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69th Oscars (1997)

by Eddie Cockrell


Oscar's New Era

The headline of the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, held last night (24 March) at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, is that the British import The English Patient won nine of the 12 Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture (Saul Zaentz, producer) and Best Director (Anthony Minghella, whose only previous movie was the little-seen British import Truly, Madly, Deeply). This places it in the exalted company of the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur (11 awards), West Side Story (10), Gigi (9) and The Last Emperor (9) as one of the most decorated films in Academy Awards history.

But the big news of this high-profile event is just below the surface. In a year in which Oscar embraced perhaps its most traditional Best Picture winner in a decade, it was a slew of "little," "independent" people and pictures that dominated the balloting and the awards. At the precise moment that Juliette Binoche from The English Patient bested "Old Hollywood" icon Lauren Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces) for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the hip elements of the nominees coalesced with the freshness of the proceedings to send a very clear message to the world: the old guard is out, and the new guard, unorganized and clubby though it may be, is in. Think about it: who were the oldest, most prominent celebrities to appear on stage all evening? Jack Valenti? Arthur Hiller? Mary Poppins? In place of old reliables like Jack Lemmon and, uh, well, you know, the producers trotted out the likes of Beavis and Butt-head and the odd couple teaming of Chris Farley and David Spade (the real-life B & B) to do their bidding. This, not to mention Jim Carrey playing his expensively-swathed butt-cheeks, marks a wholesale change in the way Oscar does business.

Actually, the "independent" moniker may be slightly misleading. Miramax, whose films won precisely half of the 24 statuettes available last night, has been gobbled up by the Disney empire, and Gramercy, whose Fargo interrupted the English Patient tsunami with wins for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, is owned by the conglomerate Polygram. Tri-Star, the relatively youngish studio once considered laughable (one critic wag used to call it "One-Star"), was the only identifiable Hollywood studio to win a major award, Best Supporting Actor for a plainly exuberant Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire (incredibly, the only people on the west coast he didn't thank were his team of agents). Universal won one (Best Makeup for The Nutty Professor), Paramount won one (The Ghost and the Darkness, for Sound Effects Editing), and Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that pulled the plug at the 11th hour on The English Patient, also won a single Academy Award (Best Visual Effects for Independence Day). Other single winners included Buena Vista, DreamWorks (with their initial nomination), Fine Line and Sony Pictures Entertainment. Left out in the cold were October Films, the distributor of surprise art-house crossover hit Secrets and Lies, Warner Bros. and MGM.

As usual, the evening was full of good sports putting on brave faces in defeat. Reynolds joked good-naturedly with daughter Carrie Fisher (one of the show's principal co-writers and, to her eternal credit, Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films) about missing out for Mother; Madonna showed up and performed a moving version of "You Must Love Me" from Evita even though she and the film were snubbed (the song won, prompting speculation that "They Must Have Told Her"); Celine Dion filled in for an ailing Natalie Cole and sang not only her Oscar-nominated (and winning) tune "Because You Loved Me" from the snoozefest Up Close and Personal but "I Finally Found Someone" from The Mirror Has Two Faces; on the subject of Mirror, Bacall was graciously reticent when Binoche impulsively tried to shift attention to her from the podium. John Sayles reacted with stoic calm to the news that his masterwork Lone Star had lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Ethan and Joel Coen's Fargo (well, that was a tough category to pick a favorite in anyway—they all deserved it); David Letterman cameoed in the elaborate pre-festivities sendup of the winning films starring returning toastmaster Billy Crystal (who should be made Oscar Host for Life) and Best Actress nominee Brenda Blethyn, whose extraordinary performance in Secrets and Lies always looked like caricature in out-of-context clips, was gracious in defeat to Fargo's Frances McDormand after making no secret of the fact that she really wanted to win (a pity Emily Watson couldn't have bested them both for the emotionally raw Breaking the Waves).

On the other side of the coin, the producers cattily cut to Barbra Streisand, who had refused to sing "I Finally Found Someone" to protest the exclusion of The Mirror Has Two Faces from the main categories, at just the moment Crystal larded on the praise for Madonna's bravery in performing "You Must Love Me." Similarly, that Tim Robbins and Winona Ryder were even allowed onstage in their cadaverous outfits sort of negates the existence of personal handlers; aren't they supposed to be looking out for the best interests of stars? And who knows what to make anymore of David Helfgott, the real-life emotionally and mentally-challenged pianist whose life is the basis for Shine. After swearing he wouldn't do it, the producers brought him out to play a version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" that had just been featured in a clip from the film. It sounded nimble in tempo, but decidedly choppy in overall quality. Do the music critics, who’ve been panning his performances during his sold-out concert series, have a valid point? Is this guy a genuine prodigy, or one whose talents have long since been damaged beyond repair, so much so that he has been reduced to nothing more than a sideshow act with a nice high-culture sheen?

And speaking of Shine, it was rookies' night out, as Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor for the Australian drama (the wrong Helfgott—Noah Taylor as the young David should've been nominated). Although prominently featured in the audience, Mel Gibson, with whom Rush co-starred in the first Mad Max film, showed no signs of recognizing him (maybe that's what Hollywood'll do to you). In a similar vein, Binoche, Minghella and Billy Bob Thornton were first-time nominees and winners; only McDormand, who was nominated in the supporting actress category for 1989's Mississippi Burning, had been there before.

Zaentz's Oscar for producing the unkillable English Patient joins his other two, one for Amadeus and the other for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A fourth statuette marked his conveniently timed receipt of the Irving Thalberg Award—in a year when his third producing Oscar ties him with Sam Spiegel (On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia) for the most Oscars ever won by a producer. See a trend here?

To the surprise of no one in the know, Kolya won the Best Foreign Film statuette (the first ever win for the Czech Republic, newly split from Slovakia), prompting director Jan Sverak to patiently explain to it that it was going to Prague, "a city you've probably never heard of." Little-known fact: this is his second Oscar, the first being a Student Academy Award in the late 1980s for a short film called The Oil Gobblers.

What does all of this mean? Ironically enough, the bottom line to this wholesale revolution may be business as usual. Look for more independently produced, big epics with lots of sand to cash in on The English Patient (do you think it would've won had Fox prevailed upon Zaentz to cast Demi Moore in the Kristin Scott Thomas role?) and more quirky, smaller, character-driven films to ride the Fargo/Sling Blade wave (a cheery thought, that). So, big "event" pictures on one side, little "cutting edge" pictures on the other. And in the middle ... the same stuff Hollywood's been churning out for nearly a century (admittedly, much more of this cannon fodder might now be made by independents: Happy Gilmore without compromises?). So, yes, it is a new era in Hollywood ... for now

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