I’ve been trying to figure out the best time to write about the Oscars. Like at least most of you, I have some catching up to do before I see all the likely contenders. And I realize that many of you don’t yet have access to all the movies (and may never if they don’t do enough business early on). Platform releases will extend well into January, though, so the first column of 2000 seems like a good time to see what the field looks like.
I love the Oscars. I remember being genuinely conflicted in 1981 over whether to root for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Chariots of Fire.” I was 9 at the time. It was around then that I had been denied TV privileges for several weeks as a punishment. I don’t remember what my crime was, and neither do my parents, but I do know that they agreed to extend my punishment an extra week or two in return for letting me watch the Oscars, which fell in the middle of my sentence. I can’t tell you why, but I have always been borderline obsessed by the awards. And judging from the e-mails I received over the last two weeks, so have many of you.
So, I’ve broken down the possible nominations for each of the major theatre-based releases of 1999. Once again, I’m speaking about some of these films without having seen them, but I need to do this at some point. The real nominations will be announced Feb. 15, with the actual awards show slated for March 26.
• “American Beauty” -- Although I realize the theatrical pedigree for this is more tenuous than many of the other films listed, Sam Mendes’ directorial debut has been steadily earning favorable attention. Many insiders liked it but held back on Oscar prognostications until they saw how it did at the box office. (Unfair Generalization #1: Indie films can qualify without doing great financially, but studio films generally have to recoup their budget to be considered for top prizes. Think “Out of Sight” or “Beloved.” Just one of those annoying little facts that make the Oscars so much fun.) Once it became a legitimate draw ($70 million+), though, the heady estimates began.
So far, nearly everyone believes the film, Mendes and Kevin Spacey are locks. It could win for Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall) and Screenplay (Alan Ball). Most criticism of the film seemed to land (unfairly, in my opinion) on Annette Bening’s shoulders; still, she may sneak into a shockingly weak field this year. Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari and Thora Birch are all long shots for supporting roles, with Bentley and Cooper having at least a slim chance. (If you want to see a terrific 1999 performance from Cooper, rent “October Sky.”)
• “Anna and the King” -- This seemed like a much bigger contender before it came out. Everyone agrees that it’s beautiful, but enthusiasm appears to wane quite a bit after that. Jodie Foster is a bit of an Academy darling, so she may get a Meryl Streep-type nod, but beyond a slew of technical nominations, I have my doubts. And the less said about the animated “The King and I,” the better. • “Cradle Will Rock” -- Hmmm. Politics come into play here. I myself found this to be a noble mess, with nearly as many misguided notions as wise ones. Many critics seem to concur. On the other hand, Hollywood loves rewarding movies that have their hearts in the right place. (“Coming Home,” for example, or “Dances With Wolves.”) So the question becomes: Does Tim Robbins get enough points for being a right-thinking (as in “left-thinking”) member of the community with a real gift for directing actors, or do we have to face up to the movie’s dangling plot threads and general lack of discipline? My hunch is that they’ll nominate the screenplay (one of its weaker elements) and pass Robbins over for director.
“Cradle” does have a slew of great performances, but the film may be too equable to give everyone a dominant shot. (“Magnolia” and “The Green Mile” also have big ensemble casts, but they manage to get a few major arias into the right hands. Too many people and not enough time in “Cradle.”) Cherry Jones and Emily Watson both stand a chance for Supporting Actress; either would be richly deserved, although Watson has a better shot in the leading category for “Angela’s Ashes.” But the best chance here -- for all the wrong reasons -- appears to be Bill Murray. The Academy flat-out screwed up by not nominating Murray last year for “Rushmore,” and many people suspect it may try to make amends this year.
• “An Ideal Husband” and “A Map of the World” -- I’m lumping these two films together for one reason: Julianne Moore received high praise for her work in them. She could very easily get nominated for both Actress and Supporting Actress this year -- but not for these movies. I predict that “The End of the Affair” and “Magnolia” will earn her the nods this year. “Map” appears to have been devised as a dramatic vehicle for Sigourney Weaver; the full court lobbying for a nomination may well pay off, but that will probably be it for Scott Elliott’s directorial debut. As for “Ideal,” Rupert Everett was awfully charming as the Oscar Wilde surrogate. But, as we all know, Academy voters have famously short memories, and the film may simply be too old.
• “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” -- No way. It came out as the first film to cash in on the success of “Shakespeare in Love,” but not even the appearance of Calista Flockhart and Michelle Pfeiffer managed to raise any interest in this stinker. Kevin Kline’s charming performance as Bottom will be ignored, as will everything else about the film.
• “Miss Julie” -- In my opinion, this will be the tragically overlooked film this year. Despite two slumming-it-to-make-a-name-for-herself films this year (“Wing Commander” and “Deep Blue Sea”), Saffron Burrows hasn’t made enough of a splash yet to wow everyone with her combination of raw talent, sex appeal and marketability. Likewise for critics’ darling Peter Mullan. Director Mike Figgis was really onto something with this vital, grungy effort, but it’s too dark and too small for the Academy. If you get a chance, though, you really should check it out.
