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69th Oscars (1997)

by Eddie Cockrell


Oscar Nominations Announced

Whether it wanted to or not, Hollywood this morning (11 February) officially acknowledged what everybody already seems to know: when it comes to the Academy Award nominations for the best films of 1996, Independent's Day has arrived. Four of the five Best Picture nominees -- The English Patient (leading the pack with 12 nominations), Fargo (seven nods), Secrets & Lies (five) and Shine (seven) -- were made well outside the remnants of the old studio system, with only Jerry Maguire (five) representing a recognizable "Hollywood" (read: big stars, huge ad budget) movie. And the Oscar field stuck close to the Golden Globe winners, which isn't so much a sign of conservative voting as it is a reaffirmation of the nominated films as being the most highly-regarded of the year.

Some prominent titles that at one time or another had been touted nominated for Best Picture but were bypassed include The People vs. Larry Flynt, Evita, The Crucible, Ghosts of Mississippi, Tin Cup and Ransom (the last two of which were iced out completely), as well as acknowledged long shots The Portrait of a Lady, Hamlet, Lone Star, Big Night, Breaking the Waves and Trainspotting. In the case of Larry Flynt, the anticipated faceoff between director Milos Forman and Patient producer Saul Zaentz (who teamed up for the Oscar-winning films One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [1975] and Amadeus [1984] has been averted. As is the tradition, the year's unchallenged blockbusters, Independence Day and Twister, were relegated to a couple of technical awards each. In fact, of the top ten moneymakers for the year, only number nine, Jerry Maguire, has any high profile Oscar presence at all, and you'll pass only Primal Fear (27) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (35) before arriving at The English Patient (38). Once again, so much for popularity equaling kudos.

Unlike 1992, which the Academy weakly declared the "Year of the Woman" -- a designation widely misinterpreted and not at all indicative of that year's distaff behind-the-camera nominees -- the field for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress represents the richest group of roles and performers in many a year.

The Best Actress nominees are Brenda Blethyn for Secrets & Lies, Diane Keaton for Marvin's Room, Frances McDormand for Fargo, Kristin Scott Thomas for The English Patient (not the provocatively creepy Angels & Insects) and Emily Watson for Breaking the Waves -- an extraordinary roster by anyone's standards. Not making the final cut but deserving of the Oscar in almost any other year were Meg Ryan (Courage Under Fire), Courtney Love (The People vs. Larry Flynt -- a leading performance regardless of reports speculating her nod would've been in support), Madonna, (Evita), Debbie Reynolds (Mother), Meryl Streep (Marvin's Room), Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma), Renee Russo (Ransom or Tin Cup -- take your pick), Gena Rowlands (Unhook the Stars and/or The Neon Bible), Laura Dern (Citizen Ruth), Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) and Winona Ryder (The Crucible). Notable here are the exclusions of Love (terrific but appearing in her first major role), Madonna (despite her assurances of a nomination at the Golden Globes, the Oscar voters didn't love her) and Streep (whose Marvin's Room co-star Keaton -- a Hollywood insider -- for once overshadows the perennial nominee). Also, Rachel Portman's lush score for Emma is a finalist in the Original Musical or Comedy Score category. On the downside, Jane Campion was passed over for a Best Director nod for her sumptuous The Portrait of a Lady.

For the second year in a row, Joan Allen is a finalist for Best Supporting Actress, following her quietly powerful turn as the First Lady in Nixon with the Golden Globe-nominated turn in The Crucible. Lauren Bacall gets her first Oscar nomination ever as Barbra Streisand's acerbic mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces, as does Barbara Hershey for the amoral Mme. Merle in The Portrait of a Lady. Juliette Binoche continues the Patient tidal wave with a nod, and, in a development applauded by critics who felt her understated and slightly mysterious lightning rod Hortense was the heart and soul of the movie, Marianne Jean-Baptiste takes the fifth slot for her magnificent screen debut in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies. Actresses missing in action through no fault of their noteworthy performances include Renee Zellweger (Jerry Maguire and/or The Whole Wide World), Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star), Marion Ross (The Evening Star), Kate Winslet (Hamlet) and Mary Tyler Moore (Flirting with Disaster).

1996 was also a fine year for the fellas, with Best Actor nods going to Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire), Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient), Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flynt -- not Kingpin), Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and, perhaps most surprisingly, Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, only now seeing a wide release). Actors deserving inclusion by not surviving the cut include Denzel Washington (Courage Under Fire), Chris Cooper (Lone Star), Kevin Costner (Tin Cup), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Crucible), Brad Pitt (Sleepers), Nicholas Cage (The Rock), Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), Mel Gibson (Ransom), Al Pacino (Looking for Richard) and Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet). Traditionally, Hollywood loves actors and actresses who play mentally or addiction-challenged characters (call it The Lost Weekend/Forrest Gump factor), which might explain three of the five nominees -- not to mention Watson's character in Breaking the Waves and, arguably, South Dakota lawperson Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo. On an irreverent note, Jackie Chan seems to be outdoing the action stars, with Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx scoring with audiences. And when was the last time the deserving actress list was larging than the actor's?

The Best Supporting Actor nominees include early favorite ("Show me the money!") Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), William H. Macy (Fargo), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine), Edward Norton (Paramount's Primal Fear, although it just as well could have been for the independents Larry Flynt or Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You), and current Film Comment cover guy James Woods (Ghosts of Mississippi). Cheech Marin (Tin Cup), Joe Morton (Lone Star), Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Samuel L. Jackson (A Time to Kill and/or The Long Kiss Goodnight) lead the list of also-rans.

In the Best Director category, the nominees are Anthony Minghella for The English Patient, Joel Coen for Fargo, Milos Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt, Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies and Scott Hicks for Shine. Elbowed out by the Independent wave include Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves), Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, a Best Picture nominee), Ron Howard (Ransom), Ron Shelton (Tin Cup), Billy Bob Thornton (who directed himself to a Best Actor nod in Sling Blade), Jan Sverak (Kolya), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible), Jan De Bont (Twister), Alan Parker (Evita), Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), the team of Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott (Big Night), and Danny Boyle (Trainspotting).

Other random observations: Central and Eastern Europe dominate the Best Foreign Film category, with Georgia's A Chef in Love and Russia's The Prisoner of the Mountains joining odds-on favorite Kolya from the Czech Republic as well as Norway's The Other Side of Sunday and France's Ridicule in this often-overlooked but vitally important sweepstakes.

One of Hollywood's favorite statistics is the one pointing out that only four times since 1949 has the winner of the Directors Guild of America award (given 8 March) not gone on to win the Best Director Oscar. This year, all five of the DGA nominees are first-timers (a first since the 1950s), and two of them -- Scott Hicks and Mike Leigh -- aren't even Guild members. Only Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) isn't on both lists -- his Oscar slot is occupied by Milos Forman who, ironically, has won DGA awards for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus.

And Woody Allen, who can usually be counted on for an Original Screenplay nomination (if not a Best Director nod) in any given year, is conspicuously absent this year. But that's OK, as he'll have no distractions from his regular clarinet night at whatever bar it is he plays in instead of going to the ceremony.

The 69th Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast over ABC 24 March at 9:00 pm (EST), live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

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