Can nice guys finish first? Or will nastiness, hostility, cynicism, blasphemous language and illogical plot progressions rule the day?
Yes, it's "Forrest Gump" vs. O. J.'s defense team.
No, no, we're talking Oscars here: It's really "Forrest Gump" vs. the much-loved and much-reviled "Pulp Fiction" for Best Picture and a slew of other awards.
Many critics have insisted on over-symbolizing the race, but then that's what critics are paid to do, isn't it? Still, to represent it as powers of light vs. powers of darkness -- or the old, square, decent, honest, wunnerful Ammurica of "Forrest Gump" vs. the new, snide, hip, self-adoring America of Quentin Tarantino -- goes a bit far.
Leave us take a reality check, thank you, and remember that purely in terms of film craft, "Forrest Gump" was by far the most sophisticated film, replete with more special effects than any of the "Star Wars" films. Remember, second, that it is supported by the most powerful and sophisticated picture-making entity known to man: that is, Paramount Pictures. It ain't no hick just in from the farm, and if it's sucking on a stalk of straw, that's because marketing has told it to suck on a stalk of straw for the image.
"Pulp Fiction," on the other hand, is much more in the "hey-kids-lets-make-a-movie" tradition. Written by Tarantino from stories by himself and Roger Avary, it was rejected by mainstream Hollywood when TriStar put it in turnaround and non-major Miramax picked it up for not very much. It ultimately cost a mere $12 million, with most of the stars taking cuts to take part in the project. Zero special effects, except of course for the guy who splashes the blood when Travolta accidentally shoots the squealer in the face. (Trivia note: In the recently published screenplay, Travolta shoots him in the throat first. He gurgles, he spits, he moans. Not knowing what to do, Travolta then shoots him in the face. It's a mercy killing, see, not an accident!)
Anyway, here's our annual prognostication for key races of the 67th annual Academy Awards, to be announced tomorrow (9 p.m. on WMAR, Channel 2). The envelopes please, and hold your applause until the end.
Best Supporting Actor
Let's start with an easier one and one in which, I believe, the "Gump"/"Pulp" heads-up will go largely unfulfilled. Both Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp" and Gary Sinise in "Forrest" are terrific, and it might help Jackson that he's concurrently terrific in "Losing Isaiah," which Academy voters may be seeing in their local Bijoux. Chazz Palminteri has only an outside chance for "Bullets Over Broadway" because he's a New York kind of guy and this is only his second film. Paul Scofield was brilliant in "Quiz Show," but that film's surprising box-office failure and its equally surprising lack of Oscar clout (only four nominations) will certainly work against it. But the one universally adored supporting performance of the year was Martin Landau's turn as drug-addicted but still dignified Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's otherwise unsurprising "Ed Wood." Landau will win what Lugosi never did.
Best Supporting Actress
I cull immediately four possibilities by dispensing with the braying, irritating Jennifer Tilly in "Bullets Over Broadway." It's a good thing she's so awful, because she won't split the "Bullets" backers who have Dianne Wiest to invest in. The two Brits will cancel each other out: Helen Mirren as the concerned queen in "The Madness of King George" and Rosemary Harris in the still unseen-in-Baltimore "Tom and Viv." Another thing working against Harris is the well-known fact that no movie about or by or concerning T. S. Eliot has ever won an Oscar. That leaves the real contest between the aforementioned Wiest in "Bullets" and Uma Thurman as the gangster moll who twists the night away with Travolta, then ODs on smack, in "Pulp Fiction." It's a tough call, and if you asked me who deserved it, I'd say Thurman, for hers is a wicked, nasty, compelling portrait of a character who could have become a cartoon. But you didn't ask me who deserved it, you asked me who was going to win it. Dianne Wiest will win it.
Best Original Screenplay
This is probably the most interesting of all the races, as each of the five nominees has a theory behind it. "Bullets Over Broadway" is the funniest Woody Allen in many a year, even if it was co-written by Doug McGrath, and the Academy has already voiced its pleasure by conferring seven nominations upon it. "Four Weddings and A Funeral" written by Richard Curtis, was everything the Academy loves but never manages: British, funny and an art-house hit. "Heavenly Creatures" told a fascinating story about two young New Zealand women who decide to murder one of their mothers. It too was an art-house hit. Then there's Krzysztof Kieslowski (and Krzysztof Piesiewicz) for "Red", another art-house hit and the third part of a triptych (the others are "White" and "Blue") that, if nothing else, expresses an artistic ambition thoroughly lacking in American movies. But none of them will win. Here's a nice safe place for Hollywood to pay homage to its enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino and his nasty but amusing nightmare "Pulp Fiction."
