Throne for a Loop; ' Private Ryan'? Yes, sir. 'Shakespeare in Love'? 'Tis so. 'Life Is Beautiful'? Sure is. But in a year of inventiveness, bravura and edge, what's 'Elizabeth' doing in line for Oscar's crown?


It's that time of year again, campers, so all together now:

What were they thinking?

* The wildly overstyled, overstuffed and underwhelming "Elizabeth" nominated for best picture over and above Peter Weir's captivating pop-culture fantasy "The Truman Show"?

* The leaden, tin-eared "Primary Colors" nominated for best-adapted screenplay rather than Paul Schrader's finely calibrated adaptation of the Russell Banks novel "Affliction"?

* Two very uneven films ("Hilary and Jackie," "Gods and Monsters") and one out-and-out bad one ("Elizabeth") honored 11 times between them, while such solid efforts as "Truman," "A Simple Plan" and "Out of Sight" only manage to scrape up seven?

A quick glance at the Academy Award nominations, announced yesterday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, reveals the distinct whiff of American self-loathing. It seems sadly typical for the 5,557-voting-member organization to reward the middlebrow pseudo-history of "Elizabeth" and overlook artistically steadier fare that didn't feature fancy accents or big dresses.

"Elizabeth's" seven nominations are probably the most puzzling non sequiturs in a list that otherwise won't raise many eyebrows -- or hackles.

As expected, "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg's powerful World War II drama, snagged a passel of nominations, 11 in all, although it was outstripped by the frothy romance "Shakespeare in Love" (also set in Elizabethan England). John Madden's literate romp, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as the imaginary muse who inspired "Romeo and Juliet," garnered 13 nominations. Each one of them was deserved, especially Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's glittering screenplay, which was bejeweled with cunning puns, in-jokes and Bard-worthy wordplay.

There were no major shocks in the acting categories, either -- although it was a bit of an unexpected pleasure to see James Coburn receive his first-ever nomination. Coburn was honored for his supporting work as a troubled, aging father in the searing family drama "Affliction," which is scheduled to open in Baltimore Feb. 19.

Although he's in good company -- including Ed Harris from "The Truman Show," Robert Duvall from "A Civil Action," Geoffrey Rush from "Shakespeare in Love" and Billy Bob Thornton from "A Simple Plan" -- this year the category could have used some elastic. At least two outstanding performances were left out: Jeremy Davies, who played a young, frightened soldier in "Saving Private Ryan," and Bill Murray, who turned in such a quietly monumental performance in the offbeat comedy "Rushmore."

(Nick Nolte deserved a supporting-actor nomination for his work in Terrence Malick's metaphysical war picture "The Thin Red Line," but he'll have to settle for a best-actor nomination for his ferocious portrayal of a man on the edge in "Affliction." At least he fared better than his co-stars in "The Thin Red Line," several of whom turned in memorable performances in that movie, especially Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and Elias Koteas.)

As far as actresses were concerned, it seemed that monarchy, malaise and motherhood -- either literal or symbolic -- ruled the day. Both Elizabeths were nominated -- Cate Blanchett, whose luminous performance as the title character was the best thing about "Elizabeth," and Judi Dench for her supporting work in "Shakespeare in Love" -- as were two actresses who portrayed women facing protracted deaths. It seemed unavoidable that Emily Watson would be a shoo-in for her portrayal of the multiple-sclerosis-stricken cellist Jacqueline du Pre, even though her performance was bothersomely mannered. Surely Meryl Streep, who received her 11th nomination for playing a spirited cancer patient in "One True Thing," could easily have made way for a more deserving actress -- any one of the three lead players in "Beloved" spring to mind.

Indeed, "Beloved," Oprah Winfrey's labor of love that was largely rejected by filmgoers, received only one nomination, for costumes. Why this ghost story set in the Reconstruction era was overlooked for its spectacular cinematography while the indecipherably dark "Elizabeth" received a nomination in that category is but one more academy mystery. One could as easily question why they chose the murky "A Civil Action" -- which seemed to be photographed half in shadow -- over the bright and brilliantly filmed "The Truman Show."

("Truman" was also nudged aside in art direction for the gimmicky "Pleasantville" and "What Dreams May Come." Truman Burbank, call your agent!)

But enough carping. Weren't there some unexpected delights, aside from the much-deserved laurels thrown at the pretty head of Gwyneth Paltrow and her co-conspirators in "Shakespeare in Love"?

Yes. Fernanda Montenegro, for one. Some thought that Cameron Diaz, who received a surprising number of critic-association kudos for the comedy "There's Something About Mary," might edge out this marvelous Brazilian actress when Oscar time came. But the over-35 Montenegro, who plays a hard-bitten woman who becomes the custodian of an orphaned boy in the Brazilian movie "Central Station," deservedly made the cut. ("Central Station" will open in Baltimore on Friday.)

It was nice to see Edward Norton nominated for best actor for his outstanding work as a repentant racist in "American History X." Although it was whispered early on that his potent performance was Oscar-caliber, when audiences overlooked "American History X," a morality tale involving white supremacy movements in contemporary California, it was feared that Norton might be overlooked as well.

Lynn Redgrave received a deserved nod for her portrayal of a blunt but loving housekeeper in "Gods and Monsters," although another supporting-actress nominee -- Kathy Bates ("Primary Colors") -- didn't come up with nearly as delightful a turn as Lisa Kudrow did in "The Opposite of Sex" or Joan Allen in "Pleasantville."

(Speaking of the world of independents, "Happiness," which was a critics' darling last year and featured an uncommonly strong ensemble of players, was shut out of this year's Oscar race. So much for edge.)

"Life Is Beautiful," Roberto Benigni's devastating drama about a man trying to save his son's life in a Nazi death camp, received a deserved nomination for best picture and had the added honor of being named a nominee for best foreign film. The last movie to be named in those two categories was Costa-Gavras' "Z," in 1969. "Life Is Beautiful," which earned seven nominations in all -- including best actor and director for Benigni -- broke the record for most nominations received by a foreign-language film.

Many deserving movies had to settle for a nomination in the screenplay category, which has become something of a bone thrown to films that are worthy but maybe too controversial or smart (someone had to say it) for academy tastes.

Scott B. Smith, who adapted his own novel, "A Simple Plan," for the screen, received one of two nominations for that taut, expertly made thriller, which deserved far more. The same could be said for "Out of Sight," Steven Soderbergh's smooth adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel. That film received only two nominations, for adapted screenplay and editing.

"Bulworth," Warren Beatty's passionate cri de coeur about race and class in contemporary America, also had to settle for the consolation prize of an original screenplay nod. (It even looks like "The Truman Show" had to trade best picture consideration for best original screenplay. Forget your agent, Truman, call Michael Ovitz!)

It was also nice to see Terrence Malick lauded for "The Thin Red Line," his mystical, metaphorical adaptation of the James Jones novel about American troops on Guadalcanal. Not only was Malick -- who has not made a movie in 20 years -- nominated for best director and adapted screenplay (as well as best picture), but "The Thin Red Line" was included in the category for best editing.

Depending on whether you found Malick's discursive style maddening or entrancing, that particular nomination will come as either a jaw-dropper or sweet vindication.

The Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 1998 will be presented on March 21and will be televised live by ABC.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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