The Academy Award nominations for 1990’s crop of films offered mainstream choices that generally followed the conventional wisdom of Oscar handicappers. The few surprises and inevitable omissions reflect the peculiar nominating rules of the 5,000-member group.
A key distinction must be made among various categories due to differing rules that mandate the selection of the year’s top film achievements. Given the historical and international importance of the Oscars, arguably the only awards of any real value or longevity in the motion picture business, these technicalities of the Academy’s rules have an inordinately great impact.
The only set of nominations voted by the entire Academy membership is for best picture. Other categories are determined at the nomination phase by the specific Academy branches (e.g., directors, cinematographers) or by special committees. This accounts for the surprise nomination of “Ghost,” second-highest-grossing film released in 1990, for best picture among otherwise critically acclaimed entries “Awakenings,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The Godfather Part III” and “Goodfellas.”
“Ghost” also was nominated for Bruce Joel Rubin’s original screenplay, Whoopi Goldberg’s supporting performance, plus editing and musical score. However, its director, Jerry Zucker, was omitted in his category, which was voted on by the Academy directors branch.
Auteur theory notwithstanding, this anomaly is directly related to the different constituencies voting. It also should be remembered that Zucker, as one third of the “Airplane” directing team with brother David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, shook things up in the helmers’ ranks a decade ago by obtaining an unprecedented triple director credit for “Airplane.”
In matching the director category to best pic nominations, the other discrepancy is the omission of “Awakenings” helmer Penny Marshall from the ranks. Iranian-born (of German parentage) helmer Barbet Schroeder was nominated for “Reversal Of Fortune,” while British director Stephen Frears got the nod for “The Grifters,” neither of which got a best picture nomination.
The only woman ever to be nominated for a directing Oscar was Swiss-Italian helmer Lina Wertmuller, for her 1976 Italian film “Seven Beauties.” Prominent women directors such as Lois Weber (whose career mainly predated the Oscars), Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino never got the nod, and more recently the oversights of Barbra Streisand for “Yentl” and Randa Haines for “Children Of A Lesser God” were controversial.
In any event, the percentage of women in the general membership of the Academy undoubtedly is far greater than in the directors’ branch, giving Marshall’s film a different set of demographics in the general best pic balloting compared to the directors’ race. (The Academy does not keep or issue demographic statistics to support this obvious assumption.)
The dominance of Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” in the nominations (with 12) represents an interesting opportunity – no actor-director has ever won both Oscars in the same year. (He’s also up for best picture with fellow producer Jim Wilson.)
The person who came closest to achieving that feat was Laurence Olivier, as best actor and producer of best picture for “Hamlet” in 1948; he lost as best director to John Huston for “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.” Others like Orson Welles, Warren Beatty and Woody Allen have been in the final running.
Acting nominations, voted by the thesps themselves, provided a couple of leftfield choices, notably Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” (third-highest-grossing 1990 release) and Richard Harris for the British import made in Ireland, “The Field.”
Roberts was thought to be a long shot due to the traditional Oscar voters’ shunning of the most popular pictures in favor of more prestigious fare. Though “Pretty Woman” was the actress’ sixth feature film (after “Blood Red,” “Baja Oklahoma,” “Satisfaction,” “Mystic Pizza” and “Steel Magnolias”), the publicity hype surrounding her career only dates back a year to her “Magnolias” supporting actress nomination, proof of the Academy members having already “discovered” her.
Other actress nominations followed closely on popular expectations and yearend awardwinners: Kathy Bates, Anjelica Huston, Joanne Woodward and the inevitable Meryl Streep.
Harris, overlooked in the yearend critics polls for his comeback role in “The Field,” undoubtedly benefited from the Academy’s longstanding Anglophile bent, not coincidentally a byproduct of the strong representation of talent from Britain and Ireland that has migrated to Hollywood over the years.
