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Questions for the Oscar Answer Man

Q. Which film is gonna win?

A. I am still fine-tuning my predictions, which will be revealed, for what they're worth, on March 15. There are those who say "Bugsy" is the front-runner, and others who claim that because of the Academy's famous apprehension about films on unsavory subjects, it may be "Beauty and the Beast." I think perhaps "JFK" could pull an upset, because the more you know about filmmaking, the more you know how difficult it was to make that film work so well.

Q. Barbra Streisand's lack of a nomination for direction--sexism, or do they simply hate her?

A. Streisand herself put it well: "Many worthy films were nominated." Streisand was one of the nominees for the annual Directors' Guild of America Awards, but the director's branch of the Academy passed her over, substituting John Singleton for "Boyz N the Hood." The DGA has thousands of members, many of them in the TV and advertising industries. The director's branch of the Academy has less than 500 members, all of them with feature film credentials. Maybe it's a case of the wider-based membership enjoying Streisand's work, while the working film directors themselves didn't think "Prince Of Tides" was all that well directed. I personally think "Boyz" was the better-directed film, and deserved its nomination.

Q. Will the Jeffrey Dahmer trial affect the Oscar chances of "The Silence of the Lambs," which starred Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal (The Cannibal) Lecter?

A. Good question. When it comes to the Best Picture category, the Academy often seems to favor uplifting movies with a positive image, which does not describe "The Silence of the Lambs." Yet there are many who do believe it was the year's best film, and it did surprisingly well in the year-end critics' awards. Chances are the film itself will not win, but Jodie Foster is the front-runner for best actress, and people reacted so strongly to Anthony Hopkins' remarkable performance as a serial killer that he may upset Nick Nolte and win best actor.

Q. What's this latest scandal involving the nominations for best documentary?

A. Documentary nominations are made by a small group of volunteers who tirelessly screen dozens of films before nominating those that nobody has ever heard of. This year, they passed over "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," which was the best documentary ever made about the filming of a movie. They passed over "35 Up," the latest installment in the most interesting continuing documentary project I know about (the filmmakers revisit the same group of people every seven years). They also passed over "Paris is Burning," about the transvestite "vogue balls" in New York, and "At the Max," the sensational Rolling Stones documentary in the IMAX process, and "A Brief History of Time," by Errol Morris, based on the best-seller by Stephen Hawking.

If they had by any chance nominated those five titles, think what a rich and interesting category the documentaries would be this year. In past years, displaying an undeniable consistency, the committee failed to nominate any of the documentaries which have made a major impression among American moviegoers, including Claude Lanzman's "Shoah," Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" and Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line." Maybe the process is flawed. Maybe the selection process needs to be freed from a small group of volunteers whose tirelessness is exceeded only by its lack of imagination. I suggest an annual Documentary Film Festival, every February at the USC or UCLA film schools, featuring only eligible films, during which the nominees could be selected by a satisfactory voting process.

Q. How come I've never heard of any of the foreign film nominees? Why weren't "Europa, Europa," or "The Double Life of Veronique," or "The Vanishing," or "Daddy Nostalgia," or "High Heels" or "Madame Bovary" or "My Father's Glory" or "My Mother's Castle" nominated?

A. Well, "High Heels" wasn't very good, for one thing. But the foreign category has to be understood as a kind of promotional tool for the national film establishments of various foreign countries. They select the film they want to represent them, and often they select one that has not yet opened in America--because the Oscar will launch it at the box office. "Europa, Europa" has became a cause celebre because Germany's Oscar nominating committee passed it over, but apart from the merits of the film the Germans may simply have calculated that since it had already grossed some $3.5 million at the U.S. box office, it was too late to do it much good.

Would it be better if the Academy bylaws were changed to require that foreign films, like U.S. releases, have to actually open in theaters in order to be eligible? Maybe not, since some worthy films actually require the Oscar boost to have commercial prospects. I've seen some of this year's nominees ("The Ox" and "Raise the Red Lantern") and I think they're deserving of that sort of boost. But the fact remains that the Academy surrenders a lot of autonomy to the foreign Oscar committees, by not requiring potential nominees to slug it out in the marketplace like Hollywood films.

Q. Where can we see the short films that get nominated?

A. On video. Several excellent collections of award-winning shorts have recently been released. But short films have essentially disappeared from the programs of almost all movie theaters. Although they get nominated for Academy Awards and even win them, they never get seen. I propose that one of the movie-oriented TV cable services devote an evening to screening the nominees in the short film and animated categories, simply so people could see them.

Q. Did you see the Academy's new video compilation called "Oscar's Greatest Moments, 1971-1991?"

A. Thought you'd never ask.

Q. And?

A. It's amazing how many of the musical numbers I had no recollection of ever having seen--maybe because I was backstage in the press room. But I was thrilled again by the sheer courage of John Wayne's final public appearance. And David Niven's grace under pressure when a streaker flashed across the stage behind him. And Walter Matthau's hilarious attempt to explain what a director does.

One surprise was the Sasheen Littlefeather speech. She was, you will recall, the Native American sent by Marlon Brando to turn down his Oscar for "The Godfather" and make a statement on his behalf. I have always remembered this as a publicity stunt (which indeed it was), but, watching the replay, I felt she came across fairly well, and that the audience reaction was rude and boorish. That's despite the fact that I agreed with the general point that Paddy Chayevsky made in his rebuke to Vanessa Redgrave, that the Oscars are not a political forum.

Q. Why is there such a fuss over the Academy Awards every year?

A. Because movie stars are the American royalty, and once a year we get to see them in genuine dramas that are not scripted and do not always have happy endings.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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