World War III for Oscar
It's a foreign battle fought in Hollywood: Spielberg's France 1944 vs. Miramax's olde England. Who'll win the battle--and the award?
By RICHARD CORLISS
World 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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