It's the morning the academy Award nominations are announced, Feb. 13, and in my dream the envelope is opened and the following films are announced as the best-picture candidates for 1995 (in alphabetical order, as these things .are done): "Babe." "Crumb." "Funny Bones." "Leaving Las Vegas." "Persuasion." "Safe."
You will notice several odd things about this list. 1. There are six movies instead of five (I said it was a dream). 2. You probably haven't seen many of them and, in the case of "Funny Bones" and "Safe," may not have heard of them. 8. None of these films was actually made by a Hollywood studio,
The Academy Awards were established, back in 1927, as an opportunity for Hollywood to honor (and promote) its own. But as the Oscars approach, the movie industry finds itself in a quandary: it can't come up with five studio films to fill the bill. There are only two movies everyone concedes are a lock, and only one of these is a homegrown, big-budget blockbuster: Ron Howard's rousing space thriller "Apollo 15." The other sure bet is the Jane Austen art-house charmer "Sense and Sensibility," filmed on a very sensible $15 million budget by a Taiwanese director. (It's an interesting face-off: the boys against the girls; high-tech American moxie vs. late-18th-century English reticence. Place your bets.)
"Hollywood is apathetic about its own product," observes "Rain Man" producer Mark Johnson. Another insider is more blunt: "The self-loathing is rampant." "We're getting a lot of things wrong in this town," observes United Artists' president John Calley, who can't remember an Oscar race so odd and "fraught with surprises." The industry has been forced to admit what critics and disgruntled moviegoers have been saying all year: that most of Hollywood's movies are nasty, brutish and not short enough. "Batman Forever," "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" grossed bundles, but these are not endeavors that make studio brass hold their heads up high on Oscar night. It's just more filthy lucre.
Another slap: The recent critic' awards were another slap to the industry. Here the studios are spending upwards of' $40 million on each picture (and $100 million on big-star action movies), and both the New York' and the Los Angeles film critics choose "Leaving Las Vegas" as the year's best picture--a French-financed $3.5 million movie shot on Super-16mm about a drunk and a hooker. (It was released by MGM.) The National Society of Film Critics made a strong statement by giving its top honor to the Australian talking-pig movie, "Babe." And what does it say to the Academy that all three groups voted as best documentary Terry Zwigoff's brilliant and disturbing "Crumb," which last year was rejected for an Oscar nomination by a committee that shut the film off before it was over? Not only that, the foreign-film winner selected by all three groups -- Andre Techine's stunning coming-of-age drama, "Wild Reeds"--was also rejected last year by the Oscar committee.
The year-end critics' awards have suddenly catapulted "Leaving Las Vegas" into a contender to fill one of the three mystery slots in the best-picture race. But such a straight shot of romantic hopelessness may be hard for the Academy voters to swallow. And "Babe," if the industry can bring itself to vote for a four-legged hero, now could waddle into the fray as well.
You certainly won't see "Funny Bones"-the most original unseen movie of the year-nominated for any awards. This quirky English movie about comedians was acquired and unceremoniously dumped by Disney, which isn't even sending out tapes of the film to Academy members. (It is sending "The Scarlet Letter"--for Best Stitching?.) "Persuasion," the better of two delicious Jane Austen movies, isn't eligible for any Oscars because of an archaic technicality: it was released on TV in England first. As for Todd Haynes's challenging and provocative "Safe"--in which Julianne Moore isolates herself from a toxic world--it speaks in an austere cinematic language that's anathema to Hollywood.
So much for my dream. Back in the world of Oscar reality, the mad scramble is on to grab a nomination in an unusually wide open race. "Nixon" should be a contender: it's an epic, and Oliver Stone is an Oscar darling. But antipathy for Tricky Dick and the carping of Washington journalists--who detest Stone for invading their turf-may deep-six its chances. The dark horse could be Tim Robbins's independent death-row drama "Dead Man Walking," which has two elements the Academy always likes--visceral power and social importance. There's even a distinct possibility that a foreign film could slip in: the much beloved "The Postman."
Curiously, one film that is imaginative, innovative and a big Hollywood-made hit--Disney's "Toy Story"--has made only a minor blip on the pre-Oscar radar. Why isn't Hollywood tooting its own computer-generated horn? Sheer terror. This is the movie whose technology could render most Academy members obsolete. Among the more mainstream studio fare you hear only a few titles: "Get Shorty," "The American President," "The Bridges of Madison County" (a long shot in this short-memory town) and Me] Gibson's battle-heavy epic "Brave-heart" (ugh!). One sleeper is the surprisingly cinematic "Richard III," which has an end-of-the-year advantage and, in Billy Shakespeare, a suddenly hot Hollywood screen-writer. It's another movie, shot for $8 million, that wasn't made by traditional studio rules.
It's that crazily inflated economic system that is behind the fear and confusion gripping the industry. Hollywood rules the cinematic planet, but there's no pride in it. It's lost touch, and respect, for its audience. The fact is that big-budget American movies are no longer made for Americans. They're made for an international Everyman (emphasize man) who is nobody in particular-just someone who responds to explosions and special effects. As John Calley puts it, "The target audience becomes so blurred." The big change in the movie business is that the foreign market is now as big as the domestic market-and Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom Inc., recently predicted that by the year 2000 it could account for nearly 80 percent of box-office revenues. If things keep moving in this subliterate direction, even talking pigs will have to shut their mouths and kick butt.
These huge overseas grosses are used to justify the $20 million salaries the biggest stars now demand. But when you shell out that much for a name, producers bemoan, there's little left over to make the movie. We've gotten to the loony state where $80 million movies can look shoddy and under-produced. They're B movies on bloated budgets. The scary thing is, audiences don't seem to care that the action scenes in "Batman Forever" are incoherent.
Hollywood needs the Oscars to shill its prestige products, but we shouldn't take them too seriously. There were, in fact, other studio movies worthy of affection this year, but they were either in genres the Academy condescends to ("Heat," "Clueless" "A Little Princess"), or they failed to make enough money to be taken seriously ("Unstrung Heroes,""Devil in a Blue Dress," "To Die For," "Clockers"). Too much popular success can hurt your Oscar chances, but too little is unforgivable.
It wasn't really such a terrible year for motes, if you were adventurous enough to ignore the hype and seek out such nonstudio gems as "The Usual Suspects," "Before Sunrise," "Carrington," "Theremin" "Living in Oblivion," "Exotica" and "Shanghai Triad." But it's becoming increasingly hard for moviegoers to find these films: Hollywood, with the eager participation of the media, makes so much noise touting its shoddiest products that the public is deafened to the alternatives. "Congo" makes $81 million and "Funny Bones" makes $500,000. Of course it flopped: no one knew it was out there. Now, at Oscar time, the truth comes out and we learn what Hollywood really thinks of all those overstuffed and undernourished movies it forced down our throats: they're as bummed as we are. But considerably richer.