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Oscar will finally pay its respects to Spielberg

For years, the word around Hollywood has been that Oscar voters have some kind of a grudge against Steven Spielberg. He makes good movies and he makes popular movies, and sometimes he makes both at the same time, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never awarded its best director award to the most successful director in history.

This year, though, things will be different, and the 66th Academy Awards will be Spielberg's night. He's made a movie they can't refuse. "Schindler's List" is so clearly the best film released in 1993, towering above the other nominees in its artistry, its ambition and its importance, it's inconceivable that it will not receive the Oscar for the best film and best director.

Spielberg started very young (he made a movie for television almost before he started shaving), and his work was crowned with box-office success right from the first; "Jaws" (1974), made while he was still in his 20s, established the modern tradition of the big-budget summer blockbuster. Over the years, he's been equally at home with audience pleasers (the three "Indiana Jones" movies) and more ambitious projects ("The Color Purple," 1985, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 1977). And with movies like "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) and "Jurassic Park," he expanded the possibilities of the special-effects film while rewriting box-office history.

"Jurassic Park," released last June, is already the most successful movie ever made. For most directors, that in itself would make a year's work. But then late in the year came "Schindler's List," a masterful three-hour black-and-white film about the Holocaust, and audiences were stunned by its power.

Maybe Hollywood was waiting, all of these years, for Spielberg to really stretch himself. He somehow made his films look easy, and maybe the academy voters were dismissive, or jealous, or thought he collected his prizes at the box office. "Schindler's List" did not look easy. It was the product of some 10 years of planning in Spielberg's imagination, and the result was a triumphant film about the mysterious currents of human evil, ingenuity and courage.

Spielberg's efforts should not go unnoticed by academy voters, who will give "Schindler's List" the Oscars for best picture, director, supporting actor, screenplay adaptation, cinematography, editing, original score and sound - eight, in all. In the technical categories, it will lose only for best art direction and costume design (both Oscars will go to "The Age of Innocence") and makeup ("Mrs. Doubtfire" will win). Spielberg will pick up two additional Oscars when "Jurassic Park" wins for sound-effects editing, and visual effects. BEST ACTOR Tom Hanks, "Philadelphia"

Looking over the other categories for this year's Oscar night, March 21, I have a feeling many are going to be harder to predict than the conventional wisdom suggests. (Modesty forbids I should mention my tally of 10 out of 11 last year, which wasn't such an easy year.) The day the nominations were announced, I felt certain of the winners in the top six categories, but now I'm not so sure.

I am sure that Tom Hanks will win as best actor, however, for his work in "Philadelphia" as a lawyer dying of AIDS. The voters will mark their ballots for him because he gave a fine, strong performance - and also because that gives them an opportunity to support the first big-budget, major-star Hollywood movie about AIDS. They'll also recognize that Hanks, known as a superb comic actor, crossed into serious territory here and did some of the best work in his career.

The runner-up in the category will be Anthony Hopkins, for "Remains of the Day." This was another great performance, in a very strong field, but Hopkins won as best actor only two years ago, and the voters won't return to him soon. Of the other nominees, Liam Neeson, in "Schindler's List," gave a performance perfectly suited to the material, but it wasn't a showboat role because the movie kept his motives so well masked. Laurence Fishburne gave the best performance in the category (in my opinion) as bandleader Ike Turner, in "What's Love Got to Do With It," but here the nomination itself is his reward because the film did not capture a large audience. And Daniel Day-Lewis, in "In the Name of the Father," is another recent British winner who won't repeat. BEST ACTRESS Holly Hunter, "The Piano"

Holly Hunter will win as best actress for "The Piano," which has been the most talked-about performance by an actress since she was honored at the Cannes Film Festival last May. In a virtuoso role as a woman who has voluntarily refused to speak for years, she used her eyes, body language and fierce energy to communicate clearly and unmistakably. And her character was such an odd, unforgettable woman - a woman with a daughter, landed on a forlorn New Zealand coast and thrown into marriage with an unsympathetic man - that it remains fresh in the minds of everyone who saw it.

