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OSCARS: THEY’VE GOT TO SEE IT TO VOTE FOR IT

The Academy Award nominations have produced more than their share of surprises this year, and an odd boggle of logic.

If “The Color Purple” was worthy of 11 nominations, three of them for its actors, others including the film’s art direction, cinematography, screenplay adaptation and the best-picture award itself, how could Steven Spielberg have been left out for a director’s nomination? He did receive one from the Directors Guild and clearly he was the driving force who marshalled these creative elements.

The answer may not be the slap in the face to Spielberg that some have speculated but a matter of arithmetic. The Directors Guild has, nationally, 7,800 members, not all of whom are working in film. A large percentage, particularly on the West Coast, are TV directors and assistant directors. (It’s the rude and singular reason the room clears out at the annual DGA awards as soon as the TV awards have been announced.) The directors’ branch of the academy has only 230 members, and those votes nominated Akira Kurosawa (“Ran”) and Hector Babenco (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”), in addition to those duplicated by the DGA: Sydney Pollack (‘Out of Africa”), John Huston (“Prizzi’s Honor”) and Peter Weir (“Witness”).

Rather than looking at it as an intentional slight aimed at Spielberg, the inclusion of Kurosawa (in his first directing nomination), Australia’s Weir and Brazil’s Babenco, with a highly original and controversial film, might be seen to reflect positively on the taste and broadness of scope of the directors’ branch.

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Or you could throw in the towel with all this civility and admit that academy members have been heard to grumble about Spielberg’s directorial attack on the material.

(You have to watch the numbers here a bit, in speaking of the directors’ branch of the academy. You can find more than a handful of prominent directors--John Huston, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, Barry Levinson, Paul Schrader and more--still listed under the branch in which they joined the academy, in this case as writers. Thus, they would be ineligible to nominate a directors’ slate. A few more, including Roger Spottiswoode and Sam O’Steen, still lurk as editors; Tony Bill entered originally in the producers’ branch.)

This year it’s the DGA’s nominations that seem to reflect the populist vote, with Ron Howard (“Cocoon”) joining Spielberg in the lineup. If the academy had nominated Howard and not Spielberg, that might legitimately seem to be a slight. And Spielberg has been nominated three times before, for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

There are a few pleasant signposts, including James Garner’s nomination for a lifetime of hard work under the guise of nonchalance in “Murphy’s Romance.” It could be sniffed at as the Old Guard wing of the academy recognizing a (deserved) veteran, but I’d rather think of it as a recognition for the difficulty and dexterity that light comedy requires--and so rarely receives. Harrison Ford, another adept in that field, had to become Serious before he got his nomination, this year in “Witness.”

The question of whether ads buy votes is still a moot point, but tub-thumping, arm-waving and, supposedly, a call to every voting member of the academy by the un-shy folks at Cannon Films probably got enough people out to see “Runaway Train” to nominate Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and the film’s editor, Henry Richardson. (In comparison, Roberts’ earlier bravura work in “Star 80" was unfairly ignored; an example, if you care to see it that way, of another of the supposed academy precepts: Unpopular films don’t yield nominations.)

Quality film makers should take this year’s nominations as a grim reminder and be forced to write, not Xerox, 1,000 times: IF THEY DON’T SEE IT, THEY WON’T VOTE FOR IT.

Consider the plight of “The Shooting Party,” whose every technical detail (costuming, cinematography) was the stuff of which Academy Awards are made, and which contained two performances, John Gielgud’s and particularly James Mason’s, which are as fine as either man ever gave. (Well, you could also cite Gielgud for those gorgeously bitten-off syllables in “Plenty,” but everyone really hated that film.) Inexplicably, it was passed over to be shown in the Sunday screenings to academy members, a key place to begin consciousness in the academy voter, and remains only in the memory of the lucky filmgoers who saw it during its run.

“Shooting Party” is not alone, of course. “The Emerald Forest’s” complete non-showing in the nominations is probably the greatest disappointment in terms of an entire film. There were no screenings on its behalf as a result of the distributor (Embassy) folding, as director John Boorman pointed out in the year’s most plaintive ad. In it, tracing his path from Embassy to New Embassy to Classic Embassy to Diet Embassy, the director urged his fellow voters to see it, please, on cassette. What irony--a film of true cinema magic, which needed the full benefit of superior sound and projection, being seen for the first time on cassette (or in this case, clearly not being seen at all.)

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The last in the grim reminder department is the case of Laura Dern’s performance in “Smooth Talk.” It (and her work in “Mask,” which we’ll come to shortly) won Dern the Los Angeles Film Critics’ New Generation Award; the film itself just won as best dramatic feature at the United States Film Festival, the independents’ own voice in the matter, at Park City, Utah. If even half the acting branch had seen the film, it might have made the difference for Dern, but “Smooth Talk” was poorly managed by its distributing company and remains one of the least-seen examples of brilliant acting and directing the year has produced.

Omissions in the acting category might begin with Dern’s fellow-actor, Cher, for a heart-rending performance in “Mask.” Her shared Golden Palm at Cannes this year may not have been distinction enough to soothe generally outraged feelings in the industry over director Peter Bogdanovich’s ruckus with Universal, and the loser may have been Cher. Her co-winner at Cannes, Norma Aleandro from the Argentine-nominated film, “Official Story,” was also a sadly missed nomination. It seems odd that voters could see William Hurt and pass up the sterling work of his cellmate, Raul Julia, except that Hurt’s was the showier turn. The same applies to Kathleen Turner, passed by while Jack Nicholson, the gentleman in the other half of her on-screen bed, was picked. Or Gene Hackman, in “Twice in a Lifetime,” whose teammate Amy Madigan made the cut. (Just wait until next year for Hackman’s “Power"-ful performance, the sole redeemable feature of that unmemorable film.)

Even in the face of 8th-, 6th-, 4th- and 14th-time nominations, this doesn’t seem to have been a cut-and-dried affair this year. There seem to be a few stirrings of life in what is considered a venerable and slightly constricted body; a willingness to let some new faces into the game, as witness the newcomers from “The Color Purple,” Cannon Films, Island Alive (as it was called at the time of “Spider Woman”); or to give recognition to a few overdue ones (Don Ameche in “Cocoon,” Robert Loggia in “Jagged Edge,” William Hickey in “Prizzi’s Honor”). An interesting slate, 1985’s, and one that may be under discussion right up to the 24th of March.


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