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Independents Day for Oscars

Academy Awards: 'English Patient,' 'Fargo' lead the pack in nominations for Academy Awards. Big-name stars and blockbusters are scarce.

February 12, 1997|JAMES BATES and CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Independents Day reigned Tuesday in Hollywood as films nurtured outside the studio system dominated the Oscar nominations, led by 12 for the World War II romantic drama "The English Patient."

Nominations for the 69th Academy Awards, announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, closely tracked the favorites of film critics this year, featured only a handful of Hollywood's bankable stars and stressed quality acting over the big-budget, computer-generated special effects that are a staple of studio films.

The exception to the scarcity of top names was a best actor nomination for the industry's biggest box-office draw, Tom Cruise, for his performance as a sports agent in "Jerry Maguire."

In addition to the Miramax film "The English Patient," the other best picture nominees are the dark comedy "Fargo" from Gramercy Pictures; TriStar Pictures' "Jerry Maguire;" director Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies" from independent October Films about a woman reuniting with her birth mother; and "Shine," from Fine Line Features, about emotionally troubled Australian pianist David Helfgott.

Hollywood saw the nominations as a potentially watershed event for independent filmmakers, who often toil for years to raise money and find distributors in an industry that usually shuns small films for costly, star-driven projects. Indeed, "The English Patient" once was halted less than a week before shooting was to start because studio executives wanted Demi Moore instead of Kristin Scott Thomas, nominated for best actress.

"Traditionally the movies that get a lot of notice have a lot of extras in them," said Billy Bob Thornton, a nominee for best actor and best adapted screenplay for "Sling Blade," which he also directed on a paltry $1-million budget. "I didn't. We usually had just one or two people walking by here and there."

Added Bingham Ray, co-managing executive of independent October Films: "The academy has to be really commended for acknowledging the output and importance of the independent filmmaker and sending a signal to the studios."

Familiar names who were nominated included best actor candidate Woody Harrelson for his portrayal of pornographer Larry Flynt in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and previous Oscar winner Diane Keaton, who received a best actress nomination for playing a cancer-stricken daughter devoted to a dying father in "Marvin's Room."

Nominated for best supporting actress was Lauren Bacall as the beauty-obsessed mother of Barbra Streisand's character in "The Mirror Has Two Faces," making her the instant sentimental favorite. It is the first nomination in Bacall's career, which dates back 53 years. Another sentimental favorite is playwright Arthur Miller, who received a screenwriting nomination for adapting his classic play "The Crucible."

A high-powered campaign by Walt Disney Co. failed to land a best acting nomination for Madonna as Eva Peron in the musical "Evita." Also shunned was singer Courtney Love, despite a much-praised performance in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and Debbie Reynolds, whom some had expected to draw the sentimental vote for her well-received screen return in "Mother."

Instead, the nomination list was filled with the names of actors and actresses like veteran "ER" character actor William H. Macy, a best supporting actor nominee as a nervous car salesman with a bungled kidnapping scheme in "Fargo," and the Royal Shakespeare Co.'s Emily Watson, a best actress nominee for playing a young Scottish girl in "Breaking the Waves." Many of the actors and actresses are largely anonymous to filmgoers, but benefited from heaps of praise from critics for their performances.

In the best actress category, Keaton, Scott Thomas and Watson are joined by Brenda Blethyn as a mother in "Secrets & Lies" and Frances McDormand, who played a pregnant police chief in "Fargo." McDormand's husband, Joel Coen, received a directing nomination for the film, which was produced by his brother Ethan.

Reached on a movie set in Pasadena, Blethyn said she was overwhelmed by emotion upon hearing the news. "I am just so over the moon," the veteran British stage actress said. "I got off the set and I burst into tears."

Besides Cruise and Harrelson, best actor nominations went to Australian Geoffrey Rush for playing the adult Helfgott in "Shine," Ralph Fiennes as the downed pilot in "The English Patient" and Thornton, who in "Sling Blade" played a slow-witted man released after serving time in a mental hospital for murder.

In addition to Bacall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste was nominated for best supporting actress for playing a black British woman who tracks down her white birth mother in "Secrets & Lies"; Joan Allen, nominated last year for "Nixon," for her role in "The Crucible"; Juliette Binoche for playing the French-Canadian nurse who cares for Fiennes in "The English Patient"; and Barbara Hershey for her portrait of "The Portrait of A Lady's" anguished, manipulative Madame Merle.

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