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THE OSCAR PLUNGE : It’s Time for a Little Time Travel : Picking the Best Films of 1991--Sight Unseen

Anybody can tell you that “Dances With Wolves” is going to win the best picture Oscar Monday night and that Kevin Costner will win as best director. It takes a special kind of fool to tell you who’s going to win the big prize next year. So, with the right writer on the right subject, here we go.

The five best picture nominees for 1991--five films that aren’t even finished yet--will be: Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” Barbra Streisand’s “Prince of Tides,” Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy Siegel,” Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” and Hector Babenco’s “At Play in the Field of the Lords.”

And the winner . . . “At Play in the Field of the Lords.”

Before “Lords” producer Saul Zaentz starts trotting up here to pick up his shapely statuette, it’s worth noting that two years ago when we tried this, we had never heard of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which came out late in the year to dazzle both critics, audiences and enough academy voters to make it 1989’s Oscar winner. And among the films we pegged as likely nominees the following year were: Roland Joffe’s “Fat Man and Little Boy,” Milos Forman’s “Valmont,” Norman Jewison’s “In Country,” Lawrence Kasdan’s “I Love You to Death” and Jack Nicholson’s “Two Jakes.” Four of those pictures disappeared without a trace in 1989; the fifth--"Two Jakes"--didn’t disappear without a trace until 1990.

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We did mention Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” and predicted, with canny accuracy, that Tom Cruise would be nominated for his performance as Ron Kovic in that movie. But as a prognosticator of this event, we follow in the footsteps of those courageous seers who have roamed the millenia resetting the date of the Apocalypse.

Still, it shouldn’t be that hard to narrow the list down to the handful of contenders who will fill out the Oscar ballot 12 months from now.

We start by throwing out anything released in the first half of the year. Academy voters have short memories, and though it’s unlikely we’ll see a better supporting-actor performance in the remaining months than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” he’s history--Academy Award-wise. So is that film’s leading lady, Jodie Foster. The last first-half movie to win the Oscar was Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” in 1977. Even Allen has stopped fighting the jinx and started scheduling his movies for fourth-quarter releases.

Allen has a film coming this year too, but he has become so expert at hiding his movies from the public--all the way through their runs!--that there is nothing to report beyond his usually coy working title, “Untitled Woody Allen Project.” (What a great title, by the way, for Allens’ parents’ autobiography.)

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There will be some surprises, no doubt. Nobody was talking about “Ghost” this time last year, and if Julia Roberts’ toothy Audrey Hepburn impersonation in “Pretty Woman” is worth a nomination, don’t rule out a nod next year for Arnold Schwarzenegger. If the actors branch of the academy is going to be honoring smiles now, Arnie’s got a beaut.

Occasionally, independent films receive best picture nominations, but for the most part, the Oscar show is a hometown party. The vast majority of films, performances and technical achievements will be for films released and publicized by the major studios. Sometimes, the studio movies even feature some of the year’s best work.

Leaving a spot or two for the unexpected, the 1990 best picture winner really should come from a list that includes:

“At Play in the Field of the Lords.” Producer Saul Zaentz makes big movies with important themes and quality directors and is often rewarded by the academy (he’s a two-time best picture winner for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”). This film, directed by Brazil’s Hector Babenco (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”), is based on a Peter Mathiessen novel that explained two decades ago the cultural conflicts that have led to today’s crises in the Amazon rain forest. All it has to be is good; it’s already certified Oscar material.

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“Cape Fear.” The academy still owes Martin Scorsese the best director Oscar it forgot to vote him for “Raging Bull,” and will owe him the one he deserves but won’t get for “GoodFellas” this year. If “Cape Fear,” a remake of a 1962 J. Lee Thompson movie that starred Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, works at the level of most Scorsese films, it will be an automatic nominee.

“Bugsy Siegel.” Barry Levinson is the filmmaker discovery of the ‘80s and is getting more polished with each film. “Avalon” may have been too personal for mass audience tastes. This time he’s taking on the mob and, if the genre hasn’t worn out its welcome, the film has to be a contender.

“Prince of Tides.” Some day, the academy is going to anoint a woman with a best director nomination and though the voters might prefer a less uppity candidate, Barbra Streisand has the influence, the resources and the talent to be the first. Pat Conroy’s novel gives her serious material and Nick Nolte, one of our most underrated actors, may give her the fuel.

“Hook.” America feels so good about itself right now that it may even forgive Steven Spielberg for the intellectual folly of “The Color Purple” and the sentimental folly of “Always” and reward him for going back to what he does best--grand broad-audience entertainment. With Robin Williams as Peter Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Capt. Hook and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, how can he fail?

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Either those, or these:

“Jungle Fever.” Spike Lee reaches critics on content alone, but whether he is a polished enough filmmaker for Academy tastes remains to be seen. The academy’s liberal body is probably dying to find the right black film to give an Oscar nomination too, and Lee’s fifth picture--an interracial love story set in tense Bensonhurst--may be the one.

“The Man in the Moon.” Insiders have been touting this script about two teen-age sisters in the 1950s South as another “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Robert Mulligan, who directed “Mockingbird” 29 years ago, was in charge on this one.

“Love Field.” Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert co-star in this interracial love story set in the days following President Kennedy’s assassination. Director Jonathan Kaplan made a star of Jodie Foster in “The Accused”; this one may make a star of him.

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“Billy Bathgate.” Robert Benton, an Oscar winner for “Kramer vs. Kramer” a decade ago, directs Dustin Hoffman, Nichole Kidman and Bruce Willis in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel about life around ‘30s crime boss Dutch Schultz.

“The Doctor.” Randa Haines reteams with her “Children of a Lesser God” star William Hurt in a drama about a seriously ill doctor who discovers the other side of the doctor-patient relationship. Maybe Haines will be that first nominated woman director.

“Regarding Henry.” The suddenly busy Mike Nichols (“Working Girl,” “Postcards From the Edge”) is always popular with Oscar voters, so expect a little something for him or Harrison Ford and Annette Bening, who star in this drama about a rich man who meets life on the dark side.


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