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The Hunt for Oscar Predictions: When he considers this year's Oscar nominees, our critic's head hurts. But here are his picks, anyway.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kind of a scary year. "Sense and Sensibility" had the look of the swank, Brit, big-ticket piece the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves to honor with an Oscar. Then there was that anthem of gung-ho, can-do spirit, "Apollo 13," patriotic as all get-out, another sort of movie the academy has a tendency to adore. A two-horse race, figure six for one, four for the other, with the Brit coming out in the lead.

Oops. Another miscalculation.

Instead, along came a Scotsman named William Wallace, the subject of Mel Gibson's old-fashioned -- and old; it dated from May -- epic, to get 10 completely unexpected nominations, throwing the whole thing up in the air.

And then those blasted double-death downers "Dead Man Walking" and "Leaving Las Vegas" blow in from out of town and throw their butts down and will not go away. They mess it up even more!

And then from nowhere, this talking-pig opus, "Babe," a faux-naif Aussie comedy about a porker who thinks he's a barker and makes the nation believe it. Charm, audacity or just an extra-long "I want a Clark Bar" commercial?

The fat and easy days of "Forrest Gump," when a professional prognosticator could knock out his picks in 10 minutes and go an easy 8 out of 10, ain't around no more. This one is tough. You have to think about this one. Ouch! At my age, that hurts.

So here's my best shot. If I go down in flames, don't call to gloat. If you do better than I do, don't write the editor. You're still not getting this job.

Best Supporting Actress: Let's begin with an easy one. Mia Sorvino put on a whiny voice, dyed her hair jet blond and got buff in the gym for the role of the tart in "Mighty Aphrodite." Cheapness always works; you'd never suspect she's a neo-conservative from Harvard! But she won't win. Mare Winningham was an eye of calmness in "Georgia," but she won't win either, because nobody ever saw the movie, which hasn't even opened in Baltimore. Kate Winslet was wonderful in "Sense and Sensibility" as headstrong, emotional, self-dramatizing "sensibility," and, in a normal year, she would win.

The Oscar, however, will go to Joan Allen, for "Nixon" and her turn as Pat. It was an extraordinary impersonation that caught its subject's iron dignity and stoicism as well as her intelligence, a stunner in a movie from the Oliver Stone who tends to make most Republicans look like fascist warmongers.

Best Original Screenplay: "Mighty Aphrodite"? No. Hollywood hasn't really forgiven Woody Allen for his crimes, his crimes not being cohabiting with his wife's adopted daughter but having a string of box-office failures and also hating Hollywood and going to Europe on a jazz tour during Oscar week. An Oscar for "Toy Story" in this category would completely miss the point: It was technique, not writing, that distinguished that computer-animated gem. "Braveheart" has a shot, but such an award would fail to honor the movie's prime mover, Mel Gibson, and pay dividends only to his stalking horse, screenwriter Randall Wallace. "Nixon?" Nah.

Rather, here's a chance that not even Hollywood will blow to pay homage to one of the cleverest films of the year. That's the astonishing and delightful enigma, "The Usual Suspects," with its Byzantine plot and its nostalgic insistence on a mythic master criminal pulling all the strings. Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie will nab the golden boy.

Best Adapted Screenplay: You'd think Mike Figgis for "Leaving Las Vegas," as a way of rewarding him for his astonishing audacity in making Hollywood want a movie nobody in Hollywood wanted. Wouldn't "Babe" have a chance, too, as a nice way to memorialize a film that's cute but probably not going to go all the way? Factor out "The Postman" and "Apollo 13," the first because all the nominations are enough,the latter because no one really liked it a lot.

That means the novelty nomination will get it -- actress Emma Thompson for her brilliant adaptation (six drafts in longhand on yellow tablets while waiting for the blocking to stop and the shooting to start on a decade's worth of other movies) of "Sense and Sensibility." Who could resist that one? Tinseltown still loves a good story.

Cinematography: Not a great category this year, a year in which few films were visually distinguished. Most experts seem to be picking "Braveheart," but I found its photography conventional: Auld Scotland looked much more poetic and resonant in "Rob Roy." "Batman Forever" was gleamingly professional, big-studio filmmaking but for that same reason coldly unmoving. "Shanghai Triad" was probably the best-photographed film of the year, yes, but the close-knit, tribal cinematographers aren't going to acknowledge an Asian film as such. Nobody saw "A Little Princess."

Actually, the best-photographed film of the year wasn't even nominated, that being Figgis' brilliant "Leaving Las Vegas," shot in a super-16 that, blown up to 35, had a powdery, gritty, doom-laden feel. Rather, the Oscar will go to Michael Coulter for his green and lovely "Sense and Sensibility," which made the 19th century look like a walk in the park on a beautiful late-May Sunday.

