Independents Day for Oscars

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Independents Day reigned Tuesday in Hollywood as films nurtured outside the studio system dominated the Oscar nominations, led by 12 for the World War II romantic drama "The English Patient."

Nominations for the 69th Academy Awards, announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, closely tracked the favorites of film critics this year, featured only a handful of Hollywood's bankable stars and stressed quality acting over the big-budget, computer-generated special effects that are a staple of studio films.

The exception to the scarcity of top names was a best actor nomination for the industry's biggest box-office draw, Tom Cruise, for his performance as a sports agent in "Jerry Maguire."

In addition to the Miramax film "The English Patient," the other best picture nominees are the dark comedy "Fargo" from Gramercy Pictures; TriStar Pictures' "Jerry Maguire;" director Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies" from independent October Films about a woman reuniting with her birth mother; and "Shine," from Fine Line Features, about emotionally troubled Australian pianist David Helfgott.

Hollywood saw the nominations as a potentially watershed event for independent filmmakers, who often toil for years to raise money and find distributors in an industry that usually shuns small films for costly, star-driven projects. Indeed, "The English Patient" once was halted less than a week before shooting was to start because studio executives wanted Demi Moore instead of Kristin Scott Thomas, nominated for best actress.

"Traditionally the movies that get a lot of notice have a lot of extras in them," said Billy Bob Thornton, a nominee for best actor and best adapted screenplay for "Sling Blade," which he also directed on a paltry $1-million budget. "I didn't. We usually had just one or two people walking by here and there."

Added Bingham Ray, co-managing executive of independent October Films: "The academy has to be really commended for acknowledging the output and importance of the independent filmmaker and sending a signal to the studios."

Familiar names who were nominated included best actor candidate Woody Harrelson for his portrayal of pornographer Larry Flynt in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and previous Oscar winner Diane Keaton, who received a best actress nomination for playing a cancer-stricken daughter devoted to a dying father in "Marvin's Room."

Nominated for best supporting actress was Lauren Bacall as the beauty-obsessed mother of Barbra Streisand's character in "The Mirror Has Two Faces," making her the instant sentimental favorite. It is the first nomination in Bacall's career, which dates back 53 years. Another sentimental favorite is playwright Arthur Miller, who received a screenwriting nomination for adapting his classic play "The Crucible."

A high-powered campaign by Walt Disney Co. failed to land a best acting nomination for Madonna as Eva Peron in the musical "Evita." Also shunned was singer Courtney Love, despite a much-praised performance in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," and Debbie Reynolds, whom some had expected to draw the sentimental vote for her well-received screen return in "Mother."

Instead, the nomination list was filled with the names of actors and actresses like veteran "ER" character actor William H. Macy, a best supporting actor nominee as a nervous car salesman with a bungled kidnapping scheme in "Fargo," and the Royal Shakespeare Co.'s Emily Watson, a best actress nominee for playing a young Scottish girl in "Breaking the Waves." Many of the actors and actresses are largely anonymous to filmgoers, but benefited from heaps of praise from critics for their performances.

In the best actress category, Keaton, Scott Thomas and Watson are joined by Brenda Blethyn as a mother in "Secrets & Lies" and Frances McDormand, who played a pregnant police chief in "Fargo." McDormand's husband, Joel Coen, received a directing nomination for the film, which was produced by his brother Ethan.

Reached on a movie set in Pasadena, Blethyn said she was overwhelmed by emotion upon hearing the news. "I am just so over the moon," the veteran British stage actress said. "I got off the set and I burst into tears."

Besides Cruise and Harrelson, best actor nominations went to Australian Geoffrey Rush for playing the adult Helfgott in "Shine," Ralph Fiennes as the downed pilot in "The English Patient" and Thornton, who in "Sling Blade" played a slow-witted man released after serving time in a mental hospital for murder.

In addition to Bacall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste was nominated for best supporting actress for playing a black British woman who tracks down her white birth mother in "Secrets & Lies"; Joan Allen, nominated last year for "Nixon," for her role in "The Crucible"; Juliette Binoche for playing the French-Canadian nurse who cares for Fiennes in "The English Patient"; and Barbara Hershey for her portrait of "The Portrait of A Lady's" anguished, manipulative Madame Merle.

