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THE 68TH ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATIONS: From Brave to Bacon
| THE SURPRISES

Among MIAs: 2 Best Picture Directors

Nominations Split at Some Unexpected Seams Among 1995's Seven Strong Contenders

February 14, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't unprecedented, by any means. In 1985, Steven Spieberg was omitted from the list of best director nominees when "The Color Purple" received 11 Oscar nominations. And four years later, Bruce Beresford was overlooked when "Driving Miss Daisy" took the top prize.

Still, the fact that Ang Lee and Ron Howard--directors of two of the best picture candidates--"Sense and Sensibility" and "Apollo 13"--will not be contenders in this year's best director race was the subject of considerable speculation Tuesday. That both had been nominated for a Golden Globe and Directors Guild of America awards made their absence more startling.

"It's odd to nominate a film and exclude the director," said Mitch Goldman, head of marketing and distribution for New Line Cinema. "But there were seven strong contenders this year and, in nominating Mike Figgis for 'Leaving Las Vegas' and Tim Robbins for 'Dead Man Walking,' the academy was trying to spread the wealth."

Not to sound like a "dog in a manger"--an English phrase for "seeming ungrateful"--cautions "Sense and Sensibility's" Emma Thompson, but the omission of Lee was a "grave disappointment."

"Ang was a strange but remarkable choice to direct this film," said Thompson, who became the first actress to receive nominations for best actress and best screenplay in the same year. "Because he didn't have any of the baggage about [Jane] Austen or 'English literature,' he stopped us all from doing the obvious. I'm sure he's OK about it, though, since Ang is one of the most philosophical people I know. With him, it's 'Zen and the Art of Motion Picture Making.' "

Instead of Lee and Howard, the academy nominated Robbins for his death row drama "Dead Man Walking" and Figgis, whose "Leaving Las Vegas" made the cut for best screenplay, best actor and best actress--but not for best film. Earlier, he felt he had a good shot, Figgis acknowledged. But 48 hours before the nominations, he didn't think he had a "hope in hell."

"It's a strong field with a lot of wild cards," Figgis said. "And in the best picture category, there's a slightly conservative, mainstream bias. 'Apollo' and 'Sense and Sensibility' are more middle-of-the-road and family-oriented, so they had the edge. Still, I have no complaints. The movie was turned down by the Venice and Cannes film festivals because it was considered too 'American' and commercial, while in the U.S. I couldn't get a distributor. I was just aiming for a limited art-house release."

So, for that matter, was director Michael Radford, whose five nominations for the $5-million foreign language film "The Postman (Il Postino)" provided another major balloting surprise. When he and the star, the late Massimo Troisi, first discussed the project a decade ago they aimed only for a film that would break out of Italy. The movie--which Italy declined to submit for the 1994 foreign language film Oscar--has taken in about $35 million worldwide. It is now up for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best score and best actor--though Troisi died of heart disease 12 hours after the movie wrapped.

"People say that Hollywood is a hard, bitter place but, in fact, the people go with their hearts," Radford said. "I was most surprised by the nomination of Massimo. Not because of his performance but because I thought the academy would shrink at giving a nomination to a dead Italian actor. I'm almost more pleased for him than for myself. That he's not here to enjoy it casts a shadow on things."

From an academy point of view, Troisi's death was far from a deterrent, said director Taylor Hackford ("Dolores Claiborne"). " 'Postman' is a nice, sweet movie with some wonderful performances," he said. "What pushed it over, though, was the death of the star. People realized that they were watching the man's last performance, that he had literally given his life to the film. Miramax--a master of generating free publicity--understood how to sell that and embarked on a brilliant marketing campaign."

In the acting categories, industry observers remarked on the omission of "Get Shorty's" John Travolta, and Nicole Kidman, winner of a Golden Globe for her performance as a Barbara Walters wannabe in "To Die For."

"Like 'Leaving Las Vegas' and 'Dead Man Walking,' Kidman's movie was quirky--aimed at a small audience," said Sarah Pillsbury, producer of "How to Make an American Quilt" with her partner Midge Sanford. "But the first two had a kind of power and bravura--a male orientation, which goes over well with the academy."

The nomination of "Babe" farmer James Cromwell struck Pillsbury as amusing ("Putting him in that category begs the question, 'Was the star the pig?' "). Overlooking Jennifer Jason Leigh while nominating "Georgia" co-star Mare Winningham for best supporting actress, moreover, struck others as strange.

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