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The vying game

Hollywood has been waiting a long time to give Clint Eastwood an Oscar, and my hunch is, the wait is over. Eastwood's "Unforgiven," an elegiac Western about a retired gunfighter who pulls himself together for one final campaign, will win the best picture award when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gathers on the night of Monday, March 29.

It will win because it is a good film, always the best of reasons, but also because Eastwood is the very model of the professionalism that Hollywood respects. From his humble beginnings in B pictures and TV Westerns, Eastwood has worked steadily to improve his position and his films.

He became one of a handful of top box-office moneymakers in the early '70s and has remained there ever since. He could presumably have continued simply making "Dirty Harry" clones and goofy comedies like "Every Which Way But Loose." If he had, he might be as unbankable today as his contemporary and old rival, Burt Reynolds. But he didn't.

Learning from such mentors as the veteran action directors Don Siegel and Henry Hathaway, Eastwood began to direct his own films, and has now made more than a dozen. Some were Westerns or crime pictures, others personal projects like "Bird" and "White Hunter, Black Heart."

All of his films are ambitious and reveal a desire to find offbeat angles in stories. Eastwood is now taken very seriously in the film-crit community, and the grosses of his films are taken just as seriously in Hollywood, where he operates out of the Warner Bros. lot as a self-contained entity, selecting his own projects, making them his way, usually keeping the budgets well below the current average.

The Hollywood establishment respects that kind of performance. It admires a man who can remain independent, make money and get good reviews, all at once. I predict "Unforgiven" will walk off with the top Oscar on March 29. The other nominees: "The Crying Game," "A Few Good Men," "Howards End" and "Scent of a Woman."

The possible dark horse is "The Crying Game," which will be fresh in the minds of voters who have just seen it recently, and is enormously popular. It would be an amazing upset, and look for a whoop of astonishment from the crowd.

I also predict Eastwood will win a second Oscar, as best director, but that's an easy prediction, because he just won the annual award of the Directors Guild of America, and that's an almost infallible predictor of the Academy Award in the same category. 

Actor: Al Pacino, "Scent of a Woman"

Here, the race is harder to call. No, I don't expect Eastwood to win there, too; Oscar voters will consider the best picture award a big enough prize. That leaves Robert Downey Jr., whose work in the title role of "Chaplin" was brilliant, although the film was not; Al Pacino, who played an insufferable but lovable retired colonel in "Scent of a Woman"; Stephen Rea, a disillusioned IRA man in "The Crying Game," and Denzel Washington, whose range was remarkable in the title role of "Malcolm X."

Washington, who deserves to win, will suffer, I think, from Spike Lee's contentious relationship with Hollywood in making the film. Downey is saddled with dismal grosses and reviews of "Chaplin," and Rea is a surprise nominee without any chance of winning. That leaves the obvious choice, Al Pacino, whose work was the sort that calls attention and awards to itself, leaving no emotion unturned. 

Actress: Emma Thompson, "Howards End"

The academy has an annual compulsion to give an Oscar to a British nominee whenever it can find one, and this year, Emma Thompson will benefit from that tradition. She was the heart at the center of "Howards End," a film of great depth and civilization, and both she and the film represent the "Masterpiece Theatre" syndrome in which Hollywood honors culture as an excuse for producing so little of it itself.

Susan Sarandon is probably the runner-up in this category, for her angry, determined mother in "Lorenzo's Oil." But she played a difficult character in a difficult, if inspiring, movie, and perhaps the voters felt more respect than affection for the film. The other nominees, who have almost no chance, are legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, for "Indochine," an epic about French colonial years; Mary McDonnell, for "Passion Fish," as a paralyzed and embittered actress, and Michelle Pfeiffer, as a Dallas woman who goes on a cross-country odyssey to attend John F. Kennedy's funeral in "Love Field."

Supporting actor: Gene Hackman, "Unforgiven"

In this closely watched category, there is a close race between a Hollywood veteran and an exotic newcomer. Gene Hackman is the favorite for his role as the sadistic sheriff in "Unforgiven," but Jaye Davidson is a definite possibility for "The Crying Game," especially if voters cannot still the impish impulse to shake up the awards a little with an outsider. Davidson's performance in "The Crying Game" is indeed effective and engaging - it's amazing work from a first-time actor - and he also may benefit from the academy's desire to give at least one major award to the sleeper of the year.

