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The Boston Phoenix Full Speed Ahead!

After hitting the independent iceberg, Hollywood resurfaces.

By Peter Keough

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  It's hard to think of a $200 million blockbuster as an underdog, but after the drilling it got from the press prior to its release, the astounding commercial and critical success of James Cameron's Titanic seems a rousing vindication not only of the director's megalomaniacal vision but of the system that produced it. Poised now for a hold-busting horde of Oscar nominations, Titanic is a fitting metaphor for a film industry that appeared to have been capsized by the indie sweep of last year's awards.

With Cameron's mighty vessel as its flagship, a respectable flotilla of mainstream hits in tow, the triumphant return of a number of veteran actors, and the independents' woeful failure to follow up on last year's success, Hollywood will sail out next Tuesday with most of the Academy Award nominations on its masthead, as unsinkable as ever. Not only will traditional filmmaking be restored to glory, but traditional values will be as well, while the subversive, dark, eccentric issues of last year's honorees sink before a regeneration of the feel-good and the socially acceptable.

The dearth of independent competition surely helped to right the Hollywood fleet. Last year's Sundance Film Festival, the premier market of indie films, produced such duds as The House of Yes and Star Maps, leaving only the overpraised Ulee's Gold and the crowd-pleasing The Full Monty to contend with Tinseltown. Mostly, though, Hollywood will collect the lion's share of honors because it's Hollywood that bestows those honors. Perhaps last year's anomaly was just a self-imposed adjustment from an industry that was beginning to lose sight of the elements of character, story, and intelligence. After all, if Braveheart was the best Hollywood could offer for the '96 awards, wasn't it time to look for fresh inspiration elsewhere? And so in '97, snubbing such staid studio efforts as The Crucible, Evita, A Time To Kill, Ghosts of Mississippi, and Courage Under Fire, the Academy opted instead for a quintet of outlandish outsiders: Shine, Fargo, Secrets and Lies, and, to a lesser extent, The English Patient and Jerry Maguire.

A year later, Hollywood has profited by the injection of outré directors like Cameron into the mainstream. Gus Van Sant, long the mainstay of the gay cinema, takes a shot at becoming the George Cukor of the '90s with Good Will Hunting. Curtis Hanson, a prickly generic maverick with the likes of Rock the Cradle, looms as a Coppola redux with L.A. Confidential. And neophyte Paul Thomas Anderson transforms the porn industry of the '70s into an uplifting family melodrama in Boogie Nights.

Not that Boogie Nights will be picking up any Best Picture nomination (look for it to score heavily in the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, and perhaps Best Original Screenplay) -- its in-your-face raunch may be too much to flaunt before a public still smarting from Monica Lewinsky. Instead, expect Amistad, Steven Spielberg's mostly bland and wooden attempt to return to Schindler's List-style relevance, to receive an obligatory nod from the Academy. It's hard to fault a diatribe against slavery, especially 135 years after the institution's demise. Amistad, then, is an ideal candidate for best picture -- righteously high-minded, handsomely produced with an imposing period setting, and inoffensive.

Ideal, too, is James Brooks's crotchety feel-gooder As Good As It Gets (winner already of the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy), which is about as bad -- morally speaking -- as the Academy will allow a film to get in this year of conservative retrenchment. Jack Nicholson plays an asshole, but he is Jack Nicholson so we can vicariously enjoy his hip, dyspeptic spree of homophobia, misogyny, racism, and the rest of those politically incorrect inclinations we'd all like to indulge in. Besides, Brooks unloads an entire arsenal of clichés to rehabilitate the bastard -- a sick child, a cute dog (if there was an animal Oscar, Jill as Verdell would win paws down), and a downtrodden waitress with a heart of gold -- thereby allowing audiences to enjoy the rush of cinematically contrived redemption.

Likewise, Good Will Hunting offers a refreshing dose of bad behavior before it reinforces the requisite goodness of the title. Matt Damon's titular South Boston savant is not only a genius -- a true social anomaly -- but a delinquent, resistant to the conformity of a pleasant girlfriend and a buttoned-down corporate job. It's an extraordinarily well-written (look for Damon and co-writer/co-star Ben Affleck among the Best Original Screenplay nominees) and crisply executed bromidic formula bound to appeal to this year's Academy voters, especially since the real-life success and romantic stories of Damon and Affleck eclipse what's on the screen.

More problematic is Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. This the first picture to sweep all the major film critics' organizations not only for best picture but for best director. Ordinarily such success would ensure a Best Picture Oscar nomination, but the Academy will hardly be eager to confer statuettes upon a film characterized as much by its dank cynicism and moral ambiguity as by its classic quality and style, a film that (even at a five-decade remove) uncompromisingly depicts the hot-button subject of LAPD racism and corruption.

A bad sign for L.A. Confidential was the failure of the outstanding ensemble cast to win any pre-Oscar awards. Certainly the Academy's Best Actor short list doesn't figure to include actors playing sadistic, corrupt cops, particularly when they are young Australians.

