Oscar’s Morning Line: Don’t Bet on Shakespeare

The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded more than 70

years ago by L.B. Mayer and his fellow movie moguls, was conceived as a

guild-busting company union with an award ceremony tacked on almost as an

afterthought.

Since then, the ceremony has been inflated into the globally televised

Super Bowl of movie prize-giving, and like the Super Bowl, it has attracted

the gambling gentry in Las Vegas and elsewhere as a betting proposition. I

have been handicapping this event in print for more than three decades, and

I must admit that my hunches have been going haywire for the past few

years. Curiously, I can’t seem to read the Academy members as well as

I could when I knew much less about their foibles and prejudices. As a

tennis pro once described my forehand, I am suffering from paralysis

through analysis. I therefore preface this year’s predictions with

Damon Runyon’s cautionary dictum that all horse players die broke. So

don’t bet the rent on my choices, which are as follows, along with my

personal preferences among both the nominees and the non-nominees in the

major categories:

Best Picture. What will win: Saving Private Ryan over

Shakespeare in Love in the battle of the backlashes against Steven

Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein. Who I would vote for among the nominees:

Shakespeare in Love . Who I would vote for out of all the films of

1998: A Simple Plan .

Best Actress. Who will win: Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love .

Best nominee: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth . My winner: Vanessa

Redgrave, Mrs. Dalloway .

Best Actor. Who will win: Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters . Best

nominee: Nick Nolte, Affliction . My winner: George Clooney, Out

of Sight .

Best Supporting Actress. Who will win: Judi Dench, Shakespeare in

Love . Best nominee: Rachel Griffiths, Hilary and Jackie . My

winner: Lisa Kudrow, Opposite of Sex .

Best Supporting Actor. Who will win: James Coburn, Affliction .

Best nominee: Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan . My winner: Billy

Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan .

Best Director. Who will win: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private

Ryan . Best nominee: John Madden, Shakespeare in Love . My winner:

Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan .

Best Foreign Film. What will win: Life Is Beautiful . My winner:

Hana-Bi .

Original Screenplay. Who will win: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard,

Shakespeare in Love . My winner: Andrew Niccol, The Truman

Show .

Adapted Screenplay. Who will win: Terrence Malick, The Thin Red

Line . My winners: The Great Scotts: Scott B. Smith, A Simple

Plan and Scott Frank, Out of Sight , tie.

Art Direction. Shakespeare in Love .

Cinematography. Saving Private Ryan .

Sound. Saving Private Ryan .

Sound Effects Editing. Saving Private Ryan .

Original Musical or Comedy Song. Shakespeare in Love , Steven

Warbeck.

Original Dramatic Score. Life Is Beautiful , Nicola Piovani (the

only tune I can remember from all the musical nominations).

Original Song. “When You Believe” from The Prince of

Egypt . (Do you have a better idea?)

Costume. Shakespeare in Love .

Documentary Feature. The Last Days .

Documentary Short Subject. Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square (the

catchiest title of the bunch).

Film Editing. Saving Private Ryan . (This award is usually the

first clue to Best Picture.)

Makeup. Shakespeare in Love . (Real men aren’t supposed to

need makeup.)

Animated Short Film. The Canterbury Tales . (Who knows? I’ll

just strike a blow for literature.)

Live Action Short Film. Culture . (It’s the thought that

counts.)

Visual Effects. Armageddon over Mighty Joe Young and

What Dreams May Come , though I am not sure why.

There it is: 24 categories, 24 fearless choices. I’m sure that you

can do better if you try, but don’t give up your day job if you do.

The industry doesn’t like wise guys, which is why they stiffed Jim

Carrey after he made a joke about Oscar at the Golden Globes.

Other Tributes Go To … Robinson, Lester

Speaking of the Oscars, Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) never

received even a nomination in a 50-year, 87-film career of unyielding

distinction. The Academy finally gave him a special honorary award in 1973

and that posthumously, shortly after he had died of cancer. One would think

that one of our most memorable screen icons deserved better. Now, the

Museum of Modern Art is in the midst of a 27-feature-film retrospective of

Robinson’s best work, along with live-action shorts and cartoons

attesting to his iconic prominence in the 30′s and 40′s as a

much-imitated gangster type in the mold of Little Caesar (1930).