• “Simpatico” -- From everything I’ve heard, this sat around for a while before Fine Line figured out what to do with it. Like “A Map of the World,” this had a one-week qualifying run before slinking into the shadows. (Unfair Generalization #2: Given the number of high-caliber offerings around the end of the year, one-week qualifiers are often films that have one or two major performances but don’t hold together as a viable movie. If the performances get noticed and rumors of a few nominations begin building, then the coast is clear to open wide in the hopes of cashing in after the nominations are announced. More often, they slink back into theatres, with no marketing push, shortly before vanishing. I’m afraid “Simpatico” may fall into that category, despite meaty performances from Academy faves Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges.)
• “Titus” and “Topsy-Turvy” -- These are the two big question marks. I haven’t seen either of them, but critics seem pretty bowled over. Mike Leigh is a major director dabbling in period films (which the Academy loves), and Hollywood would love to lure Julie Taymor (as well as Sam Mendes) away from the theater world. And yet ... Titus Andronicus is about as off-putting as Shakespeare gets. And a movie about the writing of The Mikado? Jim Broadbent’s performance (as Gilbert) has received lots of attention, but the Best Actor field is just too crowded. Jessica Lange has a shot at an Actress nomination for “Titus”; Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix are less likely. Technical nominations are likely for either, especially “Titus.” But either of these could end up being a dark horse in the Oscar race. Or they could both disappear. Too early to tell.
My guesses for legitimate nominees?
Picture: “American Beauty”
Actor: Kevin Spacey, “American Beauty”
Actress: Annette Bening, “American Beauty”; Sigourney Weaver, “A Map of the World”
Supporting Actor: None of the above, but my money’s on stage veterans John Malkovich (“Being John Malkovich”), Jason Robards (“Magnolia”) and Christopher Plummer (“The Insider”)
Supporting Actress: Broadway-bound Toni Collette, “The Sixth Sense”
It looks like Michael Cristofer will finally get the chance to direct a reputable feature film. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (The Shadow Box) first made his mark by directing a good cable movie (“Gia”), then moved “up” to a bad feature (“Body Shots”). Now Cristofer is poised to direct Antonio Banderas and “Gia” star Angelina Jolie next month in the suspense film “Dancing in the Dark.” Cristofer also wrote the screenplay; Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the producers.
Cutting-Room Floor: January is a really good month for catching up on all the big end-of-year releases -- and a really bad month for anything new. Look for a lot of dross to hit the theatres over the next month, and keep your eyes peeled for platform releases in the meantime. ... The good news is that the film of Doug Wright’s “Quills” is getting a lot of attention on the Internet rumor mill. The bad news is that the attention seems to be centered entirely on the extensive Kate Winslet nudity. Come on, people, what do you expect from a Marquis de Sade biopic? ... Listen for evocative renditions of “Steam Heat” and “Stranger in Paradise” in Barry Levinson’s latest 1950s nostalgia piece, “Liberty Heights.” ... I’m all tuckered out for the Oscar stuff, so we’ll go easy on the dribs and drabs this time.
My Favorite Response: I generally try to include responses in their entirety, but a recent e-mail from Tom logged in at an even 2,230 words. It started out with Oscar picks but moved into a topic that I found rather eye-opening. Here are a few choice portions:
“I meant to drop a line much earlier in the year when you first wrote about the TV remake of ‘Annie.’ Because many people find the 1982 film version lacking in various respects, it is assumed (as I recall you wrote) that it was a ‘flop.’ (Editor’s note: I did.) Now, I’m no big fan of that particular adaptation, but it was not a flop commercially at all. In fact, it made so much money that it was among the top quarter of all the film releases that year. It was an extremely expensive production, so it may not have reached profitability until the video/TV sales, but it was one of the most widely seen films in 1982. Far more people saw the film of ‘Annie’ that year than saw the original screen ‘Victor/Victoria,’ which is always referred to as a success. It was, but ‘Annie’ was a much bigger grosser ... and (theatre people REALLY don’t like to hear this) the 1982 film version of ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ was the most successful of ALL the 1982 crop of film musicals! It may not be a good adaptation, but that film was one of the 10 most popular films released in 1982 (out of more than 200 releases)! And it was made modestly, so the profitability was high. (Editor’s note: Duly noted.)
“Last point: For years theatre people were upset with Hollywood for film adaptations of Broadway shows because of ‘changes.’ I can understand the argument that most film musical adaptations were lacking since Hollywood often cut songs and changed the scripts. Theatre fans I’ve talked to all my life often bitched at films like ‘Camelot,’ ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and later ‘Annie’ because they ‘changed it.’
“But what about THEATRe now? The Annie Get Your Gun now on Broadway bears less resemblance to the 1946 original than the 1950 film, which is sometimes knocked for all its ‘changes.’ Recent productions have behaved just like Hollywood in dropping songs (where was ‘Pretty Little Picture’ in the Nathan Lane Forum? Where was ‘Cinderella Darling’ in the last How to Succeed...? ‘Highest Judge of All’ in Carousel? ‘Meeskite’ in Cabaret? I liked all those productions, especially Carousel, but there’s a double standard at work here. If the changes made by moviemakers automatically make an adaptation ‘horrible’ (as I’ve heard too many times), then Broadway itself should be more careful about its heritage.”
Your Thoughts: Well? Why are stage revivals allowed to meddle but not film versions? Is there a double standard? And do any of these Oscar picks seem way off base?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief for Show Music, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for BackStage.