For best supporting actor, Macy is joined by Cuba Gooding Jr. as a star athlete in "Jerry Maguire," Armin Mueller-Stahl as Helfgott's domineering father in "Shine," Edward Norton as a murder suspect in "Primal Fear" and James Woods as a racist killer in "Ghosts of Mississippi."

As in years past, a best picture nomination didn't guarantee that the film's director was nominated.

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe was bypassed for "Jerry Maguire" even though the film is up for best picture and Crowe received a nomination for best original screenplay. Milos Forman was nominated for directing "The People vs. Larry Flynt" even though the film failed to get a best picture nomination. Other director nominees were Coen, Anthony Minghella for "The English Patient," Leigh for "Secrets & Lies" and Scott Hicks for "Shine."

Hollywood executives said that "Larry Flynt," about the Hustler magazine publisher's Supreme Court fight over free speech, suffered from a backlash led by feminists who argue that the movie makes a 1st Amendment hero out of a pornographer.

In an interview, Harrelson called the backlash misguided. "I don't think it's a glorification of Larry Flynt," Harrelson said. "The detractors in that sense are unfair."

Forman said that his nomination is an important statement amid the backlash.

"I feel very, very honored especially because this baby of mine had the worst attacks by some pressure groups, who launched a campaign to sway the members of the academy away from voting for us," he said.

The clear favorite for the March 24 awards show is "The English Patient." "It was hard to deal with the front-runner talk," Minghella said. "I wasn't afraid of being jinxed--it's just that I didn't want to feel the film lived or died according to the number of nominations."

Some Hollywood executives see a more wide open race, saying it is unlikely "The English Patient" will lead the kind of landslide that occurred in past years when the dominance of such films as "Forrest Gump" and "Schindler's List" took the suspense out of the evening.

Some nominated films carry with them horror stories illustrating the difficulties in making films that are the antithesis of Hollywood-style movies.

"A story about a Polish Jew immigrant who lives in Perth, Australia, and happens to be a classical pianist is not the kind of concept that people leaped on," Rush said of "Shine,' which was roundly turned down by all the studios and even a few independents. "But somehow it finds its way through, and that's what's great."

Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein noted that "The English Patient" nearly didn't get made because 20th Century Fox, which originally had the film, pulled the plug because it wanted to nix Kristin Scott Thomas.

"This is a terrific vindication for a movie that was five days away from not being made," Weinstein said.

"English Patient" producer Saul Zaentz said that to get the film made, he invested $5.75 million while key crew members deferred $9.7 million in salaries.

Although films dominating the nominations are considered independents, many have ties to major studios thanks to recent mergers and acquisitions. Distributor Miramax, which led the pack with 20 nominations, is an autonomous unit of the Walt Disney Co. Fine Line, which distributed "Shine," is part of Time Warner Inc.

Although Oscar nominations usually have little impact on hit Hollywood films like "Forrest Gump" because movie audiences have already seen them, they can provide a huge boost for independents by giving them valuable publicity that draws out the curious.

"The title doesn't suggest the emotional impact, so it's easy to overlook in a crowded market," said "English Patient" director Minghella. "These nominations should encourage people reserved about going to see a film with no stars to take the risk."

Still, a film such as "The English Patient," which cost a relatively modest $33 million to make and has grossed $42 million domestically, can prove highly profitable.

"Our success says you can treat the audience seriously--that there's a market for pictures that have something to say," Zaentz said. " 'Shine,' 'Fargo,' 'Secrets & Lies' all require a commitment--and they'll make money as well."

Times staff writer Elaine Dutka contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Independents Day for Oscars

BEST PICTURE

Total nominations

* The English Patient: 12

* Fargo: 7

* Shine: 7

Jerry Maguire: 5

* Secrets & Lies: 5

* Designates independent release

****

BEST ACTOR

Tom Cruise: Jerry Maguire

Ralph Fiennes: The English Patient

Woody Harrelson: The People vs. Larry Flynt

Geoffrey Rush: Shine

Billy Bob Thornton: Sling Blade

****

BEST ACTRESS

Brenda Blethyn: Secrets & Lies

Diane Keaton: Marvin's Room

Frances McDormand: Fargo

Kristin Scott Thomas: The English Patient

Emily Watson: Breaking the Waves

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