This year's Oscar race will be decided on the issues
By Peter Keough
FEBRUARY 14, 2000: Now that the Super Bowl is over and the presidential election is yet to come, the Oscars provide the best forum for acting out our cultural unconsciousness. Like the participants in those other two contests, the candidates under consideration for the Academy Award nominations on February 15 are a motley bunch. Not that it's been a weak year for films, but nothing has really seized the imagination along the lines of a Titanic or even a Shakespeare in Love. As in the big election, no name stands out as a charismatic favorite or one you love to hate. Maybe the Oscar race, like the presidential campaign itself, might turn out to be a contest decided on issues.
If there's a frontrunner right now, it's American Beauty, which has garnered kudos from a slew of critics societies, a Directors Guild nomination for Sam Mendes, Screen Actors Guild nominations for Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, and Golden Globes for Best Picture, Actor, and Director. More important, it dramatizes the current American malaise of a discontented middle class spoiled by material prosperity, devoid of genuine challenge, aimless in direction, and seeking renewal.
True, the hero's solution -- stalking his daughter's hot teen-aged girlfriend -- has a Lewinsky-esque aftertaste. But the film's freshness and verve in puncturing status quo complacency might remind some of The Graduate, which spearheaded a revival in Hollywood moviemaking when it won a Best Director Oscar for Mike Nichols in 1967. I don't think there's any doubt Beauty will be the belle of the Best Picture ball, and it will probably feature in the other major categories as well.
Elsewhere the issues are more specific. Racial injustice, pretty much ignored by every presidential candidate, storms onto the screen in Norman Jewison's windy The Hurricane. At the very least, Denzel Washington (he's won the Golden Globe and gotten a Screen Actors Guild Best Actor nomination) should get a Best Actor nod for his vein-popping portrayal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer who -- in this sanitized version of the story -- is an innocent man serving a lengthy stretch in prison after a wrongful murder conviction handed down by a racist court. If American Beauty puts Academy voters in a 1967 frame of mind, so will this throwback, reminding them of Jewison's own In the Heat of the Night, which picked up five Oscars that year, including Best Picture. Although far more tepid than that earlier effort, The Hurricane should get a Best Picture nomination this year, if only for its depiction of white, liberal self-loathing.
Big corporations, especially the tobacco industry, and media corruption are favorite political footballs, and though these issues didn't make The Insider a box-office hit, Michael Mann (a Directors Guild nominee) serves up intensity and an agonized performance from Russell Crowe (Golden Globe and SAG nominee) that put the film on the inside track for nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. More troublesome are the gay-rights issues. "Don't ask, don't tell" has cropped up in campaign rhetoric, but the slogan's unspoken trailer "or we'll kill you" is best illustrated in Kimberley Peirce's electrifying directorial debut, Boys Don't Cry. It's a bracing corrective to the gossamer romance of last year's big winner, Shakespeare in Love, in which a beauteous Gwyneth Paltrow cross-dresses in a reflexive fable that vindicates the transcendent power of playacting. Such self-congratulatory fantasies don't fly this year (maybe because of Paltrow's weepy acceptance speech); the uncompromising reality of this fact-based story of a young woman who poses as a man probably won't either, as far as Best Picture goes. But Hilary Swank (SAG nominee and Golden Globe for Best Actress) as the gender-bending heroine and Chloé Sevigny (SAG nomination, Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress) won't be crying when their nominations are announced.
How about the other hot-button issues of Campaign 2000 -- the death penalty and abortion -- that found their way onto the screen? For many, death comes as a relief after the three hours of Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Green Mile; nonetheless it features the Oscar-friendly Tom Hanks and a suitably showy, if namby-pamby liberal, attitude toward capital punishment. That and a feisty ensemble cast (nominated by SAG), a towering performance by Michael Clarke Duncan (a Golden Globe and SAG nominee for Best Supporting Actor), and the undeserved auteur cachet of Frank Darabont (Directors Guild nominee) should gain it a stay of execution in the Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture categories.
The abortion controversy made for a better movie -- Lasse Hallström's adaptation of John Irving's The Cider House Rules -- and the film's unemphatic, sympathetic pushing of the pro-choice agenda would seem to make it an Oscar contender. So far, though, the only award interest shown has been for Michael Caine (Golden Globe and SAG nominations for Best Supporting Actor). Maybe, like the presidential candidates, Hollywood prefers to remain cagey on this issue. Or maybe five issue-driven Best Picture nominees is too many. A little comic relief is needed, something offbeat -- the celluloid equivalent of Allen Keyes or Gary Bauer.
