Never mind that no studio was willing to finance it. Never mind that its stars were said to be not big enough to warrant its $20-something-million budget. In the latest indication of Hollywood's perennial schizophrenia, Oscar prognosticators are saying that "The English Patient" is the surest best picture nominee and one of the most likely contenders for the final prize in the 69th Academy Awards competition.
With ballots going into the mail Wednesday, this Miramax release has parlayed the votes of traditional voters who like its epic qualities with the hip crowd who knew how to pronounce novelist Michael Ondaatje's name before it appeared on a movie tie-in edition to become one of three unsinkable best picture candidates.
Strong competition should come from a film that Miramax Co-chairman Harvey Weinstein is probably still kicking himself for letting get away, the Fine Line-distributed "Shine" from Australia. It caused a ruckus at Sundance last year precisely because the appeal to academy members of its expertly done old-fashioned filmmaking was unmistakable even then.
The third top contender is a studio film, but an unconventional one, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" from the Sony organization. Edgy and provocative, already stirring up a fuss among essayists and editorial writers, it is too out-and-out watchable to leave off the list.
And for once there is no lack of likely names for the final two best picture slots. Getting excellent word of mouth around town are both "Jerry Maguire," a smart and character-driven star vehicle, and Woody Allen's musical manque, "Everyone Says I Love You"; either could get a slot. Also in the running is the feisty underdog "Fargo," which could be this year's "Babe," and, given a boost by its triple-win with the Los Angeles Film Critics, Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies."
The biggest question marks are two films that looked to be can't-misses before they were screened, "The Crucible" and "Ghosts of Mississippi." Both were studiously ignored by critics groups and the erratic Golden Globe voters, but, especially in the case of the Arthur Miller work, the academy may yet mount a search and rescue mission.
The small and elitist directors branch is always one of the toughest to predict, though it usually has points in common with the best picture voting. "Larry Flynt's" Milos Forman, a two-time winner (for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus") is respected by the academy and the surest nominee. And though they don't have the same kind of resume, "Shine's" Scott Hicks and "English Patient's" Anthony Minghella should get nods as well.
The competition for the other two slots is strong. If the academy decides it likes "The Crucible," director Nicholas Hytner will be a beneficiary. Also in contention are a handful of directors with strong personal styles: Mike Leigh, Woody Allen, John Sayles ("Lone Star") and "Fargo's" Joel Coen. Possible for the logistics of their films are Kenneth Branagh and "Hamlet" and Alan Parker and "Evita." Highly deserving but a question mark is "Jerry Maguire" director Cameron Crowe, who the branch may feel is too youthful for its taste.
In the best actor corner, Geoffrey Rush's work as the pianist with problems in "Shine" is considered a certainty. A trio of other actors come next in likelihood: Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," Ralph Fiennes in "English Patient" and Woody Harrelson in "Larry Flynt."
Also contenders but without as much heat are Liam Neeson ("Michael Collins") and Denzel Washington, whose work in "Courage Under Fire" will be helped by his current exposure in "The Preacher's Wife." Daniel Day-Lewis is this category's "Crucible" question mark, as are Walter Matthau in "I'm Not Rappaport" and Billy Bob Thornton in the worthy but perhaps little-seen "Sling Blade."
If that category seems crowded, it's nothing compared to best actress. On everyone's list is Frances McDormand, a can't-miss nominee for "Fargo." Up there with her is Kristin Scott Thomas for her breakthrough role in "The English Patient." And should voters decide to place her in this category (as opposed to supporting), Courtney Love will undoubtedly get recognition for her work in "Larry Flynt."
After that there are more choices than slots. Brenda Blethyn is a strong contender for her indelible work in "Secrets & Lies," and Diane Keaton has the advantage over Meryl Streep for "Marvin's Room" because she's the one who gets the fatal illness.
Several veteran actresses, including Shirley MacLaine and Gena Rowlands, had showy roles this year, but the most likely nominee may be everyone's favorite trouper, Debbie Reynolds for "Mother." Also possible is another generation's star, Gwyneth Paltrow for "Emma." And critical favorite Emily Watson might squeeze in if voters can last through "Breaking the Waves."