Of the other nominees, Angela Bassett, for "What's Love Got to Do With It," is the possible upset winner. Playing Hollywood favorite Tina Turner, she showed enormous range in a performance that covered some 30 years and required both charismatic musical performances and harrowing scenes of domestic violence.

Among the remaining nominees, Stockard Channing was fine in "Six Degrees of Separation," but neither the character nor the film was likable or easily understood; Emma Thompson, of "Remains of the Day," won't win two years in a row, and Debra Winger, for "Shadowlands," glowed in a film I doubt all of the voters will have seen. SUPPORTING ACTOR Ralph Fiennes, "Schindler's List"

The best supporting actors category is fairly tricky to pick, I think.

Many observers think Tommy Lee Jones is the front-runner. But Ralph Fiennes, who played the sadistic Nazi prison camp commandant, did a brilliant job of embodying the face of stupid, implacable evil that Spielberg needed in "Schindler's List." His character's selfishness is monstrous: He is quite prepared to condemn an entire race to death, yet spares one young Jewish girl because he is attracted to her, and then has the nerve to grow sentimental about her.

Although Ben Kingsley could also reasonably have been nominated in this category for his role as Schindler's chief accountant (and might have deserved to win), the fact that "Schindler" did not get a double nomination probably guarantees an Oscar for Fiennes.

Of the other nominees, Tommy Lee Jones would have won in any other year, for his superb work as the quixotic U.S. marshal in "The Fugitive." But my hunch is that a landslide for "Schindler's List" will sweep in Fiennes (but not Neeson). Jones is certainly his leading competition, however.

The others (Leonardo DiCaprio, as the retarded kid brother in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," John Malkovich, as a twisted would-be assassin in "In the Line of Fire," and Pete Postlethwaite, wrongly thrown into prison along with his son in "In the Name of the Father"), are out of the running. SUPPORTING ACTRESS Rosie Perez, "Fearless"

For best supporting actress, I originally thought Winona Ryder would win for "The Age of Innocence." Now I'm not so sure. The film itself is not very popular in Hollywood, where its director, Martin Scorsese, has been passed over as often as Spielberg. It was seen as an over-budget "arty" indulgence in the industry (which did not appreciate its masterful filmmaking).

If Ryder doesn't win, it is obvious that Rosie Perez will, for her work as an air crash survivor in "Fearless," and that is my prediction. The other three nominees are out of the running, Anna Paquin (of "The Piano") because she is a child and an industry outsider who must be content with a nomination, and Holly Hunter ("The Firm") and Emma Thompson ("In the Name of the Father") because they are both also in the best actress category, and will split their support. OTHER PREDICTIONS

For best song, Bruce Springsteen will win for "The Streets of Philadelphia," from "Philadelphia." It's the best song musically among the nominees, and also notable because it marks the first time a straight male singer has chosen to write and sing from the point of view of a gay man.

For best foreign language film: "Farewell My Concubine," the epic from China and Hong Kong, using the lives of two members of the Peking Opera as a starting point for an extraordinary insider's view of recent decades in Chinese history.

For best documentary, the winner will be "The War Room," the behind-the-scenes documentary that traced Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency from the snows of New Hampshire to election eve. The movie focused on partners with different styles, campaign manager James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos.

For original screenplay, Jane Campion will win for "The Piano," and that will be the academy's way of honoring both her film and her direction in a year when both will lose in more important categories to "Schindler's List." For screenplay adaptation, as I've already said, the winner will be Steven Zaillian for "Schindler's List."

This year's Oscarcast airs starting at 8 p.m. Monday, March 21, on WLS-Channel 7. The mistress of ceremonies will be Whoopi Goldberg. And the guys from Price Waterhouse are counting the ballots even despite my fearless predictions.

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