Why Not the Best?

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Who Should Win and Who Will Win

The weirdest movie on Oscar's radar this year was the post-mod comedy Being John Malkovich. It's the one about a secret passageway in a Manhattan office building that magically sucks people inside the head of actor John Malkovich. The film's grand joke was that the real Malkovich played himself, sort of, with an agreeably preening befuddlement that won him a Best Supporting Actor nod from the New York Film Critics Circle. And for the last few months, cinephiles have prayed that he might be nominated for an Academy Award--not to reward a fine performance, but so that on March 26, before a billion or so TV viewers around the world, someone in a tuxedo or a goofy evening gown would open the envelope, gaze down and read: "And the Oscar goes to ... John Malkovich ... for Being John Malkovich!"

In the Oscar nominations announced last week, BJM did earn nods for screenplay, direction and supporting actress (Catherine Keener). Malkovich, alas, was not named, so he will take home no statuette for simply being himself. And Jim Carrey will not get one for being Andy Kaufman. The world's top comedy star was again ignored for a bold dramatic turn, this time in Man on the Moon. To some of the stuffier members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Carrey seems to be what Steven Spielberg was before Schindler's List: a talented kid who makes wildly popular films but, entre nous, isn't really "one of us." Like Spielberg, Carrey may have to make a Holocaust film to gain entry into the Club. Perhaps a tearful comedy-drama about a clown in a concentration camp? Oh, sorry: Roberto Benigni beat Carrey to it.

The absence of Malkovich and Carrey were only the mildest disappointments in a list that--especially in the view of many intelligent moviegoers outside the U.S.--omits more meritorious films than it includes. This year's selections are a pretty stodgy bunch, chosen by folks who can't be troubled to look beyond narrow confines of genre and geography. It wouldn't be the worst thing if, at the end of the broadcast when the prize for best film is revealed, we heard the words: "And the Oscar goes to ... none of the above."

Of course, there will be a Best Picture prize; most likely, it will go to American Beauty, a smallish drama with no stars. This is just the sort of film that, in other years, would lose to some lavish costume epic like Braveheart or The English Patient. To see why this year is different, you need only look at the competing films. Start with The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan's moist thriller parlayed a Twilight Zone plot and a spookily aggrieved performance by 10-year-old Haley Joel Osment into the second highest grossing film of 1999 (after George Lucas' inevitable Phantom Menace). But it's still just a ghost story, and it has been a while since one of those won the top Oscar. The year was 1949, and the ghost story was Hamlet.

The Cider House Rules, John Irving's adaptation of his 1985 novel, is a solid, thoughtful work that engrosses but doesn't enthrall. The film has been neither a critical nor a popular hit. Indeed, it's thought to have received as many nominations as it did largely due to the muscle of Miramax Films, which is renowned for its courtship technique on Academy members. Harvey Weinstein's small "independent" company (it is owned by Disney) has two of the last three top Oscar winners, so when Weinstein talks, people listen.

The other two nominees play like wan sequels to hit films. Michael Mann's The Insider, an overlong expose about Big Tobacco and Big Media, is no All the President's Men; it lacks the heft, the notoriety and, for Pete's sake, the bustling tempo. The Green Mile is Frank Darabont's second film based on a Stephen King prison novel, but hardly anyone likes it as much as the first one, The Shawshank Redemption.

Indeed, the whole Oscar race is a lame followup to last year's. Two films of distinction, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and the Miramax comedy Shakespeare in Love, gave audiences something to root for. There was genuine suspense--and a surprise ending, when Shakespeare won the Best Picture prize. It was also a truly international year. All five of the top nominees were set outside the U.S.; one, Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, was actually in a language other than English. Brazil's Fernanda Montenegro received a Best Actress nomination for Central Station, and guess what? In that movie, she got to speak Portuguese.

This time the locale for each of the Best Picture hopefuls is back in the U.S. of A. And the actor nominees, led by Richard Farnsworth's cowboy crustiness in The Straight Story, are an all-American bunch, even though some of them are foreigners. No, Oscar hasn't renounced his age-old crush on actors from the British Empire. But this year, he insisted for once that they all speak convincing American--except for England's Samantha Morton, in the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown; her character is mute.

Can you detect the actors who learned to talk American by watching old movies? Australian Toni Collette played a Philadelphia mom in The Sixth Sense. Russell Crowe (born in New Zealand, raised in Australia) sported jittery, muttery urban cadences as tobacco turncoat Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider. Janet McTeer (York, England) sounded persuasively Southwestern as the blowsy mom in Tumbleweeds. Jude Law, from London, was the perfect Manhattan rich kid abroad in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Even Michael Caine, who has never hidden his Cockney roots, produced a passable Maine accent for The Cider House Rules. Six nominees, and not a by-your-leave or gor-blimey in the bunch.

Hollywood's message to the world's actors is clear: We'll let you in, and perhaps give you prizes, but you have to be just like us. That goes for directors as well. The two most characteristically "American" of the Best Picture nominees, American Beauty and The Cider House Rules, were helmed, respectively, by England's Sam Mendes and Sweden's Lasse Hallström. The message on the screens is just as clear to audiences in every foreign country. See American; be American. Because our movies, our stories, our people matter. And yours don't.

