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Who wants to see a millionaire cry?

By Ray Pride

MARCH 6, 2000:  A car wreck of sentiment and absurdity, the annual Academy Awards ceremony is a peculiar ritual not unlike "reality television": Who Wants To See A Millionaire Cry? Projects identified as "labors of love" pay for fabulous homes in the hills surrounding Los Angeles; actors flogging their product and themselves on press tours talk about their chances at getting Oscar recognition like a bookie laying odds. The real odds are on what films will outlast their moment of televisual glory and will somehow be remembered once the smoke and mirrors have been rented out to the next year's productions.

Of this year's best picture nominees, "American Beauty" seems the sentimental favorite among journalists and filmmakers, yet its head-to-head battle with Miramax's "The Cider House Rules," the stalking horse (and dark horse) of this competition, could strike interesting sparks. Last year's battle between DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan" and Miramax's co-production of "Shakespeare in Love" led to much back-chat, if not outright back-stabbing, between the two studios. "The Insider," as wonderful, mature and lovely a film as I found it, tanked with audiences on its first release and well as last weekend's re-relapse. Could "The Sixth Sense" have another secret? A film that has grossed more than $600 million worldwide doesn't need many other plaudits, but the Academy could recognize the film not only for its virtues, but for its modest scale, imaginative premise and the fact that its creative force, M. Night Shyamalan, is a 29-year-old Indian-born director who works only in his home city of Philadelphia. The less said about "The Green Mile," the better.

Russell Crowe's performance as an unlikable but moral man in "The Insider" is startling, richer than Kevin Spacey's amusing, anguished hambone turn as the sick soul of middle-aged white men in "American Beauty." Richard Farnsworth, at nearly 80, the oldest actor ever nominated, may have the inside track out of sheer sentimentality. The questions raised about the authenticity of the script of "The Hurricane" will likely damage the chances of the lithe, stripped down performance by Denzel Washington. Sean Penn's a marvel of self-possession and selfish confusion in "Sweet and Lowdown," so he should be content with the unexpected nomination.

Annette Bening does wonders with her cartoon suburban-wife role in "American Beauty," and Janet McTeer is fine, an English stage actress playing southern white trash in "Tumbleweeds." Julianne Moore does marvelous work as a woman who must choose between God and lust in "The End of the Affair," but she seems as likely to win as Meryl Streep in "Music of the Heart," an annoying performance vehicle seemingly put on this earth just to get Streep another nomination. The prize, for a once-in-a-lifetime performance along the lines of a child actor pulling out all the stops (see under: Joel Haley Osment for "The Sixth Sense") will likely go to Hilary Swank in the fierce, affirming "Boys Don't Cry." The material is remarkably handled, despite its issues of gender, gender confusion, rape and murder, and Swank is great. Let's see if she can do it again after her price goes up and the offers grow.

Osment seems in line for his supporting actor turn in "The Sixth Sense," partly because of the fact he's really in a lead role and partly because of his spooky authority saying lines like "I see dead people." Tom Cruise should be pleased merely that he was nominated for a role that allows him to spout reams of sex-charged invective, a change from his buffed-clean roles; Michael Caine plays a kindly abortion doctor with a ridiculous American accent in "The Cider House Rules," and his nomination suggests either blind luck in the voting or that he's genuinely liked by others in the industry. Michael Clarke Duncan does a grand job as a miraculously gifted moron on death row in "The Green Mile," but the film's weird bombast continues to turn my stomach. Jude Law is an amusing eyeful in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," but I'd vote on the kid who has a vision.

Toni Collette doesn't do much in "The Sixth Sense"; Samantha Morton is as good as a great silent actress would be in "Sweet and Lowdown"; Catherine Keener is her usual indispensable self in "Being John Malkovich" and Chloe Sevigny provides more than ample support to Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry." She's my favorite, genuinely supporting the leading role and the structure of the film, but something suggests to me that Angelina Jolie's sexy, provocative madwoman threw just the fit with "Girl, Interrupted."

Best directors? Nice to see Spike Jonze among the neophytes for "Being John Malkovich" -- his sort of subversive creepiness is to be encouraged. Sam Mendes does a striking, if stagy job with "American Beauty"; I don't know why Lasse Hallstrom, who should be doing better work, is up for "The Cider House Rules"; "The Insider" is made by a director in control of every aspect of his craft; and I'd consider "The Sixth Sense" as a neophyte film, too, as Shyamalan's first couple of films, including the stinker "Wide Awake," just weren't very good. Probably Mendes. Maybe Mann. I'd give it to Spike just so he could give even more incoherent, evasive, prank-filled interviews to the press.


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