Clear the Stage for 1990 : Predicting some of the probable contenders--and the movies haven’t been released yet

If “Rain Man” has taken the suspense out of Wednesday’s Academy Awards for you, if the only mysteries remaining are whether Dustin Hoffman will make his acceptance speech in character and producer Allan Carr will bring the show to a close before the bars close in Boston, here’s something to consider: There are only 368 days until the 1990 awards are presented.

What better time to begin sorting through the contenders than before the films have been shown to anyone, before some of them have been made, or even cast, before the publicity mills grind and critics compose the praise that will fuel next winter’s long Oscar race?

Go ahead, pick a winner. Say it--"For best performance by an actor in a leading role . . . Marlon Brando in ‘A Dry White Season”'--and see how smart and right it feels before anyone has had a chance to write it off.


Predicting next year’s nominees is not the strain it seems. By following some simple rules, you can eliminate all but a handful of films from contention. First, you dismiss the B genre chaff--action, horror and teen-age sex/slob comedies, anything with the word Ninja in the title. Then you concentrate on those films set to be released near the end of the year.

Only five times since the Eisenhower Administration has a film released before July won the best picture Oscar. The last first-half winner was “Annie Hall,” an April 1977 release. When a major studio sets a serious movie for release between September and the end of the year, it can be taken as a declared candidate.

Finally, with apologies to Lt. Renault in “Casablanca,” you round up the usual suspects. Which previously honored “serious” stars and star directors have work coming out this year? Nicholson, Hoffman, Newman? Streep, Fonda, Winger? Forman, Allen, Jewison?

This is more practical than it is cynical. The serious stars and star directors get the pick of the litter of serious screenplays, the plum roles and the juicy themes. Good scripts are often undermined in the process of accommodating the directors, stars, producers and studios first drawn to them (which accounts for so many bad movies made by so many talented people), but Oscar ambitions always start with the writing.

The major studios don’t make the best films every year, but they make most of the Academy Award contenders. It is a function of their being able to afford those classy stars’ and directors’ salaries, the big ad and publicity campaigns that stimulate the box office, and the Oscar campaigns that eventually lure academy voters out of their dens up in Benedict Canyon to see what the fuss is all about.

So, who are the candidates for next year’s awards? Some films will probably be postponed (for reasons of marketing, production delays or odor) and unforeseen titles will be slipped in. But based on the current schedule, some reluctant handicapping by studio sources, and the outrageous assumption that these films and performances will live up to their potential, here’s an early look at the field for ’90

Best Picture

“Untitled Woody Allen.” Orion. Nobody outside Allen’s immediate circle knows anything about this planned fall release, except that it’s going to be funny/serious, in the mold, they say, of “Annie Hall” and he’s in it! After “September” and “Another Woman,” bleak trifles that the Grim Reaper might have walked out on, an Oscar nomination would almost be an act of national conscience.

“Fat Man and Little Boy.” Paramount. English director Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields,” “The Mission”) is as serious as a World War II newsreel and he’s got the sort of topic here (the creation of the atom bombs dropped on Japan) that will assure both massive publicity and sincere reflection by voters.

“Valmont.” Orion. Czech director Milos Forman doesn’t make movies often, but when he does, they get Oscar nominations. His last effort, “Amadeus,” was the big winner in 1986, and even though this is based on the same material that inspired the current nominee, “Dangerous Liaisons,” it will be a major player in ’90.

“In Country.” Warners. Director Norman Jewison, who won an Oscar 23 years ago for “In the Heat of the Night,” is hot again. His “A Soldier’s Story” was nominated for best picture in 1984, and he was nominated as best director last year for “Moonstruck.” Known as an actors’ director, Jewison is working here with a family’s struggle to overcome the wounds of Vietnam, and if he gets a believable performance out of Bruce Willis, he’s in.

“I Love You to Death” (Tri-Star). The reliable Lawrence Kasdan returns to “The Big Chill” ensemble form with a psychological drama starring William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman and River Phoenix.

“Two Jakes” (Paramount). The long-awaited sequel to “Chinatown” has yet to go into production, which makes a 1989 release a little iffy. But if it does make it, and if it’s as good as the original, it will be the film to beat. It would also make Jack Nicholson a nominee in two categories, as best director and best actor.

Other pictures bound to get a lot of attention are: “Steel Magnolias,” the Herbert Ross-directed adaptation of the hit off-Broadway play set in a Southern beauty salon; “Born on the 4th of July” (Universal), Oliver Stone’s profile of paraplegic Vietnam hero Ron Kovic; “Letters” (MGM/UA), a relationship movie that teams Jane Fonda with Robert De Niro and reteams director Marty Ritt with his “Norma Rae” writers Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank, Jr.); “Family Business” (Tri-Star), a three-generation family drama starring Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick and directed by Sidney Lumet; “Always,” another “serious” Steven Spielberg movie, this one starring Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter; and “Dead Poet’s Society” (Touchstone), which stars Robin Williams as a popular teacher in a boy’s prep school and directed by the gifted Australian Peter Weir.

