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OSCARS 2000

Who's in the Driver's Seat?

'American Beauty' appears to have a firm grasp on best picture. After that, most predictions get tougher.

March 26, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

The envelope . . . please?

Oscar Sunday is finally here, and thank heaven for small favors. Is there anyone who doesn't feel inundated by the flood of Academy Award predictions appearing in every publication except the Journal of the American Medical Assn. If Pope John Paul II hasn't come out with his picks, it's probably because he's been busy with his current trip to the Holy Land.

Still, to borrow an image from papal elections, where there's smoke there's fire, and this year the interest has been particularly intense around the best picture battle between the two front-runners, "American Beauty" and "The Cider House Rules," and the understandable curiosity about whether history will repeat itself or not.

It was a year ago that a Miramax film, "Shakespeare in Love," put on a terrific stretch run and beat the presumptive favorite, DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan," at the wire. Would "Cider House," another Miramax extravaganza, be able to pull the same stunt against another DreamWorks picture?

For a while, it looked promising for the adaptation of the John Irving novel, which surprised many people with its seven nominations. But though "Cider House" has closed the gap considerably and turned a rout into a horse race, it's not as universally admired a film as "Shakespeare" was, and DreamWorks has fought back effectively for its candidate. And while last year's winner built momentum right through the final day, "Cider House" feels like it's already peaked.

The pick: "American Beauty."

As for the other races, the prognosis is mixed. Some look exactly as they did the morning the nominations were announced, others have changed considerably in the interim, and a few are too close to call with confidence (though that's never stopped anybody).

BEST DIRECTOR

This category doesn't inevitably follow best picture, but this year that is the likeliest scenario. Sam Mendes, "American Beauty's" first-time director, won the Directors Guild award and is probably the surest of the major category winners. In addition to his obvious abilities, he is British and has a strong background in theater, two things academy voters respect. Even if "Cider House" should pull an upset in the best picture category, Mendes looks secure.

The pick: Sam Mendes, "American Beauty."

BEST ACTOR

What a difference a few weeks make. The night before nominations were announced, Denzel Washington's performance in "The Hurricane" seemed a sure thing not only for a nomination but for the actual award as well. Washington got his nod; but surprisingly it was the only one his unlucky film, trapped in a tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over its accuracy, received. Without broad-based support in several branches, it's difficult to win a major award. While Washington was losing momentum, "American Beauty's" impressive Kevin Spacey was gaining support. Spacey won the Screen Actors Guild award, and while Washington could still take the Oscar, that is looking less and less likely.

The pick: Kevin Spacey, "American Beauty."

BEST ACTRESS

This looks to be the tightest, toughest-to-call major race of the night, a contest so archetypal it sounds like a movie in itself. In one corner is "American Beauty's" Annette Bening, the Screen Actors Guild winner and one of Hollywood's most respected actresses, in a film the academy is clearly fond of. In the other is "Boys Don't Cry's" Hilary Swank, a.k.a. the Kid, winner of just about every critical award, but a newcomer to the Big Show and in a film so on the edge it probably wouldn't have been even nominated five years ago. Will the academy go for the fresh face or the accomplished veteran? You're on your own for this one.

The pick: Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Basically a three-person race, with neither Michael Clarke Duncan for "The Green Mile" nor Jude Law for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" being serious contenders. Haley Joel Osment made "The Sixth Sense" the success it was, and he can't be completely discounted. More likely is Tom Cruise, a Hollywood insider who gave a splendid performance against type in "Magnolia." But Michael Caine, who tried out an American accent in "The Cider House Rules," is at least as well-liked as Cruise, and his performance came in a film that is a lot more to the academy's taste. He won the SAG award and should repeat here as well.

The pick: Michael Caine, "The Cider House Rules."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Samantha Morton in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" is the likeliest dark-horse challenger, but the favorite remains who it's always been, "Girl, Interrupted's" gifted Angelina Jolie. Though she's young, she's had several previous credits; her "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"-type role is the kind that classically pleases the academy; and as Jon Voight's daughter she's second-generation Hollywood. A tough combination to beat.

The pick: Angelina Jolie, "Girl, Interrupted."

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