Oscar also ponders the Bard and the Beautiful
By Peter Keough
FEBRUARY 8, 1999: You don't expect much in the way of metaphysics from the Academy Awards. But in a year when fact not only is stranger than fiction but nearly makes the distinction meaningless, the Oscars take on the uncharacteristic role of moral commentator, offering a reality check on the media wonderland of the ongoing Presidential Follies. Rather than a showcase of films that exploit our worst inclinations, the slate of Oscar nominations to be released this coming Tuesday should present a critique of our current confusion over truth and illusion, reality and entertainment.
Like Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which is sure to win a Best Picture nomination. No other film has achieved such a devastating illusion of horrific reality, or so dramatically posed (with the possible exception of Spielberg's previous Oscar winner, Schindler's List) the question of the value of a single human life. Yet despite its realism, it remains an exuberant and ultimately reassuring entertainment, pulling in at the box office perhaps as much money as the original invasion cost. Faithful though Ryan may be to the brutal facts, how faithful is it to the truth if it transforms the historical event into an audience-pleasing spectacle?
You could ask the same of Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni's controversial attempt to make a redeeming comedy out of the Holocaust. Promoted by Oscar juggernaut Miramax, it should surpass mere Best Foreign Language Film expectations and imitate the success of that studio's The Postman in 1995, winning a Best Picture nod. Embraced and reviled for its central conceit of a concentration-camp inmate's turning genocide into a game to protect his son from the truth, Beautifulis nothing less than the epitome of the show-business process.
That process sparkles in Shakespeare in Love, which pleased both the pits and the pundits with its blithe celebration of how bards past and present metamorphose the raw material of life into the airy nothing of a hit production. A pop entertainment with a high-art pedigree, its self-congratulatory celebration of what popular artists from the Elizabethan era onward do best has earned its surprising success in the Golden Globes (Best Comedy or Musical, Gwyneth Paltrow for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical) and in the recent Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild nominations. It's a sure Academy nominee for Best Picture.
Not that viewers and Academy voters don't appreciate films that mirror our current reality of hanky-panky in high places, Machiavellian powers behind the throne, scheming and ruthless women, and the invidious discord of partisan fanaticism. Unfortunately for the makers of Primary Colors, however, they prefer to enjoy it from a four-century remove. And so Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett already having won numerous critics' awards, a Golden Globe, and a SAG nomination, joins Shakespeare in the Best Picture fold with scarce a change of costume or set design.
With all the flag waving surrounding Spielberg's invading private, many lost touch with the invasion of privacy so piquantly depicted in The Truman Show, which demonstrated how a single life -- say, that of the president of the United States -- can be exploitatively transformed into mass entertainment. Yet after its surprising Golden Globe victories for Jim Carrey as Best Actor in a Drama and Ed Harris as Best Supporting Actor, Academy members might be giving the surreal, solipsistic satire a second look. Its frightening allegory about the reality of illusion should well complement Spielberg's illusion of reality in the Best Picture line-up.
That Harris's performance as The Truman Show's demi-urgish director won a Golden Globe bodes well for the auteur of the film itself, Peter Weir -- not to mention his recent nomination by the Directors Guild. Weir will be joined in the Oscar-candidate slate by the inevitable Steven Spielberg (Globe winner and DGA nominee for the third time), John Madden (DGA) for Shakespeare, and the largely overlooked Shekhar Kapur (no Globe, no DGA, no critics' awards) for his showy Elizabeth.
What, no Benigni? I think after his fulsome, unfunny turn as guest host of the Golden Globes, Hollywood might have had its fill of him -- I mean, one Robin Williams is enough. Tinseltown prefers its directors behind the scenes, kind of like Harris in The Truman Show. And no director has been more behind the scenes than DGA nominee Terrence Malick, who returned after 25 years of self-exile with his bewildering anti-Ryan, The Thin Red Line. Behind the times, as well -- Thin's Manichean meditations may seem too '60s to garner a Best Picture nod, and his nomination by the Academy's directors' branch will be at best a nostalgic tribute to a time when filmmakers had something to say and the clout to say it.