On March 26 you'll hear the folks who run Hollywood say that film is an international art. What they really mean is that their product dominates the world and provides them with the bulk of their theatrical revenue. Audiences in virtually every country choose American films over their own. Even Hong Kong, the last venue to prefer its own movies, has surrendered. U.S. studio films now account for more than half of the theatrical take in the territory, and the top-grossing picture this Chinese New Year's season is the Disney-Pixar computer cartoon Toy Story 2.

So Hollywood makes the world's most popular movies; fine. But what's gallingly evident on Oscar Night, with each new category of American-only films, is that its denizens also believe that they make all of the best movies. They think they own movies--just as the Academy, by registering the word Oscar, and insisting that a ® icon accompany every published mention of it, thinks it owns the name. (Messrs. de la Renta, de la Hoya, Peterson, Levant, Strauss, Hammerstein and Wilde, please report to the Academy and hand in your first name. You will be issued new ones that do not infringe on our trademark.)

Academy members dress up for their big night, but it's not the opera. It's a picnic for 5,300 employees in a big company town. They are proud of the goods that they and their fellows manufacture; they don't want to be like U.S. textile workers, losing jobs, customers and, ultimately, industry dominance to hungrier competitors in Europe and Asia. Why should they give big awards and bigger publicity to those little foreigners who won't even learn to speak American? So the Academy members practice what could be called artistic protectionism, or restraint of international excellence.

How else to explain the absence of Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother--a blithe, brilliant film with lots of heart, witty dialogue and great performances--from the picture, director, actress and screenwriting categories? Plenty of Academy members loved All About My Mother; perhaps they assumed it would be nominated in the foreign-language ghetto. For a foreign film, this year, that's enough.

All right, this is special pleading (we used to call it whining) by a lover of films from everywhere, not just Southern California. But even in the foreign-language film category--that dank, cramped cellar of the Academy mansion where the rest of the movie world must huddle like illegal immigrants--excellence is ignored. This year a record 47 countries submitted films to the nominating committee, which then scrupulously tossed out the best ones (except for Almodóvar's) before settling on five. Among the finalists were France's drab political epic East-West, from which we learn that Stalinist Russia suppressed not only dissidents and foreigners but, apparently, dramatic energy and plausibility.

The Academy panel also chose three foreign-language films that are, in some way, ringers. Under the Sun, from Sweden, was made by a Brit, Colin Nutley. Caravan, which has the exotic postmark of Nepal, was directed by the Frenchman Eric Valli. Then there's Solomon and Gaenor, from the--wait!--United Kingdom? Yep: the dialogue in this romance between a Welsh girl and a Jewish boy is in Welsh and Yiddish. It is thus guaranteed to receive the votes of both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas.

You're thinking that maybe the Academy picked the best of a bad lot. Think again. Among the rejectees were such exemplary films as Rosetta from Belgium, Iran's The Color of Paradise and the Mexican No Ones Writes to the Colonel. (If these titles sound familiar, it could be because they all appeared on Time's Ten Best Cinema list last year). Ann Hui's Ordinary Heroes, the recent Golden Horse winner as best Chinese-language film of 1999, also got a thumbs-down, as did festival favorites Earth (India), The Cup (Bhutan) and Mifune (Denmark). And what about Andrzej Wajda, who has defined the vigor and artistry of Polish film for fully 50 years? On Oscar Night he will receive an honorary award, but the foreign-language committee deemed his latest work, Pan Tadeusz, as unworthy to compete with the drudgy East-West.

To be fair to the Academy members, they are equal-opprtunity snubbers: they nixed some of the best American films too. The Matrix, an enthrallingly ambitious action movie, was predictably consigned to the technical categories. There are Oscars for sound effects editing, visual effects and makeup--and for animated short--but none for animated feature. So in a nifty year for the longform cartoon, Tarzan, Toy Story 2 and South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut had to settle for Best Original Song nominations. The Academy must think that animated features are perky tunes with crude drawings attached.

Sorry, cartoon directors. Too bad, action film auteurs. You just don't fit the Academy profile. It's not that the largely geriatric membership doesn't like your kind of movie. It's that the "Oscar movie" is its own genre--typically a drama about a family (American Beauty, The Sixth Sense) or a workplace (Cider, The Insider, The Green Mile) where troubled people learn life lessons. This narrow genre doesn't accommodate the very best films; they are too ornery, their visions too vast, to be comfortable or comforting. But if you want to be waving a stautette on March 26, these are the rules, mate.Oh, one last thing about those life lessons: Oscar says they have to be learned in America. Where else is there?Best picture: None of the above (The Matrix)
Best director: Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich
Best actor: Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
Best actress: Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Best foreign film: All About My Mother

Best picture: American Beauty
Best director: Sam Mendes, American Beauty
Best actor: Russell Crowe, The Insider
Best actress: Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry
Best foreign film: All About My Mother