Conventional wisdom has it that the Motion Picture Academy likes to honor Feel Good films with its Oscars. Gritty and violent movies may be nominated for the best picture award, but the winner will be a movie that embraces traditional values and leaves us with a warm glow. That theory has certainly held true over the past 10 years, during which the only really Feel Bad movie that won as best picture was "Platoon." I do not count such Feel Good About Feeling Bad movies as "Terms of Endearment."
During the last decade, the best picture award failed to go to such excellent Feel Bad movies as "Sophie's Choice," "The Killing Fields," "The Accused," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Do the Right Thing." That trend is partly due to modern Hollywood's lockstep endorsement of the obligatory happy ending, and partly due to an industrywide guilt complex, which can be paraphrased as: "We make such crap all year long that we'd better give the Oscar to something halfway wholesome."
If the conventional wisdom is correct about the five nominees for best picture at this year's Academy Award ceremony, the winner will be "Beauty and the Beast," an animated cartoon that is certainly among the best films of the year, but has a lot of tradition going against it. No animated feature has ever before been nominated for this award, let alone won it.
If "Beauty" does not win (and I think its chances are slight), the voters will have to choose among four films of varying degrees of Feel Badness: "The Silence of the Lambs," "JFK," "Bugsy" and "Prince Of Tides." Between, in other words, serial killers, assassination conspiracies, ruthless gangsters and the survivors of child abuse.
Faced with this choice, conventional wisdom has anointed "Bugsy" as the favorite. Warren Beatty's casino-building gangster is a cold-blooded murderer, to be sure, but he's also charming, has a way with the ladies, helped found a great American city, etc. Of the other nominees, conventional wisdom argues that "The Silence of the Lambs," with its cannibal for an antihero, can hardly be elected in the year of Jeffrey Dahmer; that "JFK" is too controversial and rabble-rousing, and that Barbra Streisand's "The Prince of Tides" will fall to Hollywood's inexplicable but apparently real antipathy toward the filmmaker. So, "Bugsy" it has to be.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. "The Silence of the Lambs" will not only win the Academy Award as best picture, but will lead an across-the-board sweep of the top three categories, with awards for Anthony Hopkins as best actor and Jodie Foster as best actress.
I have come to this conclusion by ignoring the conventional wisdom and simply listening to the hundreds of people who have mentioned the film to me since it opened in February 1991. They won't stop talking about it. They like it. They smile as they describe it. They remember it more vividly than movies they saw yesterday. And, hard to explain but true, they harbor a genuine affection for Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, the villain so brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins.
Conventional wisdom has it that academy voters have a short attention span, and that they prefer movies they've seen recently. Yet "The Silence of the Lambs" was still memorable enough to be nominated a year after it opened. And it swept major categories in most of the major year-end awards ceremonies by various critics' groups.
A year may have passed, but no one has forgotten the breathtaking game of cat and mouse between Hopkins, as a caged monster with a brilliant mind, and Foster, as an FBI trainee with enough pluck and intelligence to win his admiration. Here, we have the same archetypal situation as in the Disney nominee: A beauty who is threatened, and a beast who is able to find it in his heart to save her.
The key to the movie's success is the Hopkins performance. Only rarely do an actor and a character come together in a performance that transcends the impact of ordinary movies, and becomes a touchstone. Let me name a few previous times that has happened: Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind," Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver," George C. Scott in "Patton," Brando again in "The Godfather," Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There is a curious thing about this list. Most moviegoers could tell you the names of the characters that the actors played. They know who Rick Blaine, Travis Bickle and Don Vito Corleone are. And they remember the name of Hannibal Lecter, too.
We forget the names of most movie characters. Nick Nolte played Tom Wingo in "The Prince of Tides," and Kevin Costner was Lt. Dunbar in "Dances with Wolves," but who will long remember, even though both were good movies? The names we remember belong to characters who make some kind of personal connection with us, who represent something elemental and mythic, who explain something to us. Hannibal Lecter falls in that category.
He was, it is true, a cannibal. But that was not his primary identity in the movie, and in our minds, I think we account for that by telling ourselves he was obviously a very sick man. What he did in the movie was not eat people, but think and talk. He had no freedom. He was loathed by everyone. But his intelligence was still active, and he used his imagination to roam outside his cage and speculate on what was to be found there. At one point in the film, Jodie Foster reveals a secret from an FBI investigation to him: A murder victim was found with something in his throat. "Was it a butterfly?" Hannibal Lecter asks. When he says that, we are on his side.
