Finnish ‘Winter War’ Reveals Oscar Quirk

It’s the second time around for the film “The Winter War,” selected by Finland as its candidate for best foreign-language Oscar of 1990 after competing a year ago in the other Academy Award categories.

This anomaly in the Oscar-qualifying rules is the reverse of an eligibility problem cleared up by the Academy over a decade ago.

Traditionally, a foreign film could compete two years in a row, as witness Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” or Elio Petri’s “Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion.” Those Italian films won best foreign-language film Oscars, and returned the following year as U.S. releases to compete in the screenplay category.

Later, the Academy changed its rules and closed this loophole. Any film nominated in the foreign-language category had to have its eligibility (namely a Los Angeles one-week-or-longer opening) that same year or forfeit its right to compete further. For example, Istvan Szabo’s “Mephisto” won the Oscar as best foreign-language film of 1981, but star Klaus Maria Brandauer was ineligible the following year for best actor kudos when the picture was eventually released by Analysis Films domestically in 1982.

Pekka Parikka’s three-hour epic “The Winter War” was self-distributed in Los Angeles commencing Dec. 8,1989. Many screenings were arranged for Academy members to qualify in the usual categories including the film’s strong technical suits, like cinematography and sound editing. It did not receive any nominations.

Because the film opened back home in Finland between November 1989 and October 1990 it qualified as a 1990 foreign-language film for Oscar consideration and was duly put up to bear the national flag among 37 contestants in this year’s race. An Academy spokesman said the matter had been carefully checked and indeed the film was eligible, in different categories, for two successive years.

As a precedent this means that foreign filmmakers with a yearend release on their home turf can legitimately have two years’ Oscar eligibility if they are able to quickly mount a Los Angeles opening and campaign, in conventional categories, before the end of the year. Then they could conceivably come back a year later, with national backing, to compete in the more specialized but important foreign-language category. Obviously the publicity from a successful prior-year nomination or Oscar victory would give such a film a boost in the subsequent foreign-language sweepstakes.

The track record for yearend qualifying runs has been poor in terms of Oscars won, though “The Grifters,” which received a one-week December booking, is considered a strong candidate for several nominations and awards on the basis of its victories in critics’ voting as well as Golden Globes nominations.

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