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THE 67TH ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATIONS : COMMENTARY : ‘Hoop,’ ‘Red’ Expose Holes in Academy Categories

TIMES FILM CRITIC

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were a person, the caring thing would be to place it under observation for signs of a seriously split personality.

For though most of its members either work or have worked for the major Hollywood studios making forgettable commercial pictures, when it comes to voting, academyites tend not to respect their meal ticket. Miramax, the mighty monarch of independent companies (its spirit unaltered despite being acquired by Disney), led all comers with 22 nominations, the five nominations for the small but savvy Samuel Goldwyn Co. tied it with giants Fox and Warner Bros., and Gramercy Pictures with four nominations doubled the total of its sleeping-giant parent, Universal.

And though “Forrest Gump,” which had a near-record 13 nominations, was very much a studio film, the three movies tied for second with seven nominations each (Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption”) were all made by independents.

Every actress in the supporting category came from an independent film, four distributed by Miramax and one, “The Madness of King George,” by Samuel Goldwyn. And if you count “Quiz Show” as an independent-type film (which, given Robert Redford’s protective abilities, you should), all the best picture nominees except “Gump” were of that persuasion.

And the academy members did not shy away from making adventurous choices in certain areas. Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris were plucked from the little-seen “Tom & Viv” for acting nominations, and “King George,” released in the last week of the year and initially in only one theater locally, nevertheless managed four nominations. These include two of the coveted acting nods (for Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren as Mr. and Mrs. King) and a screenwriting one for Alan Bennett.

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The writers’ branch of the academy was especially deft in many of its choices. Original screenplay nods went to the dazzling “Heavenly Creatures” and to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s remarkable “Red,” and the editing branch branched out and gave one of its nominations to the landmark documentary “Hoop Dreams.”

To mention “Red” and “Hoop Dreams,” however, is to bring up two areas, the foreign-language film and the documentary, where if the members of those branches knew the meaning of the word shame they would now be making arrangements for group suicide.

The problem with the foreign-language voters is that they are frankly too complacent and perhaps even too lazy to do the kind of wholesale rules revisions that would accurately reflect the current realities of overseas filmmaking.

With so many foreign films being made by intricate combinations of webs of corporations from several lands, there is only one justification for keeping the current one-country, one-film rule: It is less work for the academy that way. Not only does allowing only countries to nominate the films the academy considers make it possible for deserving films like Xhang Yimou’s “To Live” to get ignored for political reasons, the complicated rules set up to ensure that the right film goes with the right political entity often lead to penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions.

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So this year, Kieslowski’s “Red,” a film impressive enough to gain both best director and best screenplay nominations, no small thing, was not eligible to compete in the best foreign film category. Though it is clearly the class of the overseas field, it failed the academy’s arcane version of a saliva test. If the words “Best Foreign Language Film” are to be taken to really mean what they say, the academy is going to have to rouse itself from its legalistic torpor and make some changes that are truly meaningful.

As far as the documentary branch goes, the problems there are nothing less than a complete scandal. It’s not only that the branch refused to nominate “Hoop Dreams,” the most acclaimed documentary of the past decade, or that it turned down “Crumb,” another exceptional work that won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Festival. It’s that for as far back as anyone can remember, this small-minded branch has consistently refused to nominate any documentary that has had the temerity to get any kind of public attention.

“Roger & Me.” “The Thin Blue Line.” “A Brief History of Time.” “Paris Is Burning.” “Black Harvest.” By any rational standard, these are among the very best documentaries of recent years. What else do they have in common? The documentary branch in its finite wisdom has refused to nominate any of them.

And what has the documentary branch nominated this year? There is nothing embarrassing about any of the five, and at least one, “Freedom on My Mind,” is exceptional, but all of them fall into the safe, middle-of-the-road category the branch worships. And documentary insiders will be quick to note that one of the nominees, “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” is co-directed by a former head of the branch, Freida Lee Mock.

This is not intended as a slam at “Maya Lin.” It is a fine documentary and fully deserves being nominated. But to pick it and not pick such undeniably worthy films as “Hoop Dreams” and “Crumb” smacks of cronyism of the worst sort. For far too long, the documentary branch has been run as a private game preserve, as rife with obtuse favoritism as an outpost of Tammany Hall.

If its members had any decency, they’d all resign on the spot, and if the academy, usually ever-so-touchy about its reputation, had any true regard for the validity of its awards, it would abolish this category entirely if it lacks the will to reform it.

For shame, everyone, for shame.


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