Calendar Goes To The Oscars : Most Big Players Are Sticking With Clint : Industry insiders we talked to believe Eastwood is a lock--as are Al Pacino and Emma Thompson

Jane Galbraith writes about movies for Calendar.

The Hollywood adage that "nobody knows anything" apparently doesn't apply to the Oscar race. Hollywood seems to know quite a bit--or talks like it does.

Conversations with two dozen players about their picks to win Academy Awards--most of whom returned calls from the set, the car or in between meetings--might as well have taken place on a conference call. Most comments were off the record, naturally. Who knows where any of these producers', studio executives', directors', screenwriters' or agents' next jobs might come from?

To paraphrase them all: Of course it's Clint's year! No ifs, ands or buts about it. No need to use Clint's last name, either. It's a first-name business.

"Clint . . . that's all there is . . . there's no one but Clint. He'll win and everybody will dig it," said a studio executive who doesn't work at Warner Bros., which made and released the actor-director's "Unforgiven," a Western nominated in nine categories including best picture, best director, best actor and best original screenplay.

"Clint's a shoo-in for director. 'Unforgiven' for best picture," said Lili Fini Zanuck, the Academy Award-winning producer of "Driving Miss Daisy."

The reasons are myriad why Eastwood is the darling, apparently, of this unscientific, highly subjective sampling of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, 4,600 of whom vote for the Oscars, none of whom is supposed to say in advance of the show for whom they've voted.

And the reasons he's No. 1 in the top categories (except best actor) pretty much fall into two camps: for his body of work and because "Unforgiven" is viewed as being in the tradition of classic, unforgettable Hollywood movie-making of a kind rarely seen since the John Ford era.

Our interview subjects noted that the writing, the acting, the cinematography and the music put "Unforgiven" way out in front of its competitors in the best picture and best director categories. The other best picture nominees are two independently produced foreign productions ("The Crying Game" and "Howards End") and two popular big-budget Hollywood productions ("Scent of a Woman" and "A Few Good Men"). A couple of individuals noted that if Robert Altman's "The Player" had been nominated, the race would have been a lot closer.

Also, Eastwood's one of their own, a hometown boy (who has long lived primarily out of town). Moreover, he's likable, as evidenced by his apparent pleasure in making the rounds of the many pre-Oscar festivities during the past few weeks--always with a wide grin on his face and only funny, self-deprecating comments to say about his current favorite son status.

"It's a sentimental vote. The guy has served his time, and it means money for the studio. It goes both ways," a prominent talent agent said.

The steamroll effect will also help his chances, they said, after "Unforgiven" was voted best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Film Critics Assn. and Eastwood picked up the Directors Guild of America award.

Few said much about the other best director nominees, although several noted that it was a sign that the average age of the academy's roster must be coming down finally, considering writer-director Neil Jordan's unusual sexual-political thriller, "The Crying Game," made the cut.

There was also this overall assessment from a famously outspoken director who doesn't have a movie in competition this year: " 'Unforgiven' has a lock. It's a homage to a great career. 'The Crying Game' wouldn't have made it in a tough year. 'Howards End' . . . was good, but in six months you're going to be asking yourself, 'What was it about again?' 'Scent of a Woman'--unwatchable. 'A Few Good Men'? It was entertaining in a real mainstream-Hollywood way, but not as good as 'The Caine Mutiny.' "

As for best actor, Al Pacino too has a lock, these folks predicted.

The consensus on Pacino was that if he wins for "Scent of a Woman," he wins for all the previous Oscar-nominated performances for which he was passed over (six times in all), going back to his standout role as Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" (Parts I and II). He was chosen best actor for "Scent" by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Golden Globes.

Trailing way behind in our straw poll was Denzel Washington, the lead in "Malcolm X" and the winner of several critics' awards. "He turned in the best performance and he deserves it, but I'm always wrong about this stuff," said an executive of a powerful talent agency. "Last year, I thought Nick (Nolte, in "The Prince of Tides") was a lock, so what do I know?"

Sadly for Robert Downey Jr., the performance as Charlie Chaplin in the biopic "Chaplin" that earned nearly unanimous kudos from critics, didn't earn him much of an audience with this busy crowd. Only three people interviewed had seen his performance. No one even mentioned "The Crying Game's" Stephen Rea. And Eastwood's chances to win in this category, even in an "Unforgiven" sweep of the top prizes, were considered slim, most believed.

Best actress nominee Emma Thompson from "Howards End" edges out past Oscar nominee Susan Sarandon from "Lorenzo's Oil." No one came up with a definitive reason why it would be Thompson over Sarandon except that, at least in one producer's estimation, "everyone says it's Emma, so it must be Emma."

Nothing was said about Michelle Pfeiffer in "Love Field" or Mary McDonnell in "Passion Fish." French actress Catherine Deneuve's surprise nomination for her performance in the little-seen Colonial-era Vietnam romance "Indochine" was noted with a laugh by one studio executive: "You know it's got to be a weak year."

The popularity of "Unforgiven" among Clint supporters has spilled over in Gene Hackman's direction for best supporting actor. This is Hackman's third best supporting actor nomination; he won for best actor in 1971's "The French Connection."

Jack Nicholson was also high on the players' lists. "He made 'A Few Good Men,' " said one highly successful independent producer.

No one thought the academy was quite hip enough to vote a best supporting Oscar to Jaye Davidson of "The Crying Game." People were more interested in what he might wear to the ceremonies. The names of David Paymer for "Mr. Saturday Night" and Pacino, again, for "Glengarry Glen Ross" did not come up.

If Thompson's chances for best actress are considered a lock, best supporting actress went the opposite way with the insiders--most of whom thought the choices this year were all over the map. And, said one, "It's kind of, 'Who cares?' "

For sentimental and "lifetime achievement" reasons, some gave the nod to Joan Plowright, the British stage actress, co-star of "Enchanted April" and widow of Sir Laurence Olivier. Others thought "Husbands and Wives" might have been unwatchable (considering the real-life traumas of director Woody Allen) without Judy Davis, an Australian playing a suburban New York housewife.

No mention was made of Marisa Tomei from "My Cousin Vinny" or the two other Brits in competition: Vanessa Redgrave from "Howards End" or Miranda Richardson from "Damage."

All in all, the industry's powerbrokers, as reflected in these interviews, don't quite seem convinced that the academy's recognition of so many "small" films this year over big Hollywood productions is such a great thing, despite what critics have said. After all, most of them make big-budget studio pictures.

"When I was a kid watching the Oscars, the films just seemed more important, grander," said one highly successful producer. "They were with stars like Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand. Today, you're just not enamored with (the nominees). They're actors, but they're not personalities. It just isn't as much fun."

"Terminator" and "Aliens" producer Gale Anne Hurd prefers to take the high ground, however.

"I look at this as the academy becoming more inclusive. They are willing to embrace films outside the studio norm. It is not a note to studios that they have to make smaller-budgeted or quirkier films. Studios are in business to make money," she said. "The academy has gotten hipper--and that's wonderful."

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