2 films get 9 nods, but 'Crying Game' is Oscars' biggest deal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article about the Oscar nominations in yesterday's editions said that Al Pacino was the first male to win a nomination in both acting and supporting acting categories. However, in 1944 Barry Fitzgerald received nominations in the acting and supporting acting categories for the same role in "Going My Way." That practice has subsequently been disallowed by the Academy.

Now it can be told.

The big news at yesterday's 65th annual Academy Award announcements wasn't the expected triumphs of "Howards End" and "Unforgiven," which received nine nominations apiece, but the outing of Jaye Davidson, who played the enigmatic Dil in Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game."

Davidson was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, which at last lets a cat out of a bag. For months, ever since the unheralded British import began electrifying audiences and winning wider and wider audiences, critics and moviegoers alike have been informally involved in a conspiratorial pact to keep Davidson's gender a secret, since its discovery is the movie's most riveting astonishment.

But so surprising is the revelation of Davidson's gender that it seems to have propelled the small movie into Oscar territory in other areas. Besides the nomination for Davidson, the film was nominated in the Best Picture category and Neil Jordon was nominated for Best Director as well as Best Screenplay. In fact, the movie resulted in six nominations altogether. A subtext of yesterday's announcement was: "Here comes Mr. Jordan."

Another theme of the nominations may have been: "Where went Mr. Nicholson?" Jack Nicholson, it was widely rumored, would be the first actor in history to win nominations in both the Actor and the Supporting Actor categories in the same year (it has happened four times to actresses). However, Nicholson was not nominated for his role in "Hoffa." The rumors at least got the distinction right, if not the actor. It went to Al Pacino, who received Best Supporting Actor nod for "Glengarry Glen Ross" and Best Actor for "Scent of a Woman."

Another question that will be asked on the morning after: "Where went Mr. Lemmon?" Jack Lemmon was widely rumored to be a shoo-in for his stunning turn in "Glengarry Glen Ross," but he went untapped.

But the breakthrough of Jordan and the surprises in the actor categories shouldn't completely overpower the success of the more mainstream fare, "Unforgiven" and "Howards End," with their nine nominations apiece. This is an especially satisfying set of nominations for the old salts responsible for each picture: Clint Eastwood for "Unforgiven" and James Ivory for "Howards End."

Eastwood, for years a critic's whipping boy for his violent and rabble-rousing crowd-pleasers like the "Dirty Harry" films, has finally broken through to widespread respect both as an actor and a director with the baleful and violent western about an old gunfighter who straps on the pistols one more time. The movie, far more morally complex than Eastwood's usual shoot-'em-ups, has won a number of prestigious critical awards.

"Howards End" is perhaps the most conventional of the successful movies. Hollywood loves high-toned British literary adaptations because they're everything Hollywood is not -- restrained, elegant and moral. Ivory, who works outside the mainstream with his collaborators Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has had success before, notably with the Best Picture nominee "A Room With a View" in 1986, but this is validation beyond his wildest dreams; although he's an American by birth, he has chosen to work almost exclusively overseas and indeed began his cosmopolitan career in India.

Spike Lee, whose "Malcolm X" received excellent reviews and great publicity when it was released in November, was largely snubbed by the academy. His movie was not nominated for Best Picture or for Best Adapted Screenplay; nor was Lee nominated for Best Director, though the director of a rather routine commercial film received one: Martin Brest for "Scent of a Woman." Does the academy have a Spike Lee problem or does Spike Lee have an academy problem? Only Denzel Washington was singled out in the Best Actor category. Lee, you can bet, will be heard from.

Other actors nominated along with Washington were Robert Downey Jr., for his amazing impersonation in "Chaplin," Eastwood and Pacino, and Stephen Rea, who plays the IRA gunman shadowed by conscience and regret in "The Crying Game." That film's late surge probably edged out Jack Lemmon for the final nomination.

The Best Actress category had a few astonishments. Widely considered a thin category, reflecting the industry's lack of concern with female roles and female issues, the two leading contenders -- Emma Thompson of "Howards End," who will probably win, and Susan Sarandon of "Lorenzo's Oil" -- easily made it. The rest was a crap shoot, with Mary McDonnell for "Passion Fish," which opens in Baltimore on Friday, getting a nod, as well as Michelle Pfeiffer for "Love Field," which opens in Baltimore next Friday. The last one was a complete ringer:

Catherine Deneuve for "Indochine," a luscious French melodrama set in Indochina in the '50s that has hardly opened anywhere in this country. It's really to Deneuve for being Deneuve.

The director category is interesting, not only for the exclusion of Lee. Here Robert Altman got a nomination, though his astringent "The Player," an examination of the tribal ways of the clan of the Hollywood studio executive, was otherwise largely ignored (it did get a nomination for Adapted Screenplay for screenwriter/novelist Michael Tolkin).

Surely disappointed is Rob Reiner, who went untapped for "A Few Good Men," although the film did receive a Best Picture nomination. The academy has never solved this riddle: How can it be a Best Picture possibility if its author isn't a Best Director? Do the words "We don't care" mean anything to you?

The ascension of Davidson to Best Supporting Actor category completely disrupts that classification, turning it into one of the most tightly contested in years. Gene Hackman had been considered the odds-on favorite, for his avuncular yet brutish sheriff in "Unforgiven," but Davidson's nomination reflects that interest and enthusiasm for "The Crying Game" is surging in Hollywood. And the Davidson performance is literally astonishing; he beguiles you into believing he is exactly who you don't think he is, setting up the whole film.

Another surprise in the category is David Paymer, as Billy Crystal's brother in the otherwise forgotten flop "Mr. Saturday Night." But what a category! Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, going head to head to head! Wow!

In the Supporting Actress category, the academy demonstrated it can remember movies that entered the marketplace before June, if rarely. Thus Marisa Tomei's astounding debut in the otherwise forgettable "My Cousin Vinny" from last spring was honored with a nomination, although as the lone American in the category she's unlikely to win.

Also winning nominations were Australian-born Judy Davis, in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," and Britain's Miranda Richardson, possibly the hottest actress in the world right now, with solid performances in "Enchanted April," "The Crying Game" and "Damage."

Richardson's nomination for the "Damage" role, rather than the "Crying Game" role, is a sensible distinction; the latter was pretty much generic terrorist psycho, whereas her "Damage" job provided the year's most searing moment, tapping, as it did, into sheer animal rage. But the real competition comes from two grand old British pros, Joan Plowright in "Enchanted April" and Vanessa Redgrave for a brief but important role in "Howards End."

The Oscars will be awarded in a nationally televised program March 29.

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