How about The Sixth Sense? Too generic, though writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (DGA nominee) shows promise. Toy Story 2 (Golden Globe, Best Comedy or Musical)? Too frivolous. Magnolia? Three Kings? The Straight Story? Too weird and anti-Hollywood. Man on the Moon? Too mean-spirited, and a big disappointment after all the hoopla. Why not, since this is an election year, Election? Maybe, had it not been released in June and gotten lost in the shuffle of hot independents that sprouted at the end of the year. Which leaves Being John Malkovich, a film with the right balance of jaw-dropping originality and crowd-pleasing entertainment, of effervescence and edge. Its theme of finding fulfillment through another identity (think Shakespeare in Love last year) vindicates Hollywood's credo of make-believe, though in a more twisted way. The director Spike Jonze (DGA nominee) and the ensemble cast (SAG nominations for Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener) have already made names for themselves, and I expect Being John Malkovich to be the dark horse of Best Picture nominees.
What, no Talented Mr. Ripley? Perhaps resentment against director Anthony Minghella's previous Oscar sweep of a couple of years ago has brought on a backlash against the best film of 1999. Or maybe its theme of the lethal duplicity of make-believe, which makes it the demonic flipside of Malkovich (and a far more deeply felt and polished variation on Man on the Moon), does not present Hollywood in its best light -- which is what the Oscars are all about.
Ripley, then, will be a no-show not only for Best Picture but for Best Director (Minghella was snubbed by the Directors Guild, almost always the kiss of death). Instead, expect Sam Mendes for American Beauty, Michael Mann for The Insider, Frank Darabont for The Green Mile, Spike Jonze for Being John Malkovich, and, bumping out Norman Jewison for The Hurricane, M. Night Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense.
Ripley will likewise get stiffed in the acting categories; Matt Damon's consummate performance (unnominated by SAG) as a consummate performer will be overshadowed by Kevin Spacey as the disaffected outsider in American Beauty, Russell Crowe as the persecuted whistle blower in The Insider, Denzel Washington as the crusading inmate in The Hurricane, Jim Carrey as the self-absorbed asshole in Man on the Moon, and, what the heck, Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story. After all those tormented losers on the outs with society, it's kind of nice to have an old fogey like David Lynch's lawnmower man who's been there and back -- a kind of John McCain figure astraddle a John Deere, if you will -- to show us the way to reconciliation.
Reconciliation is often what the Best Supporting categories are all about -- reconciliation with the social groups and other non-insiders otherwise neglected by Hollywood. That doesn't include Phillip Seymour Hoffman's wicked turn as a snob in Ripley (though he was nominated by SAG as Best Actor for Flawless -- yikes!), but it does embrace Michael Clarke Duncan's miraculous black man on death row in The Green Mile, Michael Caine's ether-addicted illegal abortionist in The Cider House Rules, and, of course, Tom Cruise "taming the cunt" in Magnolia. The rest of the slate is filled by two ultimate outsiders, Haley Joel Osment (Golden Globe and SAG nominee), the "I see dead people" creepy little boy of The Sixth Sense, and Wes Bentley, the "I like to see dead people" creepy big boy in American Beauty.
Of course, the real outsiders are women, and the purpose of the female Oscar categories is to reconcile them to their roles. Take Best Supporting Actress, for example. Angelina Jolie (Golden Globe winner, SAG nominee) will be nominated for her role as a ruthless but charismatic sociopath (not unlike Tom Cruise in Magnolia) in Girl, Interrupted, but only because her character is reconciled to perpetual institutionalization under the supervision of a platitudinous Whoopi Goldberg. And both Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz will be nominated as the gender- and identity-bending lovers of Being John Malkovich, but only because they are reconciled to each other through the mediation of the offbeat, balding actor of the title. Similarly, probable nominee Chloë Sevigny's same-sex romance is sanctioned by a male persona in Boys Don't Cry. As for Samantha Morton's performance in Sweet and Lowdown, it poses the feminine ideal: mute and subject to the will of a male egomaniac.
The Best Actress category, however, is where women's roles are most abundantly made clear. For Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, assuming a male identity takes a terrible toll. For Annette Bening in American Beauty, the presumption of independence means looking like a shrew and an idiot and sleeping with the Real Estate King. For Janet McTeer (Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, SAG nominee) in Tumbleweeds, being a single mom means a life of hapless promiscuity and the eternal disapproval of one's sour adolescent daughter. For Meryl Streep as the single mother in Music of the Heart (Golden Globe and SAG nominee), being a single mom lets you spend the rest of your life giving violin lessons to hundreds of other people's children.
As for the fifth Best Actress nominee, I'm torn between Julianne Moore, the adultress in The End of the Affair who's punished by a very nasty cold, and Sigourney Weaver as the negligent mother in A Map of the World who's punished by a bogus abuse charge and a brutal stint in prison. Since Moore's character seems to enjoy getting it on with Ralph Fiennes, whereas sex for Weaver's character seems like cruel and unusual punishment in Map, I'll go with Weaver. In the Oscar race, as in politics in general, women's rights aren't an issue.
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