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The Message Behind Oscar Nominations

TO nobody's surprise, the wildly popular ''Forrest Gump'' is all over the track in this year's Academy Awards race -- with a whopping 13 nominations, almost equaling the record of 14 racked up by ''All About Eve'' some 45 years ago. Score a predictable point for sentiment, superficiality, and box-office success as superhighways to Hollywood's heart.

By contrast, nearly everyone was surprised when the critically acclaimed ''Hoop Dreams'' was virtually shut out of competition, with only a low-profile nomination for best film editing. Its distributor, Fine Line Features, had waged a vigorous campaign to garner a position in the best-picture race, which would have been unprecedented for a nonfiction movie. The film's absence from even the best-documentary contest has critics and pundits reeling.

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Although it's an admirable film in many ways, ''Hoop Dreams'' didn't make my 10-best list for 1994. It's reasonable to believe that the documentary nominators -- operating under special rules that require them to sift through many possible contenders found five entries more worthy than Steve James's long, imperfectly shaped study of inner-city youngsters hoping for stardom in the basketball world.

Still, there's much to be learned from the highly disparate reactions to ''Forrest Gump'' and ''Hoop Dreams'' shown by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a venerable institution nearly 5,000 strong.

What distinguishes ''Hoop Dreams'' from most successful documentaries is its concern with socioeconomic problems that are as unglamorous and undramatic as they are real, complex, and pressing. What distinguishes ''Forrest Gump'' from most mass-market bonanzas is its insistence on raising key issues in recent American history from racial integration to the Vietnam war and the AIDS crisis only to filter them through a simple-minded hero whose most endearing quality is an ability to miss the point of just about anything.

Viewed as twin phenomena, the disdain for ''Dreams'' and the gush over ''Gump'' make perfect sense. Moviegoers are fascinated with the challenges of growing up spunky, hopeful, and disadvantaged in America -- but please give us the artificially sweetened version with a Big Star acting up a storm. Spare us down-to-earth realities that call for patient participation rather than popcorn-crunching passivity. In the ongoing struggle between provocative cinema and feel-good entertainment, dumb and dumber still carry the day.

The other best-picture contenders are a mostly respectable bunch. Of the four, only ''The Shawshank Redemption'' landed on my top-10 list, and I'm pleased Hollywood has recognized its flawed but encouraging sense of moral seriousness. ''Quiz Show'' pairs a compelling story with a disjointed style, making its place in the best-picture contest more defensible than Robert Redford's in the best-director race. ''Pulp Fiction'' is less a coherent melodrama than a force of nature, but hey, you can't ignore a thousand-pound gorilla.

''Four Weddings and a Funeral,'' is the token art film of the batch, but big bucks played a part: The trade newspaper Variety lists it as the most profitable movie of 1994, with a return on investment of nearly 4,500 percent.

Predictions are too tempting to resist, so I'll essay a few: ''Forrest Gump'' seems poised for a sweep, and while it may be edged out in secondary categories, a best-picture nod seems inevitable. If upsets occur, look for ''Pulp'' creator Quentin Tarantino to edge out ''Gump'' auteur Robert Zemeckis for best director. Paul Newman in ''Nobody's Fool'' might oust Tom Hanks's fervent Forrest in the best-actor slot.

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The surest bet of the year is Martin Landau to cop the supporting-actor prize for his priceless portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, a likable confection.

Jodie Foster seems a solid candidate for best actress in the otherwise flimsy ''Nell,'' although Jessica Lange makes an impressive showing in the underrated ''Blue Sky,'' and Winona Ryder of ''Little Women'' could show unexpected strength. It's hard to imagine anyone unseating ''Pulp Fiction'' writers Tarantino and Roger Avary for best original screenplay.

In the contest for best foreign-language movie more meaningful than some categories, since winning can put a little-known production on the map the amiable ''Strawberry and Chocolate'' may triumph. ''Eat Drink Man Woman,'' made in Taiwan by Ang Lee, is also a favorite.

And for my grand finale, my boldest prediction of the year: In the closely watched race for best film editing, it's ''Hoop Dreams'' by a landslide!

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