Best Adapted Screenplay
A month ago, back when I believed in a "Quiz Show" sweep, I'd have bet "Quiz Show" would win; it deserves to, making a coherent story with strong moral dilemmas underneath out of a few chapters from a Richard Godwin book largely concerned with other matters. Great job by former Washington Post critic Paul Attanasio. But "Quiz Show" lost air faster than the Hindenberg. "The Madness of King George" and "The Shawshank Redemption," between them, never quite break the back of their own sources: That is, "Madness" still feels like a play, even if the camera moves a little, and "Shawshank" depends too much on camera work, prison atmospherics and fine performances to overcome the awkwardness of its adaptation from a Stephen King novella. I didn't like "Nobody's Fool," so I cannot admit that it has a chance. That leaves Eric Roth's job on the short Winston Groom novel "Forrest Gump." Actually, of "Forrest's" many pleasures, its script is the least, being too episodic and disconnected. Still, it will win the Oscar.
Best Foreign Film
This one is always a total crapshoot. The films are picked by the countries themselves, and there's always a lot of skulduggery and office politics involved. Then the winner turns out to be something nobody ever heard of. If that were so, the front runner would be "Burnt By the Sun," the Russian entry by Nikita Mikhalkov. But it won't win. "Eat Drink Man Woman," a comic "Lear" with Chinese food, is too accessible. "Strawberry and Chocolate," the Cuban film about the friendship between a straight and a gay man, is very strong, but it won't win either; neither will "Farinelli: Il Castrato," a Belgian film that hasn't even been released yet. The winner will be "Before the Rain," a widely respected Macedonian film that confronts the ugly civil war now wrecking that tragic chunk of the world, but with something of a Western perspective. The director, Milcho Manchevski actually has worked in New York for 10 years, where he directed music videos.
This was last year's easiest category; who could deny Janusz Kaminski's vivid black and white shadings that gave "Schindler's List" its mock documentary power? And not so hard this time either. "Legends of the Fall" was dopey but beautiful; "Wyatt Earp" was as waterlogged as a crate of newspapers left in the rain. "Red" was too obscure; "The Shawshank Redemption" didn't earn $304 million domestic. The winner will be Don Burgess' work on "Forrest Gump."
We can dispense with Miranda Richardson as T. S. Eliot's wife Viv in "Tom & Viv" by reinvoking the principle that movies about T. S. Eliot never win Academy Awards. Winona Ryder's Jo is a long shot in "Little Women" because the film didn't quite make an impression. The bad news for Susan Sarandon, in "The Client," is that the film was released too early, that is, way back in July. That leaves a two-woman race between Jessica Lange in "Blue Sky" and Jodie Foster in "Nell." Hmmm, tough to call. My bet is Lange, not so much on account of her performance -- brilliant though it was -- but because Foster's turn in "Nell" seemed so desperately conceived to get her an Oscar nod, as if that were the true point and gist of the film. That kind of naked careering never goes over well in a town so nakedly careerist as Hollywood, because it reminds them of what they are. Additionally, the Lange performance was actually delivered several years ago, when the film was made; it has the strength of being something that feels as fresh today as it was when it was filmed.
A tough category. Let's dump Nigel Hawthorne for "The Madness of King George"; he seems unlikely to win because he's too British in a year filled with bravura American performers and performances. In the absence of stronger nominees, Paul Newman might be a favorite simply on the basis of his having paid his dues and lasted all these many years. But he already won that Oscar, in '86, for "The Color of Money." "Nobody's Fool" is unlikely to do the trick. Morgan Freeman has been brilliant for years, has two nominations and has never won. His Red in "The Shawshank Redemption" might do it for him. But it won't, as it's trumped by the higher nostalgia value of John Travolta, who's been up and who's been down before and now he's up again. Will the Academy notice? Probably not: After all, in "Pulp Fiction," does shoot a guy in the face and he does die coming out of the bathroom. He needs dignity, not an Oscar. No, the winner will be Tom Hanks, whose stirring decency made "Forrest
Gump" meaningful rather than merely sanctimonious.
Eleven out of 12 times the winner chosen by the Director's Guild of America wins the Oscar, and that should happen this year, too. That's of course Bob Zemeckis, who helmed "Forrest Gump." He has almost no negatives: a successful movie, a long and underrated career ("Back to the Future" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"). The others: Woody Allen got enough from his nominations, so the award itself is irrelevant. Krzysztof Kieslowski, of "Red," is far too obscure. Redford won before, back in 1980, and "Quiz Show's" flop at the box office hurts it bad. Tarantino? Very good director, very bad boy. He's too young, and as the directors made clear with Steven Spielberg, they do not like to give awards to the young (they prefer to eat them). Maybe in 10 years, but not now.
Is this an anti-climax or what? "Quiz Show" and "Shawshank" are "old fashioned" movies, well-crafted, but each did dismally at the box office -- never a helpful sign. "Four Weddings and a Funeral" was a total surprise, and the nomination itself will be seen as its reward. "Pulp Fiction" hasn't got much of a chance, since the general membership of the Academy votes on Best Picture, not just the craft units, and it tends to be much more conservative in its tastes than the crafts individually. I think it'll be a long time before a movie where a guy gets his head blown into little gobbets and splurts will impress this bunch enough to win a Best Picture Oscar. That leaves . . . "Forrest Gump," Best Picture of the Year, according to Hollywood.