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THE OSCARS // The envelope _ please!

For the past nine years, Entertainment Data Inc. has written the book on Academy Award race odds and predicted ends.

Now the folks at EDI are tossing that book out the proverbial window, faced with the most uncertain Oscar competition since Gandhi sent E.T. home without the Best Picture prize 13 years ago.

Will Academy voters shoot for the stars with Apollo 13 or stay down on the farm with Babe? Lift Mel Gibson's Braveheart kilt or keep their Sense and Sensibility? Or perhaps send a special delivery to Italy with The Postman?

Ask Thomas V. Borys, editor of EDI's annual Academy Award Handicap, and the same hands that helped compile 13 years of obscure Oscar statistics might get raised, palms up, in the familiar gesture that signifies "who knows?"

"Nothing could happen this year that would surprise me," Borys admitted during a recent telephone interview, "which is going to make it fun to watch. In the past couple of years, it has been a little boring, with everybody knowing that Schindler's List and Forrest Gump wouldn't be beaten. This year, I believe (the awards) will be fragmented, spread around a number of films."

Academy Award Handicap uses the results of the last 13 Oscar shows _ coincidentally, beginning with the year of Gandhi's upset _ to predict the winners. One look at EDI's analysis of the Best Picture competition is proof of this year's wide-open competition and shows how precise the company can be with its study of Academy trends.

See if you can determine a clear-cut favorite from these clues:

The film with the most nominations overall has won 12 best-picture prizes during that span. Good news for Mel Gibson's Braveheart and its 10 nods.

Winners of the Directors Guild of America Award have clinched 11 top Oscars. Apollo 13 gets that edge, since Ron Howard earned the DGA honor. Eight of those winners were rated PG or PG-13. Every nominee except Braveheart meets that qualification. Gibson's film makes up that deficit by being a historical epic (seven wins in 13 outings).

Nominees without acting nominees also are 0-for-13. Braveheart loses there.

Only one movie has won in 13 years without a best-director nominee at the helm. Tough luck, Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility.

The lowest-grossing nominee hasn't won in the past 13 years. The Postman should be disgruntled about that. Only four winning films in that period won the Golden Globe for best drama; a toss-up call for Sense and Sensibility.

Nine of the last 13 Best Pictures were released after September. Sense and Sensibility is the only nominee in that position.

Only four winners in 13 years featured an original screenplay. Once again a toss-up, since Apollo 13, Babe and The Postman are adaptations.

Did that clear up matters? I didn't think so.

Borys said these quantitative statistics may have been rendered obsolete in the past two weeks, when Howard's DGA prize and top honors from the Producers Guild of America rocketed Apollo 13 into the favorite's role. Five of the last six Academy Award winners for Best Picture claimed the PGA award beforehand.

"The only category that people seem to agree on is that Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) had better win Best Actor," Borys said, pointing out the actor's consensus support in pre-Oscar award balloting.

Susan Sarandon solidified her favorite status in the Best Actress category when Dead Man Walking surpassed Leaving Las Vegas in box office receipts. Now the negative effect of starring in the lowest-grossing film among the nominees (only one win in 13 tries) has shifted to the latter film's Elisabeth Shue.

"Sarandon has no negatives going against her now," Borys said. "Anything can happen in the rest of the races."

And, of course, anybody can guess what those strange occurences may be.

Here's one film critic's predictions of what to expect onstage Monday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles:

Best picture: Apollo 13. An expert blast of patriotism is too safe for voters to ignore in a quizzical movie year.

Best Actor: Cage, for a risky new take on the Hollywood cliche of the burned-out drunk.

Best Actress: Sarandon. Overdue and excellent once again.

Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris, Apollo 13. Same as Sarandon, and it makes voters look smarter for their Best Picture pick, since Howard wasn't nominated for Best Director.

Best Supporting Actress: Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite. The smartest PR campaigner of any nominee during the balloting process.

Best Director: Mel Gibson, Braveheart. Not the best choice, but it'll be the big consolation prize for his overpraised film.

Best Original Screenplay: The Usual Suspects. A gripping puzzle, and the Academy loves to reward fresh ideas in this category (such as The Crying Game).

Best Screenplay Adaptation: Sense and Sensibility. The Academy loves Emma Thompson (and her classy, funny acceptance speeches) and gets a chance to reward one of those high-falutin' period pieces, to boot.

Best Foreign Language Film: Antonia's Line. None of the nominees have been seen in Tampa Bay, but this one from the Netherlands has copped several post-year prizes.

Best Cinematography: Braveheart, for its epic sweep. John Toll also won last year for Legends of the Fall.

Best Film Editing: Apollo 13. Seamless blend of real and computer-generated drama.

Best Original Musical or Comedy Score: Pocahontas. The Academy splits the musical score category in two, giving non-Disney composers a fighting chance, and the Mouse House wins, anyway.

Best Original Dramatic Score: Apollo 13. James Horner's music and Annie Lennox's voice: a winning combo.

Best Original Song: Colors of the Wind, Pocahontas. No easier choice under the blue corn moon.

Best Art Direction: Restoration. An opulent spectacle despite its relatively tiny $14-million budget.

Best Costumes: Braveheart. A man could get kilt in this movie.

Best Makeup: Braveheart. Grime and war paint aren't that tough to fake, but Braveheart has momentum among voters, especially in technical categories.

Best Sound: Apollo 13. NASA could use the soundtrack for its training films.

Best Sound Effects Editing: Braveheart. Those thuds and crashes during the battle scenes were superbly squishy.

Best Visual Effects: Apollo 13. The launch scene was an instant SFX classic, and filming in zero-gravity was a breakthrough.

Best Animated Short: Runaway Brain. Disney pokes fun its figurehead, Mickey Mouse, and the Academy laughs along.

Best Live-action Short: Tuesday Morning Ride. Haven't seen any nominees, but this prediction: Oscar apologizes to excluded African-Americans by honoring this year's only black nominee, co-producer Dianne Houston.

Best Documentary Feature: Anne Frank Remembered. Great reviews, always a moving subject. None of the nominees played Tampa Bay, except Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream on TNT cable television.

Best Documentary Short: One Survivor Remembers. Holocaust drama still plays well among voters, after Schindler's List.

AT A GLANCE

The 68th annual Academy Awards, 9 p.m. Monday on ABC, WFTS-Ch. 28.

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