Another problem for Academy members dealing with Thin is its lack of big performances, despite the big names in its cast. That's true, too, of Ryan, but somehow just the name Hanks (and he does put in a terrific job despite the limited material) is enough to warrant a nomination and probably an Oscar. Jim Carrey is another matter. The statute of limitations has long since run out since Hanks embarrassed himself in Bachelor Party 15 years ago; Carrey, on the other hand, was threatening to talk out of his asshole when he won this year's Golden Globe. Nonethless, Academy members know a breakthrough role when they see it, particularly one with the zeitgeist appeal of Truman Burbank, a kind of Forrest Gump for the Apocalypse.
Nominating funnyman Carrey might relieve the Academy of the need to indulge Benigni (not to mention Robin Williams), but if the Italian's Screen Actors Guild nomination and inexplicable overall popularity are any indication, it won't. A bracing corrective to Benigni's presence on the slate will be the staggering performance of Nick Nolte (SAG; Best Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York and Boston critics groups) in Affliction, a dose of frigid reality that cannot be denied. Rounding out the group will be Ian McKellen for his subtle, seething performance as gay director James Whale in Gods and Monsters (SAG; LA critics), another film in which Hollywood pats itself on the back for turning trauma into tinsel.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Best Actress category is, how many terminal diseases are enough? Of the three possibilities -- Meryl Streep as loyal mom dying of cancer in One True Thing, Susan Sarandon as loyal mom dying of cancer in Stepmom, or Emily Watson as selfish careerist and wacko wanton dying of MS in Hilary and Jackie -- I think Sarandon's self-righteous sourpuss will have to go.
Killing off both the mother and the whore should satisfy everyone, as will nominating the reigning queen of overhyped femininity, Gwyneth Paltrow. Her playing a man's role in order to lose her virginity in Shakespeare in Love will balance out the way Cate Blanchett (Golden Globe; SAG) plays a man's role to restore it in Elizabeth. As a final salute to motherhood and those women who, however late, embrace it, look for the veteran Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro to catch the bus as the harridan turned foster mom in the crowd-pleasing tearjerker Central Station.
As for Best Supporting Actor, the dogfaces of both Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, despite some fine work by Sean Penn and Elias Koteas in Thin and Tom Sizemore and Jeremy Davies in Ryan, will suffer the fate of many of their on-screen personas and be lost in action. Perhaps they should have distinguished their service by going the bad-wig/prosthetic-teeth route of Billy Bob Thornton (SAG; Boston and LA critics), whose performance in A Simple Plan didn't really need the props to earn a nod.
It will not have hurt Bill Murray (NSFC; New York critics) to have lost the bad hair that was so hilarious in Kingpin for the understated desperation and wit of his role in Rushmore. His nomination is carved in stone, as is Harris's bereted Big Brother from The Truman Show. The remaining two slots will be rewarded to two Hollywood veterans in consummate performances: Robert Duvall as the cagy barrister in A Civil Action and James Coburn as the mother of all abusive fathers in Affliction.
And for aging queens, there remains the Best Supporting Actress nominations for Lynn Redgrave (Golden Globe; SAG) as the daunting, Karloff-esque maidservant to Ian McKellen's light-in-his-loafers horror-meister in Gods and Monsters, and Judi Dench (SAG; NSFC) for her eight more minutes of fame in Shakespeare in Love -- a kind of postscript to Blanchett's Elizabeth.
This category would not be complete without its candidate for the "Marisa Tomei/Anna Paquin/Mira Sorvino/Kim Basinger Whatever Happened To Decent Women's Roles In Hollywood" award. Angelina Jolie might fill that bill for her big-lipped, bad-haired role as a singles-bar swinger in the schematic Playing by Heart, the saccharine alternative to this year's bilious efforts from Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute (it should have been called Sappiness). Such a nomination would satisfy the Academy's delusions of hipness (don't expect it to touch the scathing women's performances in High Art and Under the Skin, which have received recognition from the critics groups), and the performance has the kind of evanescent fizz easily forgotten the morning after.
Not that the Best Supporting Actress nominees are without meaning, especially for a writer struggling to find closure in a particularly murky year of Oscar prognostication. So I leave you with the yin-and-yang of Kathy Bates and Joan Allen. The former plays the unbearably blowhard conscience of the Clintonesque presidential candidate (John Travolta, overshadowed by the performance of the real thing) who struggles to stifle evidence of his libido; the latter is the black-and-white cipher of a '50s sit-com whose discovery of her sex drive ignites the world into color. There's a lesson to be learned there in regard to our ongoing national farce -- and you thought I could get through this whole piece without mentioning the name Monica Lewinsky?
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