What we connect with is his intelligence, and his fondness for the young FBI agent. He is a monster, but he learns that he is capable of human, if limited, feelings. In a subtle, scary, ultimately inexplicable way, the movie is a love story between the characters played by Hopkins and Foster, between one character who has had his freedom taken from him and another who has yet to find hers. I predict that "The Silence of the Lambs," Hopkins and Foster will sweep the top awards for the simple reason that no other movie made last year made a greater, more direct emotional impact on its viewers, and none is better remembered.
Best supporting actress
In the other major categories, I feel less confident in my predictions. This is a hard year to handicap, especially in this category, where voters will have to choose among five candidates who are all possible winners. Who will they pick? Diane Ladd, who, along with her daughter Laura Dern created the first mother-daughter pairing in academy history with their nominations for "Rambling Rose"? Newcomer Juliette Lewis, who had a long, frightening, one-take scene with De Niro in "Cape Fear"? Kate Nelligan, who played both young and old as Nolte's mother in "The Prince of Tides"? Mercedes Ruehl, as the throaty, eccentric, long-suffering partner of a talk-show dropout in "The Fisher King"? Or Jessica Tandy, who won as best actress in 1990, and was nominated for "Fried Green Tomatoes," as an old woman recalling her unconventional youth?
My hunch is that the voters, having honored Tandy so recently, will not feel the need to vote for her again. That Ladd (and Dern in her category) will suffer from the fact that not many voters have seen their wonderful work in "Rambling Rose." That Juliette Lewis' character in "Cape Fear" was unattractive enough that older voters will be turned off. And that the contest will finally come down to Nelligan and Ruehl.
Both actresses do superb work (and Ruehl is the best thing in "The Fisher King"). Sometimes the academy is impressed by actors who bridge wide gaps of age or appearance, and Nelligan may win points for the span of 40 years between the two ages of the character she plays. But somehow I think Ruehl will win, in part because the academy will have passed over Robin Williams in the best actor category, in part because it's a showy, entertaining performance, in part because in several recent films, including "Married to the Mob," she has given such quirky, grounded performances.
Best supporting actor
Jack Palance, who could take out a copyright on the term "grizzled veteran," played a weathered trail boss in "City Slickers." Tommy Lee Jones was the icy, mysterious Clay Shaw in "JFK." Harvey Keitel played the ruthless killer Mickey Cohen in "Bugsy." Ben Kingsley was the gang's financial mastermind, Meyer Lansky, in the same movie. Michael Lerner was the studio head whose mouth worked faster than his mind in "Barton Fink."
Who will win? Jack Palance, because he made people laugh, and because he has paid a lot of dues over many years, and the academy loves to honor a veteran. Of the others, Keitel and Kingsley will split the "Bugsy" vote, Lerner's performance was inspired satire, but the voters have seen a lot of other studio chiefs in a lot of other movies, and Tommy Lee Jones . . . well, he's the dark horse, the contender who will win if Palance doesn't.
In this category, I think the academy will bypass Jonathan Demme, after giving "The Silence of the Lambs" the top Oscar. Looking over the nominees, they will have to choose from Demme; John Singleton, the gifted 24-year-old newcomer whose "Boyz N the Hood" was the sensation of the summer season; Barry Levinson for "Bugsy"; Oliver Stone for "JFK," and Ridley Scott for "Thelma & Louise."
I predict they'll vote for Oliver Stone, in a nod to the fact that even if "JFK" was not the best-directed film of the year, it was certainly the film in which the direction was most difficult from a technical point of view. No matter what the academy thought about the politics of "JFK," as film professionals, they'll recognize that it took one hell of a directing job to take that mass of material and make it work.
Best original screenplay
This is the category where the academy might choose to honor young John Singleton, whose directing and writing debut in "Boyz N the Hood" was one of the movie year's genuine high points. If Singleton does not win, the Oscar will go to Callie Khouri, for "Thelma & Louise," a much-admired screenplay.
Best adapted screenplay
Agnieszka Holland may well win for "Europa Europa," in part because most of those who saw the film admired it, in part because the Oscar would be a rebuke to Germany's Oscar committee, which refused to nominate the film in the foreign film category. My hunch, though, is that this Oscar will go to Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski, for the popular sleeper "Fried Green Tomatoes."
Best foreign film
"Raise the Red Lantern," from China, because it is gorgeous, because it is vaguely progressive and feminist in its view of a rich Chinese man and his concubines, and because the director, Zhang Yimou, is widely thought to have been robbed of an Oscar for his "Ju Dou" last year.
"Beauty and the Beast." No contest-o.
Predicting the Oscars is a harmless national pastime, much like predicting the presidential elections, with the difference that if you win an Oscar, you get to go on to better roles. The academy will reveal its selections in Los Angeles on March 30.