The Irish actor was joined in the best thesp ranks by British player Jeremy Irons for his Claus von Bulow turn in “Reversal Of Fortune” as well as Frenchman Gerard Depardieu for “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a rare case of a foreign-language film nominee in this category. (Sophia Loren is the only actor ever to win an Oscar for a non-English-language film, scoring with “Two Women” nearly 30 years ago.)
Depardieu’s other current film, “Green Card,” was shut out in the balloting, though it won him a Golden Globe award. Robert De Niro’s “Awakenings” co-star, Robin Williams, also failed to make the cut after being nominated last year for “Dead Poets Society.”
A key rule governing the actors’ voting is that no one can be nominated more than one time (for separate films) in the same acting category. In olden times, it was common to receive multiple nominations such as Janet Gaynor’s win in the initial 1927-28 Academy Awards for three films, “Seventh Heaven,” “Street Angel” and “Sunrise.”
In other categories, such as musical score, one can receive more than one nomination, and this frequently happens.
However, for actors, the runnerup films for a given actor are thrown out. This means that De Niro, nominated for “Awakenings,” conceivably got more votes than other nominees for “Goodfellas” as well, but that title was thrown out as being second for him behind the Penny Marshall film.
Also, a split vote such as x amount of votes for De Niro as best actor and y votes for him as best supporting actor in “Goodfellas” merely detracts from the film’s chances in each category.
A possible victim of vote splitting is Al Pacino, the frequently nominated but never victorious actor who this year received a best supporting nod for his comedy role in “Dick Tracy.” Overlooked was his starring assignment in “The Godfather Part III” (though co-star Andy Garcia got supporting kudos for that film) . Possibly Academy actors gave Pacino a consolation prize in the balloting rather than voting for him twice.
Strangest result of the 1990 balloting is in one of the special categories, special visual effects, which, like makeup and sound effects editing, has special committee voting rules.
The steering committee made up of visual effects experts narrowed potential nominees to seven films, all of whom then submitted product reels (running about 15 minutes each) to be seen by the full 200-member committee for voting. The first weighted balloting of the full committee resulted in four films receiving the necessary minimum (of 7.5 points or more) to be considered.
Second ballot, to narrow the field to three nominees, had only one film, “Total Recall,” achieving the required 8 points to continue the process, so that film got a special achievement award in the category. Under the committee’s mandate, if no film reaches the required minimum in balloting, then the option of giving no award is permitted.
Result of this rules technicality is that for 1990 there were no nominations in the special visual effects category. Thus, runners-up “Ghost,” “Back To The Future, Part III” and “Dick Tracy,” which had made the first-ballot cut, received one less nomination in each of their totals, as did “Total Recall,” which had the good fortune of an instant Oscar.
Another technicality that plagues one of the Academy’s most controversial categories denied director Giuseppe Tornatore eligibility among film directors, though he received a Directors Guild of America nomination for “Cinema Paradiso” a couple of weeks ago. The Tornatore film already won an Oscar last year in the foreign-language film category and thus was ineligible for any Oscars this year to avoid two years of eligibility for the same film.
Contrarily, Finnish import “The Winter War” was eligible last year in all normal categories by virtue of its December 1989 run in Los Angeles. It didn’t receive any nominations but was back this year vying for best foreign-language film (no nom again). Similarly, Italy’s Omar Sharif-starrer “Journey Of Love” was eligible for nominations this year and could conceivably return a year hence in the foreign-language sweepstakes.
The reverse is not possible; Tornatore’s film was not released in the United States until the year after its foreign-language film status. Two decades ago, Elio Petri’s “Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion” and Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” won foreign-language Oscars and then came back a year later with writing nominations. The rules were changed to prevent this from happening again.
Four prominent films made the 1990 cut in receiving foreign-language Oscar nominations: Miramax’ imports “The Nasty Girl” and “Ju Dou” plus Orion Classics’ “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Open Doors.” The ringer is the Swiss entry, “Journey Of Hope,” as yet without a U.S. distribution deal.