THE 66th ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATIONS : Commentary : Somehow, the Film Academy Gets It Right


Periodically derided for being ossified, provincial and worse, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did more than hand out a slew of nominations Wednesday, it struck a blow for its own reputation.

No, the actors’ branch didn’t come up with the nerve to nominate David Thewlis for “Naked,” indisputably one of the top male performances of the year, but the academy did demonstrate notable discernment in picking its way through the hundreds of films eligible to find diamonds glittering in the rough.

Both Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, exceptional in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” got tapped for best actress and best actor even though their film was not that broadly seen. The same goes for youthful prodigy Leonardo DiCaprio, a best supporting actor nominee for the even less-seen “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” And the actors resisted the temptation to go with Anthony Hopkins’ showier performance in “Shadowlands” and picked his more subtle work in “The Remains of the Day” instead.


Other academy branches were equally discriminating. The directors recognized what an accomplished piece of work “Short Cuts” was for Robert Altman, the cinematographers picked up on the virtuoso quality of Conrad Hall’s photography in “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and both the art directors and costumers understood that those were the only elements of “Orlando” worth getting excited about.

Similarly the writers’ branch, which has been accused of shortchanging both comedy and action scripts, nominated “Dave,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “In the Line of Fire” for best original screenplay. And the academy as a whole showed itself not too snooty to appreciate the gangbusters’ charm of “The Fugitive,” picking it seven times, including best picture but not including director (and DGA nominee) Andrew Davis.

For those nominated films that were not must-sees when they played in theaters, the role of videotapes shipped to academy members’ homes loomed once again as a potent weapon. Tapes were also probably critical for the powerhouse “In the Name of the Father,” which did not show up in theaters until Dec. 29 but ended with seven nominations.

The academy also showed notable restraint in the recognition it gave to “Philadelphia,” which opened to a lot of buzz many moviegoers felt it didn’t live up to. Aside from nominations going to good soldier Tom Hanks for best actor and Ron Nyswaner for best original screenplay, the film’s only other successes were for two original songs and best makeup.

If any quality films had reason to feel that the academy was not nearly as discerning as it might be, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Age of Innocence” would fit the bill. Despite glowing reviews and a strong campaign, “Much Ado” did not manage a single nomination. And “Age,” though it did gather five, could not secure one for director Martin Scorsese, generally emphasizing the truth of the buzz that the film was not playing well in this town.

Overall, though this year might superficially look like a resurgent one for the Hollywood Establishment, a closer look at the biggest winners underlines a trend--first noticeable the last time around--away from traditional studio product as Oscar contenders.


First of all, several studios did not fare well at all in Wednesday’s announcements. The Disney organization, which probably released more films than any other major studio last year, can boast of only three nominations, ditto for Paramount, while all 20th Century Fox had to show for its trouble was a single nod for best makeup for “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Look now at the big winners. “The Piano,” with eight nominations, including best picture, was an independent French-Australian production using American stars. Two other best picture nominees, the Merchant Ivory “Remains of the Day” (eight nominations) and “In the Name of the Father,” had largely British casts and crews, came to the studios that distributed them as tidy packages and did not go through the usual development process.

And with Steven Spielberg, like Clint Eastwood with “Unforgiven” last year, functioning pretty much as an independent duchy while shooting “Schindler’s List,” that left only one film out of five, “The Fugitive,” to hold up the flag for the old-fashioned Hollywood way of making pictures.

The same international cross-fertilization that characterized the best picture nominees was also a factor in the best foreign-language film nominees. In fact, three of the pictures named--”Farewell My Concubine,” “The Wedding Banquet” and “The Scent of Green Papaya”--had origins so multinational it took a special dispensation from the academy before they could be declared eligible. For once, the surprises in this category were minimal: the lack of a nomination for “Germinal,” the ponderous epic from France, and the inclusion of “Hedd Wyn,” a Welsh-language film from the United Kingdom.

If the foreign-language selections looked mostly familiar to habitual moviegoers, the same could not quite be said for the feature documentaries, though there was progress in that area. Two of this year’s choices, “The War Room” and “Children of Fate,” were good enough to have earned theatrical releases, but the doc branch didn’t see fit to nominate such fine work as “It’s All True” and “Something Within Me,” a big favorite at Sundance last year. Maybe the three unknown films that were picked will turn out to be dazzling, but if experience is any judge, don’t hold your breath.