The Sand Pebbles" (1966) and "The Andromeda Strain" (1971).

Still active at 79, Wise hopes to make another film in Europe this summer. Pleading superstition, he declines to offer any details.

During an interview at his Beverly Hills office, Wise, who served as president of the academy from August 1985 until August 1988, said he is "generally happy" with the current state of filmmaking and cheered by the success of a number of films aimed at adult audiences. He is also gratified by the way the academy has selected its best picture nominees. "We don't vote on what's the biggest picture budgetwise, or what is the biggest grosser," he said.

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Question: Starting in alphabetical order, what was your reaction to "The Fugitive"?

Answer: I thought it was very well done, an excellent film. I was not aware of the director (Andrew Davis, who made 1992's "Under Siege"). I'm not a big action-picture guy. But that train wreck in the beginning was an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and he kept up the cinematic style and the marvelous photography and the tension and the energy in it wonderfully well.

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Q: Yet Davis was not nominated for best director. Doesn't it seem odd when the film is nominated but the director is overlooked?

A: It's very rare when that happens. I had a similar thing years ago with "The Sand Pebbles," a film I did with Steve McQueen. I was nominated as producer for best picture, but I was not nominated for director. You're dealing with two different bodies. You've got the directors' branch (which chooses the nominees for best director), and then you have the whole academy voting on best picture nominations.

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Q: Should we infer from Robert Altman's nomination for best director that if the directors had made the best picture nominations, "Short Cuts" would have been included?

A: Yes, most directors would tie them together (best picture and best director).

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Q: Does the fact that "The Fugitive" was based on a TV series diminish its value?

A: I went in expecting not to like it too much because I sort of regretted that we were at such a point where we had to go back and resurrect material from another medium in order to make our films. But I guess if it's good material and it's excellently treated then it'll stand on its own. So much to my surprise, I found myself quite caught up and carried along with the film. There's more of those being done now, aren't there (including "Maverick," which Warner Bros. plans to release May 20). I guess I'm prejudiced; we should come up with new material.

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Q: What about "In the Name of the Father," which opened in limited release late in the year and was perhaps not as well known to academy members?

A: I'm so pleased that it did take off because it came into the game very, very late. I thought it was beautifully done, beautifully acted. The shadings of it were just excellent, the ups and downs, the turns and twists. I think particularly the handling of the lead character (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, nominated as best actor). He's had such contrasts all throughout his career, from "My Beautiful Laundrette" all the way to "A Room With a View"--I think they were almost back to back (in 1985), and you couldn't recognize him from one to the other. "The Age of Innocence" couldn't be more of a contrast to what he was playing in this. That certainly shows the tremendous range of his talent.

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Q: Some people thought Day-Lewis might get nominated for "The Age of Innocence," but he didn't. Is it possible to compare the two performances?

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