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CALENDAR'S OSCAR SPECIAL

Desert Storm

If the academy's long-standing affection for big-canvas films holds up, 'The English Patient' should do well. But it's not a lock.

March 23, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

MGM no longer has "more stars than there are in the heavens." Movie celebrities no longer flock to Players or the Brown Derby. And the Academy Awards are no longer presented in a small private banquet room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Some things about the film business, however, do not change, and that's why "The English Patient" retains its position as the favorite for the best picture Oscar in Monday night's 69th annual awards ceremony.

For the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has traditionally had a preference for pictures with the smell of epic about them. Think of "Braveheart" last year, of "Gandhi," "Out of Africa" and "The Last Emperor," even of "Gone With the Wind." "The English Patient" is the only nominee that fits that particular bill this time around.

Yet despite a victory at the Directors Guild, almost always a reliable predictor of academy taste, and despite a season-high 12 nominations that show support in just about every one of the academy's branches, "The English Patient" is not considered an absolute certainty by Oscar handicappers.

One obstacle is the bloc of voters who find Anthony Minghella's adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel cold and distant. These folks have made "Shine" and its retelling of pianist David Helfgott's emotional roller-coaster career the likeliest choice to upend "The English Patient," if any upending is to be done.

And then there are the meat-and-potatoes academy voters who live and die for traditional studio-financed star vehicles, the people who gave "Braveheart" its unexpected victory last time around. With four of the five best picture nominees coming from an alien independent tradition, those voters have only one place to go this year, and believers in long shots can consider the possibility that "Jerry Maguire" will walk off with the award.

The pick: "The English Patient."

The races in the other major categories look as follows:

Best actor. It may be a coincidence that the real David Helfgott embarked on a much-publicized American tour just as academy voters were marking their ballots, but if it is an accident, it hasn't hurt the chances of "Shine's" Geoffrey Rush, who will also benefit from the academy's traditional friendliness toward roles that involve mental or physical disabilities. That sentiment will also help "Sling Blade's" Billy Bob Thornton, who has a strong dark horse vote. "Jerry Maguire's" Tom Cruise has his mainstream supporters, and Ralph Fiennes could benefit if an "English Patient" sweep materializes.

The pick: Geoffrey Rush.

Best actress. A tricky category to call. Frances McDormand was the heart of "Fargo's" success and is a highly respected member of the movie-making community, but this award does not usually go to comic performances, no matter how expert. Brenda Blethyn will benefit from the academy's traditional friendliness toward British actors and the depth of her performance, but it's not clear if "Secrets & Lies" was widely seen enough. And, once again, the mainstream vote might coalesce around Diane Keaton's terminally ill character and give her the trophy for "Marvin's Room."

The pick: Brenda Blethyn.

Best supporting actor. Those who favor "Jerry Maguire" get their best shot for an award here, with Cuba Gooding Jr. and his "show me the money" routine. But Armin Mueller-Stahl's towering work in "Shine" also has its partisans, and the academy's weakness for new faces in the supporting categories could mean a move toward Edward Norton, nominated for "Primal Fear" but a presence in three very different movies.

The pick: Cuba Gooding Jr.

Best supporting actress. Yes, the academy likes new faces, but it also likes to reward canny veterans who have lived to fight another day, which is an elaborate way of saying that Lauren Bacall, who has never taken home an Oscar, will likely get the opportunity for "The Mirror Has Two Faces." If not for her, the award would likely go to Barbara Hershey for her memorable performance in "The Portrait of a Lady." There will also be sentiment for Joan Allen, who should have won in this category last year for "Nixon" but lost to Mira Sorvino. However, "The Crucible" made so little impact on the academy she has to be listed as unlikely though possible.

The pick: Lauren Bacall.

Best director. Once again, the scope of "The English Patient" bodes extremely well for British director Anthony Minghella, and once again "Shine," in the person of Australian Scott Hicks, is a possible underdog. The brilliant results Mike Leigh gets with his remarkable method of working makes him a contender, but it's not clear how far into the academy the news has penetrated. And Milos Forman of the controversial "The People vs. Larry Flynt" could conceivably benefit from an anti-backlash backlash, but it's nothing you'd want to count on.

The pick: Anthony Minghella.

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