It might be said in defense of the Academy that Robinson fell between

the cracks separating character actor stars and leads like Robinson,

Charles Laughton, Will Rogers, George Arliss, Wallace Beery et al., and the

standout supporting character actors like Thomas Mitchell, Walter Brennan,

Barry Fitzgerald, Donald Crisp et al. Clearly, Robinson would have received

at least a nomination for supporting actor in 1944 for his lightning-fast

line readings as Barton Keyes in Billy Wilder’s Double

Indemnity , but Robinson insisted on top billing and top dollar even

after he was past 50, not that his frog-faced gargoylish features ever made

the hearts of screen maidens flutter even earlier in his career.

Meanwhile. Robinson’s snarling underworld persona obscured the

renaissance sensibility that enabled him to master eight languages, the

nuances of art collecting, and the substance of liberal causes. Back in the

days before The Godfather (1972) and Silence of the Lambs

(1991), the Academy was too squeamish to honor legends like James

Cagney’s homicidal killers in The Public Enemy (1931),

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939),

and White Heat (1949) or Humphrey Bogart’s hoods in The

Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937) and High Sierra (1941).

Cagney and Bogart did finally win Oscars by becoming good boys, Cagney in

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Bogart in The African Queen

(1951). Robinson never had their options. What he had instead were

wonderful opportunities to poke comically civilized fun at his own brutish

Little Caesar persona in The Whole Town’s Talking

(1935), A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and The Amazing Dr.

Clitterhouse (1938). On occasion, he projected also the antithesis of

gangster in timid souls, most notably of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the

Window (1944) and Scarlet Street . (1945), both with shady ladies

played by Joan Bennett.

Back in the late 30′s, a fan magazine polled its readers about the

roster of Warner’s gangster stars. James Cagney was voted the

toughest, Humphrey Bogart the meanest, George Raft the most sinister (after

all, he was rumored to be a mob guy in real life) and Edward G. Robinson

the most lovable. Yes, we loved Eddie G., not in a romantic way, but in the

way we loved our favorite uncle even when he was filling the living room

with the foul smell of his beloved cigars that would finally kill him.

Richard Lester is also receiving a tribute at the American Museum of the

Moving Image, 35th Avenue and 36th Street, in Astoria, Queens

(718-784-4520), as perhaps the most underrated director of the 60′s

and 70′s. The series–long overdue–started on March

6 with a fully restored A Hard Day’s Night (to be released

by Miramax in April) with new footage and a digitally restored soundtrack.

I hope the museum will show it again to my readers who missed it the first

time.

A Hard Day’s Night has a special place in my heart because

of the curious way it made me moderately famous as a film critic. When I

was recuperating from a mysteriously life-threatening virus in 1985, the

nurses at the Rusk Pavilion were singularly unimpressed with my

journalistic and academic credentials until my name popped up in Trivial

Pursuit, a popular pastime of the period. “What film did critic Andrew

Sarris call ‘the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies?’”

The answer, of course, was A Hard Day’s Night (1964), a Beatles

bonanza.

On Sunday, March 14, the series will conclude with Mr. Lester’s

Petulia (1968), from a screenplay by Lawrence Marcus, with Julie

Christie and George C. Scott playing one of the most perversely passionate

couples in film history. I love this film, and keep showing it in my

Columbia film classes every year even though the students never seem to get

it any more than most critics of the time did. When I saw Ms. Christie at

the New York Film Critics dinner last year in the Rainbow Room I forgot to

tell her how much I admired her performance, and, of course, Mr.

Scott’s as well. This column is for you, Julie and George, and

don’t pay any attention to the infidels who literally can’t see

Petulia , and certainly can’t feel its exquisite emotions.