The Oscars, always Xanax time in Hollywood, are causing even bigger panic attacks this year, when no one film is thought to have a lock on an Academy Award. With such a wide-open field (a rarity in the nineties, when The Silence of the Lambs, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, and Titanic swept the major categories), the next eight weeks get even tetchier.
In Hollywood (unlike New York, where the Academy Award ruckus takes a back seat to Puffy, Hillary, and the Donald), it's all Oscar, all the time. Radio stations broadcast back-to-back ads in an annoying effort to brainwash SUV-captive Academy members. Mail deliveries bulge with Oscar-related giveaways that instantly become trash-can throwaways. Even cable TV isn't safe: An entire channel has been taken over by "For Your Consideration" movie trailers screened what seems like 24 hours a day. And sporadically since December, a creepy infomercial starring Tom Cruise in the guise of his Magnolia character, Frank Mackey, has been airing in L.A.'s wee hours on VH1 and TNT. Cruise/Mackey pitches a "Seduce and Destroy" how-to video for picking up women, complete with phone number for "ordering." All that toil, just for a clip from the film; yet, weirdly, Magnolia is never mentioned (though the URL on the screen is a link to the Magnolia Website).
Irritating as all this may be, some missteps may prove even costlier to the studios, not exactly populated with geniuses in the first place. Both Universal and New Line decided to tinker with the traditional formula of sending out those all-important videocassettes of their major films to voters by mid-December. According to sources, the two studios feared their best prospects -- Universal's The Hurricane and New Line's Magnolia, two of the year's longer films -- would get lost in the barrage. Figuring that voters would remember best those pictures that were freshest in their minds, the studios sent out the tapes just as the nominating forms were mailed. Many Academy members didn't get the tapes until after they'd received their ballots. Now, there's a real chance that they'll return their ballots without having seen either film, since it's virtually a given that few of those notoriously geriatric Academy members ever actually shuffle into a movie theater.
As for the movies themselves, the muttering is that the current crop of Oscar contenders, many of them well-meaning and even well-received, are too flawed to sweep the awards. At one point or another this year, Magnolia (too self-indulgent), The Hurricane (too p.c.), The Green Mile (too saccharine), The Straight Story (too low-key), and Being John Malkovich (too bizarre) were each in turn touted as a sure thing to win Best Picture -- shortly before they came out. But Oscar fortunes run fickle right up until the final balloting: What looks promising in November, a sure thing by Christmas, can become a long shot by the end of January. On the other hand, a faint buzz in October can end up a lock by March. This is a faddist business, with Academy Award product no different than, say, pony-skin Prada purses.
Even the critics' favorites this year were all over the map, from Topsy-Turvy (no way an Oscar contender) to Three Kings (closer) to All About My Mother (though Pedro Almodóvar will surely win for Best Foreign Film) to The Insider (definite contender). But all four movies made bubkes at the box office, and -- at least in the major categories -- Academy members don't like to look out of step with public taste. As for former front-runner The Insider, Hollywood, ever a hotbed of antisocial behavior, is filled with smokers. Bad enough they can't puff away at their Beverly Hills bistros anymore; they're hardly going to cheer a movie that buries the tobacco companies besides.
Instead, this Joe Roth (you remember Joe Roth -- used to be a Disney suit?) pet project has taken a back seat to American Beauty as the Best Picture front-runner right now. Yes, beating up on DreamWorks for offenses real or imagined ("Hemorrhaging money!" "The partners are fighting with one another!" "Prince of Egypt lost money!" "Where's the damn studio?") is de rigueur in these parts. But given that it makes only a handful of films each year, upstart DreamWorks should be grudgingly congratulated for having produced more Oscar-worthy movies than certainly Sony, Warners, Universal, Disney, and MGM (Paramount being the only exception) in the last few years. On the other hand, satirical movies don't go down well with Oscar voters.
