After all the members-only screenings, after enough trade press ads to denude a forest and tapes delivered in quantities that threatened to break the backs of local mail personnel, all the drama in the 65th annual Academy Awards has come down to one simple question: Can "The Crying Game" stop Clint?
The answer: probably not.
A survivor of nearly 40 years in the business (during which he picked up not a single Oscar nomination) the durable Mr. Eastwood has gotten three nods this year, and "Unforgiven," the film he produced, directed and starred in, got an impressive nine and is definitely the favorite for the best picture Oscar. Yet, though the film is much admired, its place as the one to beat is more a result of a process of elimination than a tidal wave of support.
"Howards End," the film that tied "Unforgiven" in nominations, seems at first look to be just the kind of literate, tasteful production best picture Oscars were made for. But its durability in running continuously since it opened in April has had a soporific effect, lulling potential voters into taking it for granted. Though its qualities and its nominations can't be completely ignored, its name is on few people's lips.
The two pictures that have the least chance are handicapped by their similarity. Both "A Few Good Men" and "Scent of a Woman" are very much in the academy mainstream, will tend to appeal to the same bloc of voters and very likely cancel each other out.
History, if nothing else, made "Unforgiven" the favorite from the moment Eastwood became the Directors Guild of America winner. For eight of the last 11 years, the film whose director has won at the DGA has also taken the best picture Oscar, and those are powerful odds.
And Eastwood has more than numbers in his favor. One of Hollywood's most reliable good soldiers, he has worked faithfully in the industry, passed from being derided to being revered and, with "Unforgiven," turned out a film that is an eloquent coda to his career. What more could the academy want?
It might want "The Crying Game," a warmer picture than "Unforgiven" and one that has the possible advantage of being a spunky "Rocky"-type underdog. And it is worth noting that in two of the three years when the DGA winner did not win best picture, the Oscar went to "Chariots of Fire" and "Driving Miss Daisy," both small films the academy took a definite shine to. Though it is an outside shot, if any film has a chance of stopping "Unforgiven," this is it.
The pick : "Unforgiven."
As far as the rest of the categories, the picture is equally clear, with either one strong favorite or at worst two top contenders fighting it out.
Best Actor: There are so many factors in Al Pacino's favor that if he doesn't win for "Scent of a Woman," his agent is likely to call for a recount. Not only has he been nominated eight times without a victory, but he plays a blind man who has both a drunk scene and a big crowd-pleasing oration at the film's close. Only Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X" has any hope of beating him, and it is of the remotest kind.
The pick : Pacino.
Best Actress: A plausible case can be made for either Emma Thompson or Susan Sarandon. Thompson's delicately nuanced performance was probably the year's best by either sex and was the key factor in the success of "Howards End," but she is not that well known to the academy. Sarandon, on the other hand, will benefit from the feeling that she should have won last year for "Thelma & Louise" but may be hurt by the fact that "Lorenzo's Oil" was relatively little seen.
The pick : Thompson.
Best Supporting Actor: A two-man race between a pair of veterans with 15 nominations between them. Jack Nicholson's performance as the crustiest salt in Christendom was the showiest of the season, but the stock of everything connected with "A Few Good Men" has fallen since it received only four nominations. Gene Hackman, on the other hand, has had so few good roles in the past 20 years that his quietly quirky work in "Unforgiven" feels like the kind of Jack Palance-type resurrection the academy is partial to.
The pick : Hackman, but without the one-handed pushups.
Best Supporting Actress: One of the toughest categories to pick, because the two top contenders have such disparate constituencies. Judy Davis is a consistently superior actress and won all the critics' awards for her wicked performance in "Husbands and Wives," but she may be hurt by the current uneasiness surrounding everything touching Woody Allen. Joan Plowright, the widow of Lord Olivier and all that, is a revered figure in the profession even though she has been selective in her film work. And "Enchanted April" is just the kind of film the academy likes to recognize if it can.
The pick : Plowright.
Best Director: Eastwood in a breeze, the one nomination in three he seems surest to walk home with. Purists may insist that Robert Altman ("The Player") has a more impressive career or that James Ivory ("Howards End") turned in a more sophisticated piece of work, but the feeling is inescapable that in this category at least, this is Eastwood's year.
The pick : Eastwood.
Best Original Screenplay: The old chestnut about it being a pity everybody can't win is really true where this category is concerned. It is especially a shame that two of the best scripts in recent years, Neil Jordan's for "The Crying Game" and David Webb Peoples' for "Unforgiven," had to surface at the same moment. Though "Unforgiven" supporters have other places to go, "The Crying Game's" partisans will feel this is its best chance for an Oscar.
The pick : "The Crying Game."
Best Adapted Screenplay: Only "Howards End" and "Scent of a Woman" had wide enough backing to be nominated for best picture as well as best adapted screenplay. Though Bo Goldman's status as a Hollywood veteran will help "Scent," "Howards End" partisans should narrowly outnumber them and give Ruth Prawer Jhabvala an Oscar to go with the one for "A Room With a View."
The pick : "Howards End."
Best Foreign Language Film: Those who saw "A Place in the World," the disqualified Uruguayan/Argentine/whatever film, think it well might have won had it stayed in. Of the remaining four, the German "Schtonk" seems too jokey and the Belgium "Daens" too slight. Those who want to pick the best film may tilt the voting toward the Russian "Close to Eden," but support for France's "Indochine" was strong enough to get Catherine Deneuve a best actress nomination.
The pick : "Indochine."
Best Documentary Feature: Once again the most controversial of categories, raising the usual fuss for films both nominated ("Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II") and excluded ("Black Harvest," "Brothers Keeper," et al.). Though all are solidly made, the two top contenders appear to be the technically spectacular but otherwise uninspiring IMAX film "Fires of Kuwait" and the socially conscious "Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker."
The pick : "Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker."