World War III for Oscar

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RICHARD CORLISSWorld War II--the movie--was tough enough, what with the guns and the tanks and all that heavy emoting by actors in khaki. Now comes the real war. Last week's announcement of the Academy Award nominations spread the largesse among dozens of films and filmmakers. This time the normally insular Hollywood establishment invited a few folks from Europe and the Pacific. Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, about an Italian Jew and his son in a Nazi camp, cadged seven nods, a record for a foreign-language film. Seven of the 10 nominees in the Actress and Supporting Actress categories hail from outside the U.S., including Brazil's Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station), Australia's Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) and Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie), as well as a quartet of Englishwomen--not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), who has made so many films abroad that she's an honorary Brit. Australia's Peter Weir, director of The Truman Show, and New Zealand's Andrew Niccol, its writer, were both cited, squeezing out Shekar Kapur, the Indian director of Best Picture nominee Elizabeth.

But when the incense cleared after all these benedictions, two men were left standing. One was Steven Spielberg, whose Saving Private Ryan is the most laureled film of 1998 and will be (after its current re-release) the top-grosser. The other man was ... you're guessing Terrence Malick. Yes, the reclusive genius returned from 20 years of hermiting to direct The Thin Red Line, a gorgeously opaque study of men and other living things in the battle of Guadalcanal. And no. Malick's nomination was more in the nature of a welcome-home present; neither he nor his film will be a serious contender for Hollywood's top honor.

Spielberg's chief competitor is burly Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, whose sumptuously romantic Shakespeare in Love earned a regal 13 nominations to Private Ryan's 11. Prepare, then, for the final battle: of making war vs. making love, of 1944 vs. 1593, of Spielberg's Hollywood vs. Weinstein's Manhattan, of the most successful director in history vs. the round mound of the movie underground. In one word, from another 1998 blockbuster: Armageddon!

For months the received wisdom was that Spielberg would sweep on Oscar night, March 21--that the five nominees for Best Picture would be Private Ryan and four movies named Occupant. The fact that movie people even think there's a horse race is mostly a tribute to Weinstein's entrepreneurial savvy. For a decade, from Daniel Day-Lewis' surprise win as Best Actor in My Left Foot (1990) through the Best Picture nomination for The Crying Game (1993) to Miramax's triumph with The English Patient (nine Oscars in 1997), Weinstein has made the kind of movies the Academy loves. Harvey plays the membership like a player piano --he turns the key, they make his music. This year Miramax corraled 23 nominations, by far the most for any studio.

The irresistible rise of Shakespeare in Love can also be attributed to the quirk of an earlier award ceremony, the Golden Globes. The Globes' sponsor, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, is the source of much derisive merriment among the locals. (Sample joke: I got a tip on the winners from a Foreign Press member. Really, when did he tell you? When he was doing my hair.). But the town shows up for the Globes, partly because it's a fun evening, compared with the starchy Oscar event, and partly because the Foreign Press gives out twice as many awards in big categories: Best Drama and Best Comedy, Best Actor in a Drama and Best Actor in a Comedy; Best Actress, the same. This year, Private Ryan won as drama, Shakespeare as comedy. The combatants were now officially equal. Weinstein could declare war.

The Globes can also trip up a star hopeful of bigger prizes. Jim Carrey, Canada's latest gift to the American sense of humor, earned praise for his more serious turn in The Truman Show. Carrey was widely expected to be an Oscar finalist, especially after he won the Golden Globe for dramatic acting. Accepting, he said, banteringly, I'd like to thank the Academy... He won't be, not this year--he was shut out. So were Globe-grabber Lisa Kudrow, who deserved a Supporting Actress nod for her role as a shrill spinster in The Opposite of Sex, and Bill Murray, touchingly funny as the love-lorn zillionaire in Rushmore. And so was the superb cast of Todd Solondz' Happiness, the year's finest, hands-down weirdest comedy-drama. The moral: comedy is hard; getting the Academy to recognize how hard it is is even harder.

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In the foreign-language category, anomalies always abound. The films are proposed by industry groups in 30 or so countries, which means that a worthy film may lose out for political reasons--and, of course, that only one picture per country is eligible. Then the moles on the Academy's foreign film committee see all the entries and pick five as nominees. It often makes for a stodgy list, one that ignores films acclaimed at festivals and by critics and local audiences. No Hong Kong actioner or wild Indian musical drama has ever been nominated, though they boast artistry aplenty. Instead, slots have gone to Russia (a has-been cinema) and to Spain (except for Luis Bunuel, a never-was).