Now the wild cards, starting with The Talented Mr. Ripley. Miramax can never be counted out, even though Harvey Weinstein spent most of this Oscar season in the hospital. (Get well soon, Harv. Life's less interesting without you.) Notwithstanding an aggressive Oscar campaign run by Paramount, Harvey's partner on Ripley, this year Miramax simply doesn't have the goods. Did anyone really buy that New York Times Magazine effort to lay a patina of cultural significance on this flick about a psychopath? After flying high throughout December, Ripley is in a deep trough Oscar-wise, since the movie failed to live up to hyped expectations, either critically or at the box office. Miramax has a much better shot with The Cider House Rules. What's baffling is why parent company Disney didn't instead take some of that Miramax Oscar-marketing coin and put it behind The Sixth Sense, the Mouse House blockbuster even the worst cynic in Hollywood can't find fault with.
The colleagues nominated by the Directors Guild of America for its own best-of-show ribbon almost always go on to become the Oscar nominees. So add Michael Mann (The Insider), Spike Jonze (Malkovich), Frank Darabont (The Green Mile), and, most popular, Sam Mendes (American Beauty). (Missing was Anthony Minghella, yet another signal that Ripley is R.I.P.)
The acting nominations always fol-low a few basic rules. If you're playing a member of a group shamelessly exploited by Hollywood -- i.e., the handicapped, kids, ingenues, a racial or ethnic minority -- that's a plus. So is being English or Irish, or being an American who talks as if you're English or Irish. More popular than ever are boys playing girls, or girls playing boys. Voters love superstars who agree to appear for no money in a small-budget picture (so long as the filmmakers tout your Oscar potential).
In the Best Actor category, forget that the NAACP is breathing down the necks of the networks and that there's always the possibility that Jesse Jackson will picket the Oscars. Denzel Washington would still be in front of this crowded field for a performance as chiseled as his abs in Hurricane. Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey are shoo-ins. The two dark horses are Richard Farnsworth (for The Straight Story), who has that geezer thing down cold, and Sean Penn, whose performance in Sweet and Lowdown continues to generate great word of mouth, even if the theaters for this film are virtually empty. But they'd have to edge out Tom Hanks (The Green Mile), Jim Carrey (Man on the Moon), or Matt Damon (Mr. Ripley; c'mon, it's not all that brave to play near-gay).
Just as congested is Best Supporting Actor, jam-packed with living legends who can't possibly all get nods. Kirk Douglas (Diamonds) may have the edge as a two-fer sentimental favorite (AARP and speech-impaired by a stroke), and Michael Caine (Cider House Rules) may not be quite old enough, but Christopher Plummer (The Insider) and Max von Sydow (Snow Falling on Cedars) qualify. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as a transvestite in Flawless fulfills one of the crucial nomination rules, as do ankle-biter Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) and semi-teen Tobey Maguire (Cider House Rules). Don't forget HIV-positive Michael Jeter and African-American Michael Clarke Duncan (both in The Green Mile).
For Best Actress, it's come down to a two-country contest: the Americans -- Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry and Annette Bening for American Beauty -- versus the Brits -- Janet McTeer for Tumbleweeds and Emily Watson for Angela's Ashes. Swank currently has the edge, although Bening was the favorite until she stupidly opened her mouth about Hillary Clinton in this slavishly Democratic town. And even though Miramax promised Meryl Streep a nod for Music of the Heart, she isn't wrinkled enough for stature as a national treasure nor needy enough, with two golden boys on her mantel already. Finally, Julianne Moore (Magnolia) and Sigourney Weaver (A Map of the World) could be blanked in favor of Reese Witherspoon (Election) for no other reason than the fact that this town may venerate old age but it worships youth.
The Best Supporting Actress category should be changed to Best Daughter, with no fewer than four actresses who played one: Thora Birch (American Beauty), Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), Natalie Portman (Anywhere but Here), and Kimberly Brown (Tumbleweeds). They're all so Savvy and Jane that Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted) looks like their mother. And don't forget over-30 Catherine Keener (Malkovich), as a spoiler in this race.
Missing in action will be The Muse's Sharon Stone, who is toast after her $295-Coach-watch gambit to buy Golden Globes votes for her comic turn. Get real. She'd have to spend 100 times that to exchange Academy-member ballots for renovated kitchens with Sub-Zero refrigerators and Jenn-Air grills (as one movie studio purportedly does year after year). Then again, unlike making Oscar-worthy movies, spending money is about the only thing the moguls have ever done consistently well.