Instead, expect to see a return to glory of Hollywood veterans. Jack Nicholson (winner already of a National Board of Review Award, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild nomination) should get his 11th Academy nomination as a malignant, obsessive-compulsive writer who discovers his heart of gold. Peter Fonda's laconic beekeeper in Ulee's Gold (also a Golden Globe winner and SAG nominee) will be honored -- perhaps not so much for his wooden acting as for his resemblance to his late father Henry. And because Hollywood likes to show that it has a warm heart for the talented newcomer, you can expect to see Matt Damon (another SAG nominee) attending the festivities, with or without Winona Ryder on his arm.

Two otherwise surefire Best Actor nominees could suffer from current developments on the White House scandal front. Given the way events have eerily mirrored Wag the Dog, the Clinton-boosting Academy may feel uneasy about highlighting Dustin Hoffman's tour-de-force as the Robert Evans-like producer orchestrating a baroque cover-up for a presidential peccadillo. This didn't faze the Screen Actors Guild, however, so look for Hoffman to weather this storm at least as handily as the chief executive.

Robert Duvall's case is a little dicier. As a showboating fundamentalist preacher in The Apostle, he may not be able to convert those Academy members who consider his sympathetic portrayal an endorsement of Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, and company. Their aversion could cost him a deserved nod for Best Picture and Best Director, but his bound-for-glory performance with its emphasis on tolerance and personal redemption will probably be acknowledged by a Best Actor nomination, as it has already been by SAG and the national and Los Angeles film critics' societies.

Actresses, on the other hand, have long been Oscar's biggest embarrassment, an affirmation of the chronic complaint that there are no good parts for women. There are, but not in this country. This year the British contingent will surpass last year's total of three -- and if it weren't for Helen Hunt (a Golden Globe winner and SAG nominee), as American as cheeseburgers playing the waitress in As Good As It Gets, it might been a clean sweep.

Leaving Pam Grier's comeback in Jackie Brown a distant dark horse, you can look for the Academy to acknowledge Judi Dench (Golden Globe winner, SAG nominee) as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. Helena Bonham Carter puts in her most accomplished and revealing performance as the melancholy conniver in The Wings of the Dove and should be suitably recognized by the Academy, as she has been by the National Board of Review, the Boston and Los Angeles critics' societies, and SAG. Also noted by SAG is Kate Winslet in Titanic, one of the few actors in that film unswamped by the big boat. And fulfilling the Academy's sentiment for comebacks while reminding us what real class and charisma are all about is Julie Christie's ethereal turn in Afterglow -- a favorite of the New York and national critics' groups. The Supporting Actor and Actress categories should continue the trend of Hollywood honoring its own past. Thus Burt Reynolds will be nominated for his role in Boogie Nights -- he's already received nearly every other award this year -- despite the fact he fired his agent for getting him the part. Burt's castmate Julianne Moore should join him with a Best Supporting Actress nomination, not only because of her solid, unacknowledged body of work but because she plays a struggling mother, though a porn star. Kim Basinger is a lock not only because she's paid her dues but because she plays a look-alike of vintage film actress Veronica Lake in L.A. Confidential. That goes double for Titanic's Gloria Stuart, who not only plays a vintage actress but was one.

Rounding out the Best Supporting Actor roster will be a cuddly, inspiring Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting, a cuddly, gay Greg Kinnear from As Good As It Gets, a cuddly, chin-whiskered Anthony Hopkins from Amistad, and a cuddly, kilted Billy Connolly from Mrs. Brown. And though it might have added some stature to this otherwise benighted category (think Marisa Tomei, Anna Paquin) to distinguish Sarah Polley's luminous performance in The Sweet Hereafter, the remaining Best Supporting Actress nominees will most likely be SAG nominees Alison Elliott from The Wings of the Dove and Minnie Driver of Good Will Hunting -- her consolation prize for losing Matt to Winona.

As for Best Director, no surprises here. No Ang Lee for The Ice Storm, no Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter. The Directors Guild, invariably a barometer in this category (since the directors' branch of the Academy determines the nominations), has voted a slate that reflects the likely Best Picture candidates: Cameron for Titanic, Spielberg for Amistad, Van Sant for Good Will Hunting, Brooks for As Good As It Gets, and Hanson for L.A. Confidential. Cameron's film should win, but after alienating his colleagues with his Titanic-like hubris ("Bigger is better," he smugly announced upon receiving his Golden Globe), Best Director may go elsewhere. And if Hollywood should heed his words and go full speed ahead with more $100-million-plus filmic boondoggles (think Volcano, Batman & Robin, Speed 2, Starship Troopers . . .), there may be bigger and better icebergs ahead as well.

Peter Picks

BEST PICTURE

Amistad
As Good As It Gets
Good Will Hunting
L.A. Confidential
Titanic

BEST DIRECTOR

James Brooks
James Cameron
Curtis Hanson
Steven Spielberg
Gus Van Sant

BEST ACTOR

Matt Damon
Robert Duvall
Peter Fonda
Dustin Hoffman
Jack Nicholson

BEST ACTRESS

Helena Bonham Carter
Julie Christie
Judi Dench
Helen Hunt
Kate Winslet

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Billy Connolly
Anthony Hopkins
Greg Kinnear
Burt Reynolds
Robin Williams

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Kim Basinger
Minnie Driver
Alison Elliott
Julianne Moore
Gloria Stuart


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