American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
If "The Cider House Rules" wins the Academy Award for best picture next Sunday night, expect the groans to more or less equal the cheers. There are those who sincerely believe it is a good picture, but there are other, perhaps more numerous, who believe "Cider's" seven nominations are less a tribute to the film's greatness than to the well-oiled Miramax Oscar Machine.
No studio campaigns more enthusiastically than Miramax, or with better results. Last year's upset of Hollywood god Steven Spielberg and his "Saving Private Ryan," both toppled by Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love," provided a dramatic example. "Ryan" was from Dreamworks, and this year's front-runner, "American Beauty," is also a Dreamworks production. Will Miramax enforce the "Rules?" Or will Dreamworks gain revenge?
I don't know. Last year, sensing the power of the Miramax campaign, I correctly predicted that "Shakespeare in Love" would upset "Ryan." I should learn from my experience, and predict "Cider House" this year. But I can't believe enough Academy members would vote for such a muddled and meandering film. More likely they'll look down their ballots and reward its star, Michael Caine, instead.
Looking down the ballot may be one of this year's favorite occupations. Many well-regarded films failed to win best picture nominations, but placed finalists in other categories, and voters may reward "The Talented Mr. Ripley" by voting for Jude Law, ""Being John Malkovich" by voting for Catherine Keener, or "Magnolia" by voting for Tom Cruise.
But my guess is that it will be an "American Beauty" evening, with that strange and haunting film winning more Oscars than any other contender. Here are my predictions:
"American Beauty." From the night it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it has been this year's presumptive Oscar winner. Many years a last-minute December opening will sweep away early sentiment, but this year none of the late arrivals seem to have impressed the Academy that much.
Omens: "American Beauty" led all nominees with eight mentions, it swept up a lot of the critics' prizes, and its director, Sam Mendes, won the Director's Guild of America Award--usually a good predictor of the best picture Oscar. then its co-stars, Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, won the Screen Actors' Guild awards; SGA wins in the top acting categories are a 90 percent accurate predictor of the Oscars.
Best Actor Kevin Spacey. He'll win because it's a strong performance, because he'll benefit from the "American Beauty" sweep, and because his chief competitor, Denzel Washington, will suffer from what I think is unwarranted concern about the accuracy of his film, "The Hurricane." Early on, I was convinced this would be Washington's year. But Washington received the only major nomination for "The Hurricane," even though it's the kind of socially-conscious story the Academy goes for. Why? Because of articles criticizing the accuracy of the film's facts.
My own feeling about facts is that the ideal medium for them is print. Movies are an entertainment medium. They cheerfully shape the facts to their needs. Among this year's top nominees alone, we have "The Insider," which Mike Wallace thinks misrepresents his role in the tobacco story; "The Straight Story," which presents Alvin Straight as a secular saint when he was reportedly pretty crusty; and "Music Of The Heart," which many people think misrepresents the life and career of Roberta Guaspari.
In the recent past, the Academy has honored such films based on fact as "Braveheart, " "Schindler's List," "Dances with Wolves," "The Last Emperor," and "Amadeus." Who wants to step up and say how factual they were? ("Amadeus" is about a rivalry between Solieri and Mozart, who never met).
Nevertheless, Washington will suffer from the backlash against "The Hurricane," and Spacey will win as best actor. On March 12, he defeated Washington to win the Screen Actors' Guild award for best actor. The memberships of SAG and the actor's branch of the Academy have a considerable overlap; since more Oscar voters are actors than anything else, place your bets.
Annette Bening. Because of an "American Beauty" sweep, and also because Oscar voters seem to be trying to script TV program when they make their choices. They know Bening's husband, Warren Beatty, will be given the Irving Thalberg Award on Sunday night, and they'll like the symmetry of having them both onstage as winners.
Some feel Hilary Swank will win, for her extraordinary work in "Boys Don't Cry," as a girl who decides to live as a boy. That would please me enormously, but I think it's unlikely. Swank is a relative unknown; Bening is Hollywood royalty, as proven when she was named best actress over Swank, by SAG.
Best Supporting Actor
Michael Caine. He'll benefit from the "The Cider House Rules" campaign; voters won't be able to agree with Miramax it's the year's best picture, but will reward it here, honoring one of the most prolific and popular actors in the industry. Caine's chances look better after he won the SAG award (or maybe not; SAG only scores 50 percent in predicting winners in the supporting categories).
The possible upsets here will come from the largest and smallest nominees: Towering Michael Clarke Duncan of "The Green Mile," or young Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense." Duncan made a wonderful impression in "Mile" and is good in the box office hit "The Whole Nine Yards," but Hollywood friends tell me his campaign hasn't been handled with much savvy. Osment may benefit from the Academy's liking for child actors.
Best Supporting Actress
Angelina Jolie, for "Girl, Interrupted." This despite the fact that the film did little at the box office and drew middling reviews. Jolie, the daughter of Jon Voight, is one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood right now, and was sensational in the film. Another omen: Like Caine, Jolie won in this category in the SAG awards.
Still, some say Catherine Keener, from "Being John Malkovich," and Chloe Sevigny, from "Boys Don't Cry," have a chance. I don't think so. Although I picked "Malkovich" as the year's best film and recommended that the Academy nominate Sevigny on our annual "Memo to the Academy" on TV, I think both actresses are in films that some Academy members simply don't relate to. That's not to say they love to "Girl, Interrupted," with Jolie as a free spirit in a mental institution, but the buzz will help her along. (She's also a SAG winner.)
Sam Mendes, for "American Beauty." This is the nearest thing to a lock, since Mendes has already won the Directors' Guild of America Award, and it's an almost infallible predictor for the Oscar.
Best documentary: "The Buena Vista Social Club." This portrait of a group of elderly Cuban musicians, who dust off their instruments and have a concert at Carnegie Hall, is the most popular of the year's docs, and the sound track seems to be playing everywhere. The other nominees don't have the same kind of juice, although there's sentiment for "On the Ropes" because one of its subjects, Tyrene Manson, is still behind bars--unjustly, many feel.
Best foreign film: Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother." It's popular, and so is he. It has been widely-seen--but remember, the only voters eligible in this category are those who have seen all five nominees. Unless one of them is a sensational sleeper, however, Almodovar owns this category.
Best Song: Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me," from "Toy Story 2." It made some people cry. Possible upset: "Blame Canada," from "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," just because voters will get a kick out of voting for such a scuzzy and irreverent song.
Best original screenplay: "American Beauty," even though web surfers know that Alan Ball's screenplay originally ended with a trial, and the film's current ending (both haunting and, for some people, confusing) was created during the editing process.
Best screenplay adaptation: "The Cider House Rules." John Irving worked for years on the screenplay, based on his novel, and has written a book about the experience. Hollywood likes his work ("The World According to Garp") and Miramax will be campaigning enthusiastically in this category.
In the technical categories, I expect "The Matrix" to do very well, with wins for editing, visual effects, sound effects and sound. Its chief competitor is probably "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace," but my guess is that the Academy liked "The Matrix" more as a movie.
Art direction: "Sleepy Hollow." Every scene--even the exteriors and the forest--was created on a set in Tim Burton's dreamy vision of New England horror.
Costume design: "Anna And The King." Jenny Beavan's sumptuous costumes were a joy to behold.
Makeup: "Bicentennial Man." This will be Robin Williams' only consolation for having to endure great discomfort while making a movie most people disliked.
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