Best Actor

The lead actors in any of the preceding films above could be nominated, providing the film’s work and are well-reviewed. But these seem most likely:

Paul Newman has two chances this year, playing Gen. Leslie Groves in “Fat Man and Little Boy” and Louisiana Gov. Earl Long in “Blaze.” Historically, the academy members have just loved Newman’s Southern accents. Three of his seven nominations came for Southern roles (in “Hud,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Cool Hand Luke”).

Marlon Brando plays an aging lawyer in “A Dry White Season,” his first role since “The Formula” in 1980. Brando, like Allen, never participates in the Oscars, but the academy loves him nonetheless.

Al Pacino, a perennial nominee until he starred in the ill-conceived “Revolution,” plays a veteran New York cop in love with murder suspect Ellen Barkin in Harold Becker’s “Sea of Love.”

Colin Firth, in the role John Malkovich plays in “Dangerous Liaisons,” will be the newcomer to the category if “Valmont” is up to Milos Forman’s standards.

Jack Nicholson, who’s at home in both lead and supporting roles, could end up with nominations in both categories, as best actor for “Two Jakes” and best supporting actor for “Batman,” in which he plays the Joker.

Robert De Niro is going to be seen all over the place this year. He can be seen right now playing a Vietnam veteran in “Jacknife,” and later in the year as an illiterate factory worker getting the word and wisdom from Jane Fonda in “Letters” and as a con man on the lam with Sean Penn in Neil Jordan’s “We’re No Angels.”

Other actors with the right stuff: Richard Dreyfuss has done nothing but good work since his comeback in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” and will appear in a big film (“Always”); Dustin Hoffman is always a contender, and will be this year for “Family Business”; Tom Cruise gained credibility in “Rain Main” and may cash it in for his role as Ron Kovic in “Born on the 4th of July”; the well-liked Jack Lemmon has another showcase role in “Dad,” in which he plays a man in his late 80s; William Hurt (“I Love You to Death”), whose work seems to hold his acting colleagues in awe; and Robert Duvall, hot off the well-reviewed miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” plays the fugitive Nazi Adolph Eichman in “The White Crow.”

Television fans will have several chances to root for their stars. Bruce Willis (“In Country”), Tom Selleck (“Hard Rain”) and Michael J. Fox (“Casualties of War”) all have starring roles in heavy dramatic films.

Best Actress

Meryl Streep is starring in something called “The Lives and Loves of a She Devil.” No word on what the accent will be, but she’s always a contender.

If Glenn Close doesn’t get the Oscar on Wednesday night (for “Dangerous Liaisons”) that many people think she should have won last year (for “Fatal Attraction”), they’re really going to owe her. And the payoff could come for either “Immediate Family,” in which she co-stars with James Woods, or “The White Crow,” where she plays an American professor confronting the truth of the Holocaust.

Jane Fonda has had a tired run in recent years, but in Marty Ritt’s “Letters,” she’ll benefit from sage direction and the energy of co-star De Niro.

Shirley MacLaine and Sally Field are the two most frequently mentioned stars of “Steel Magnolias,” the Herbert Ross-directed adaptation of a hit Off-Broadway play about the relationships of several women in a Southern town.

Bette Midler may be seen by the end of the year in Touchstone’s “Stella,” a remake of “Stella Dallas,” a four-hankie weeper that won an Oscar nomination for Barbara Stanwyck in 1937.

Among the other actresses with awards potential: Jessica Lange plays a big city widow with two kids in Paul Brickman’s “Men Don’t Leave” and a criminal attorney in Costa-Gavras’ “Music Box”; Barbara Hershey, who keeps winning awards at Cannes and getting shut out by the academy, plays a lawyer in a tangled courtroom family drama “Defenseless”; Susan Sarandon, well-liked but overlooked in “Bull Durham,” is a reporter in “A Dry White Season”; English discovery Emily Lloyd tries on a Southern American accent in “In Country”; and Holly Hunter from “Broadcast News” will appear in two films, as the flaming redhead title character in “Miss Firecracker” and a World War II pilot’s girl in Spielberg’s “Always.”

If all this takes the suspense out of next year’s awards for you too, consider this: there are still 730 days or so before they give out the awards for excellence in 1990. But you heard it here first--Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” is going to run the table.