Still, I think Hackman will win. He has been around since "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967. He has ranged from good to inspired in one fine film after another. He is personally popular. And there will likely be the "Unforgiven" factor. Everything adds up.

The other nominees are Jack Nicholson, as the savage Marine commandant in "A Few Good Men"; Pacino again, as a desperate real-estate salesman in "Glengarry Glen Ross," and newcomer David Paymer, as Billy Crystal's long-suffering brother in "Mr. Saturday Night." It's Nicholson's 10th nomination, and he has won twice. That's enough for now. Pacino will get all of his votes in the best actor category. Paymer was very good, but his film was a bomb, and he's been upstaged by Davidson in the newcomer category.

Supporting actress: Marisa Tomei, "My Cousin Vinny"

In this category, I think the only American nominee will win. Marisa Tomei, Joe Pesci's wisecracking girlfriend in "My Cousin Vinny," prevented the category from being populated entirely by foreigners. The other nominees are Judy Davis, an Australian, for "Husbands and Wives," and three British actresses: Joan Plowright, as an elderly woman who goes on an Italian holiday in "Enchanted April"; Vanessa Redgrave, winning her sixth nomination, as the first wife of the hypocritical banker in "Howards End," and Miranda Richardson, as the enraged wife of Jeremy Irons in "Damage."

Tomei will win, I think, because people remember her very funny performance and also like her in the current "Untamed Heart." She is still not widely known to the public, but in Hollywood, she's the flavor of the month, positioned to be a top star in 1994.

Of the others, the widely respected Judy Davis probably has the best chance, unless there is a backlash against any Woody Allen picture. Plowright's role was warm but not flashy, Richardson's role was thankless in a film that many disliked, and with Redgrave, well, you never know. Conventional wisdom says she can't win because the last time she did, she made a speech against Zionism. On the other hand, why does the academy keep nominating her?

Original screenplay: Neil Jordan, "The Crying Game"

For best original screenplay, my guess is the Oscar will go to Neil Jordan, for "The Crying Game," because a great many voters will show their affection for the film here after voting for "Unforgiven" and Pacino in the two major categories where it is also nominated.

Other nominees include Woody Allen, for "Husbands and Wives," one of his strongest works, which will suffer because of the personal controversies he is embroiled in. George Miller and Nick Enright did a highly professional job of organizing a lot of technical data and putting a story behind it, in "Lorenzo's Oil." David Webb Peoples has a good chance if it is an "Unforgiven" year, although I think here the voters will split their ballots. John Sayles' "Passion Fish" screenplay was, along with "Husbands and Wives," the best of the nominees, but how many voters have seen the film?

Adapted screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "Howards End"

For best screenplay adapted from other medium, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala will win for "Howards End." Hollywood likes the film, Jhabvala has been paying dues as a top-drawer screenwriter for 30 years, and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala three-picture deal with Disney will put big-studio clout behind the Oscar. The other leading contender is Bo Goldman, for "Scent of a Woman," the kind of film that displays an obvious writer's touch. Other nominees, none of whom seem to have a chance against "Howards End," are Peter Barnes for "Enchanted April," Richard Friedenberg for "A River Runs Through It" and Michael Tolkin for "The Player."

Foreign film: "Indochine" (France)

The Oscar here will go to "Indochine," the kind of lavish epic that emulates Hollywood instead of challenging it. I'd be happier if it went instead to "Close to Eden," a charming and utterly original film about a Mongolian wheat farmer and his wife with her modern ideas.

For best song, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" from "The Mambo Kings," should win, and will become a standard in years to come, but it won't. The Oscar will go to "Friend Like Me," from "Aladdin" with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Curiously, the song will win as a way of honoring Robin Williams, who won enormous affection for his voiceover performance as the genie who sings it in the film.

This year's Oscarcast begins at 8 p.m. on WLS-Channel 7, with Billy Crystal as emcee. Look for Crystal and Jack Palance, last year's muscular best supporting actor winner, to provide some moments of spontaneous comedy and - who knows - maybe even some more push-ups.

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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