Foreign Language Film: I love this category because I've never seen most of 'em and I don't have to be depressed if I blow it. So I'm picking "Antonia's Line," from the Netherlands, not that I've seen it or "All Things Fair" from Sweden or "Dust of Life" from Algeria or "O Quatrilho" from Brazil. It's the most famous and has gotten the best reviews. I have seen "The Star Maker," from Italy's Guiseppe Tornatore, another love poem to the cinema, but so many find it a disappointment after "Cinema Paradiso" that it'll probably swoon.

Best Supporting Actor: The race here is between Ed Harris, outstanding as the technocrat commander of the earthlings in "Apollo 13," and Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects," and if you've seen the movie you know why, but I won't tell you if you haven't. I liked Tim Roth's great turn at nastiness in "Rob Roy" as Archie Cunningham, fop and duelist. Brad Pitt was noisy in "12 Monkeys," but he'll eventually earn the Big One as his career continues to swell; James Cromwell of "Babe" is the dark horse. But no. I'm going with Spacey, who's emerged recently as one of the most reliable and fascinating character actors in Hollywood.

Best Actress: A four-horse race. Factor out at the top Meryl Streep from "The Bridges of Madison County," included in the category merely to fill it out. Here's the theory behind each of the other contenders: Elizabeth Shue, for "Leaving Las Vegas," because Hollywood loves it when a good girl goes bad. Sharon Stone, for "Casino," because Hollywood loves it when a bad girl stays bad. Emma Thompson for "Sense and Sensibility," because Hollywood loves it when a good girl stays good. And the winner: Susan Sarandon, for "Dead Man Walking," because Hollywood loves it.

Best Actor: Massimo Troisi, the star of "The Postman," had the best publicity gimmick -- he died the day after shooting. Sentimental H-wood might eat that up. Sean Penn had the best greasy, white-trash pompadour in "Dead Man Walking." Richard Dreyfuss had the best sense of self-loathing in "Mr. Holland's Opus," and Anthony Hopkins had the best fake chin and hairline in "Nixon."

But this is Nicolas Cage's year: In "Leaving Las Vegas," he had the best sense of ironic, tragic doom, the best joie de vivre in the face of his own impending destruction. He made you care about one of the biggest losers in screen history. Besides, God is kind to babies, the United States of America and drunks. See what He did for Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend"?

Best Director: Oy. Ummf. Ugh. Blecch. And this is only the second hardest category! Michael Radford, an Englishman, reinvented himself as an Italian in "The Postman," and that always pleases people. On the other hand, the super-aggressive Miramax's super-aggressive marketing campaigns can turn more people off than on. Chris Noonan blew America away with "Babe," a wholly unexpected hit and quite an astonishing movie, for a movie about a pig. Tim Robbins was furiously even-handed "Dead Man Walking," making both pro- and anti-capital punishment arguments with equal fervor, but in very liberal Hollywood, that might hurt rather than help. Mel Gibson represents a long-established Tinseltown pattern: the big star who puts money, reputation and effort on the line to make "his" picture -- a picture nobody else wanted -- and delivers a stunner in "Braveheart," though in truth it was a very conventional picture.

But I think the award will go to Mike Figgis for "Leaving Las Vegas," which for bizarre tribal reasons wasn't even nominated for best picture, despite the incredible reviews and the brilliant // success. But "Las Vegas" is a total Figgis thing: He found the original book, he wrote the screenplay, he got the financing (in France, after everyone in Hollywood turned it down), he talked the hot young actors into appearing in it, he scored it and he went on the publicity tour to shill it. He deserves it, and I believe the academy will recognize that, for his heroism if nothing else. Hollywood is a tough town to be brave in, and nobody knows that better than Hollywood.

Best Picture: Oy. Umf. Ugh. Blecch. Really hard. There seems to be a consensus building for "Babe" primarily because it's such a charmer, such a delight. But "Braveheart" is also the kind of epic, old-fashioned movie that the academy's older members like very much (the whole academy votes in this one category, so the choices tend to skew more conservative). "The Postman" has the same nicey-nice values, but I believe the nomination will be enough. "Apollo 13" has lost most of its cachet of late and doesn't look to be a contender.

But I think in the end the old patterns will reassert themselves: "Sense and Sensibility" is a safe choice; it can't be criticized by anybody, and it represents the outfit's consistent fantasy view of itself, as a sort of "Masterpiece Theater" of the global village.

Watching Oscar

What: 68th annual Academy Awards

Where: WMAR -- Channel 2

When: Tomorrow night at 9

Who: Whoopi Goldberg is host

Pub Date: 03/24/96

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