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.
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