As the relentless campaigning for the Oscars begins, it is tempting to decipher what the 4,600-plus voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were saying in their nominations. But finding any kind of a pattern is about as easy as matching snowflakes.
The real tip-offs are not in who and what got nominated but who and what didn't. The one hard lesson this time is that it is dangerous and near-fatal to open a good film early in the year if you have hopes of an Oscar nomination.
"Dominick and Eugene," a fine and sensitive drama about a pair of brothers, one mentally retarded, was an early-year release. The performances by Ray Liotto, Jamie Lee Curtis and, most especially, by Tom Hulce as the brain-damaged brother, were Oscar quality, and some reviewers found the film superior to "Rain Man."
But "Dominick and Eugene" was not a commercial success, despite its glowing reviews, and it was evidently not seen by many academy voters.
"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" was one of the year's most ambitious films, a severe challenge to the creators because it was based on a Milan Kundera novel that is part story, part philosophical speculation. It rightly earned nominations for Sven Nykvist's images and for the script by director Philip Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere. But the larger nominations, as for best picture and direction, were elusive. It, too, opened early in the year, had a relatively brief run and did not reappear until year-end.
Martin Landau got a deserved and much-predicted nomination as best supporting actor in "Tucker"--and such predictions almost certainly have an influence on voters. But the film, its early summer opening overshadowed by the furor over "The Last Temptation of Christ," seems otherwise not so much to have been rejected as ignored.
It has been the industry's conventional wisdom to save the big ones for the last quarter and preferably the last month of the year, thus to cash in on the heightened Academy Award interest as well as the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday trade.
The big winners in the nominations this year were all late-year openers, and the industry's wisdom looks wise as well as conventional. It is not inevitably so. For example, two Oscar winners from earlier years, "The Godfather" and "Annie Hall" both opened in early spring, were major hits and played throughout the year.
Any detectable pattern in the academy voting admits exceptions. Yet the largest pattern is that the Oscars are more democratic, freer of studio bloc voting, more international and less Hollywood-centered and more a popularity contest than ever.
The voting membership, now close to 4,700, is the highest in modern times, double what it was only a few years ago. Beginning in the '60s, under Gregory Peck, Dan Taradash and a succession of other presidents, the academy purged its voting rolls of long-inactive members and encouraged new, younger members. Like any professional organization, the academy is still weighted toward seniority, but it probably reflects the industry at large more closely than it used to.
The choices for best picture, with all the academy voters participating, and the picks in the four acting categories, with the more than 2,000 actors voting, are democratic elections--pure if not so simple.
It is possible to disagree with the choices--it is almost impossible not to. The sadness, always, is contemplating the pictures and the talent that didn't make the cut.
Did anyone, for example, see a more powerfully affecting scene in 1988 than the confrontation between Christine Lahti and Steven Hill as her father in a Manhattan restaurant in "Running on Empty"? How many performances lent more support to the impact of a film than Hill's? You are grateful for the work that didn't get away, the felicitous awards, as for Frances McDormand in "Mississippi Burning" and Max von Sydow in "Pelle the Conqueror."
It's just that it's depressing to perceive that the box office and the calendar loom so large in choices that are presumably based on excellence.
Popularity is a definition of excellence in the counting room, and popularity and excellence aren't necessarily self-canceling items.
But excellence comes not only in blockbusters but in modest packages for limited runs as well. One measure of excellence--honored more often in the technical branches than in the larger categories--is how difficult something was to do.
Then, too, what the academy has never discovered, except in the foreign-language category, is a way to be sure the voters have seen everything they're voting for--or against.
There's probably no solution, so the making of choices will continue to be tinted by sentiment, hearsay, past performances and sheer popularity.
Weighted against drought or an inexplicable rash, none of it really matters, of course. But the honors do exist, and until they are unarguably perfect, let us have a tip of the hat to the honorable ones who missed the honors.