This year Denmark did select a worthy picture: Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration. This fascinating study of a wealthy family ready to explode was made under the rigorous precepts of a document called Dogma 95, which declares that the film be shot in natural light and with simple props. It may sound nuts, but no less a mainstream director than Spielberg is so entranced with it that he says he may do a film under Dogma 95 rules. Spielberg voted for The Celebration, but not enough other Academy members did. It lost not just to Life Is Beautiful, Central Station, the sweet Iranian fable Children of Heaven and Tango, Carlos Saura's umpteenth musical drama, but to a U.S. film: the Spanish-language El Abuelo. Could it be that The Celebration was rejected because it was--the phrase the Academy hates!--a comedy-drama?

Okay, enough complaining. It's egotistical to say that because you liked something, the Academy membership is dumb for liking something else. But to get steamed over the members' preferences gives too much credit to those voters, many of them elderly ladies and gents who, by almost anyone's standards, often get it wrong. (How Green Was My Valley better than Citizen Kane? Ordinary People over Raging Bull? Best Picture of 1995: Braveheart???) The sanest way to look at the Oscars is as a huge, overstuffed TV show with pretty people in silly dresses giving endless speeches in front of a billion televiewers. It's like assembly back in grammar school, except that you get to make your jokes out loud.

Oscar does mean a lot to the little people. To the makers of animated shorts and documentaries, it can mean a career. To some, it may mean more. Wang Shui-bo, a Chinese dissident living in Canada, made (with Donald McWilliams) Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, one of the documentary short subject nominees. The film is not just a declaration of Wang's art but a memoir of his heroic life. Should he win, the Oscar will be a badge to be worn forever, a Nobel Prize with better perks--and a chance to say hello, on TV, to his old friends and adversaries back home.

Wang now has five weeks to hope and worry. So does the U.S. movie industry; the period between the nominations and Oscar night is crucial. For one thing, there's money to be made. A big load of citations, like Shakespeare in Love's, means endless free publicity, which could double the film's box office take (as with The English Patient after it was nominated).

For another, there are egos to be massaged, inflated, patched up. Spielberg always thinks he's going to lose, never gets enough respect. His pal and Private Ryan star, Tom Hanks, needs another Oscar to make the trifecta. Meryl Streep got her 11th nomination for One True Thing--can she get her third win? Weinstein virtually revels in his rep as the Ogre of the Indies, but he is needy too: for attention, grosses, gold-plated statuettes. In the biz, an Oscar is better than sex.

The big question: Is love (Shakespeare) better than war (Private Ryan)? We'll all find out on March 21.

By BRUCE HANDYIn the coming weeks, everyone will be offering predictions about the Academy Awards. Many, as Time does on the previous page, will even have opinions about which pictures should win, as if good taste and critical justice had anything to do with it. I, for one, refuse to be upset that a cabal of Academy members voted for Titanic last year over Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which, come to think of it, wasn't even nominated. See what I'm saying?

I prefer to make Oscar-night predictions based on which acceptance speeches I do and do not want to hear. For instance, I wouldn't bet on whether Tom Hanks will receive a third Best Actor statuette for Saving Private Ryan, but I do know that if he wins, he will offer a halting, heartfelt tribute to the veterans of World War II. Hanks can be eloquent, and veterans obviously deserve the recognition, but we have congressional resolutions and postage stamps for that sort of thing. What we have awards shows for is displays of sheer, naked narcissism. I'm king of the world! James Cameron bellowed last year; his belated tribute to the 1,500 or so people who died on the Titanic put the victims in their proper place as a historical footnote. It was the greatest Oscar moment since Sally Field's You love me speech back in 1985. That said, I'd rather listen to Hanks than to fellow nominee Nick Nolte--you heard it here first!--ramble on gruffly if ethereally, like some scary uncle, about the primacy of the work.

Steven Spielberg has been nominated as both director and producer of Saving Private Ryan. Critics have been promulgating the notion, which Spielberg in interviews appears to encourage, that the film has redeemed selfish American baby boomers by forcing them to acknowledge their parents' sacrifices--as if these baby boomers hadn't grown up reading Sgt. Rock and listening to the fakey tromp-tromp sound effect of marching Nazi soldiers on all those episodes of The World at War. But people these days seem to think of Spielberg less as a filmmaker than as a healer of deep historical wounds (don't forget that he has already helped us come to terms with the Holocaust, slavery and the extinction of the dinosaurs). Expect him, if he wins, to offer some kind of generational benediction in a manner both elfin and rabbinical.

I am most concerned about the possibility of three speeches from Roberto Benigni, nominated as writer, director and star of Life Is Beautiful. As he told the New York Times last week, his movie is about three little clowns--myself, my wife and the boy--in the most terrifying place in the world. It's a movie about how to protect your innocence, your purity, in the face of evil. What else can one say but: Yikes! The only thing worse than listening to mawkish European comics lecture about innocence is listening to mawkish $20 million-a-picture American movie stars do the same. I don't look forward to Oscar night 2002, when Robin Williams will surely be honored for the American remake of Life Is Beautiful--unless, that is, Billy Crystal beats him to the role.