“The Crying Game,” the low-budget independent film whose secret nobody gave away, has become the movie everybody is talking about as it joined “Howards End, “”Unforgiven,””A Few Good Men” and “Scent of a Woman” yesterday in being nominated for a best picture Academy Award.

“Howards End,” the lush English drama about love across the classes, and Clint Eastwood’s revisionist western “Unforgiven” led the Oscar nominations with nine apiece.

The strong showing for “Unforgiven” culminates Eastwood’s dramatic resurgence. Not only did the film restore his box office appeal, but his three nominations — for actor, director and producer — put him in the select company of such respected director-actor nominees as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier.

The haul for “Howards End,” meanwhile, underscores the high profile for films made and/or distributed outside the studio system.

“It’s a great endorsement of the independent spirit, which we’ve been promoting for years,” said “Howards End” producer Ismail Merchant from Bhopal, India. “The traditional studio movies usually get a lot of nominations, but this year, so did many of the independents.”

“The Crying Game” followed with six nominations, including two for Neil Jordan — as director and writer — as well as lead actor Stephen Rea and supporting actor Jaye Davidson.

Other independent films that fared well in top categories include “The Player ,””Enchanted April,””Indochine” and “Passion Fish.”

In the studio derby, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s three distribution arms — Sony Pictures Classics, Columbia and TriStar — notched a total of 30 nominations.

“We had films nominated from every season over all three companies,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Peter Guber. “There’s incredible diversity, all across the categories.”

Wonderful WB

Warner Bros., however — with nominations for “Unforgiven,””Batman Returns, “”The Bodyguard,””Malcolm X,””Under Siege” and “Mambo Kings”– was this year’s most lauded distributor, with 18 nominations.

Conspicuous by its absence yesterday among the major studios was Paramount Pictures, which was shut out.

The nominations were announced at 5:35 a.m. at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills by Acad prexy Robert Rehme and last year’s supporting actress winner, Mercedes Ruehl.

The Oscars will be presented March 29 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center in a live ABC telecast, to be produced by Gilbert Cates and hosted by Billy Crystal.

In addition to Eastwood, best actor nominees were Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman,” Rea for “The Crying Game,” Denzel Washington for “Malcolm X” (one of only two for what was once considered an odds-on Oscar favorite) and Robert Downey Jr. for “Chaplin.”

Eastwood, Rea and Downey Jr. were first-time nominees; Washington won an Oscar for supporting actor in 1989 for his performance in “Glory.” This is his first nomination in the leading role category.

First time for everything

Pacino now has been nominated five times in the lead actor category and, with a nomination for his role in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” three times in the supporting actor category. He has never won.

Best actress selections were Emma Thompson for “Howards End,” Susan Sarandon in “Lorenzo’s Oil,” Michelle Pfeiffer in “Love Field,” Mary McDonnell in “Passion Fish” and Catherine Deneuve in “Indochine,” marking the actress’ first nomination and the 20th time an actor has been nominated for a non-English language performance. Sarandon was nominated last year in the same category for “Thelma & Louise.” This is Pfeiffer’s third nomination, after a leading actress bid for “The Fabulous Baker Boys” in 1989 and a supporting actress nod for “Dangerous Liaisons” a year earlier. McDonnell was nominated for a supporting actress award for “Dances With Wolves” in 1990.

Making it a family affair, Thompson celebrates her first nomination with husband Kenneth Branagh, who was also nominated — in thelive action short film category for his film “Swan Song.”

With his nominations in lead and supporting actor categories, Pacino becomes only the sixth person to accomplish the rare double. The last time it happened was in 1988, when Sigourney Weaver was nominated for her lead role in “Gorillas in the Mist” and her supporting role in “Working Girl.” No actor has won in both categories the same year.

Other supporting actor picks were Davidson — making his acting debut in an unconventional role — in “The Crying Game,” Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven,” Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” and David Paymer for “Mr. Saturday Night.” This is Nicholson’s 10th nomination as either a leading or supporting actor, tying him with Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier.

Tomei a surprise

Among the surprising selections was a supporting actress nod for newcomer Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.” Also nominated in that category were Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives,” Joan Plowright in “Enchanted April,” Vanessa Redgrave in “Howards End” and Miranda Richardson in “Damage.”

Redgrave has been nominated five times previously. She won the supporting actress Oscar for her role in “Julia” in 1977 and was nominated as a leading actress for “Morgan!” (1966), “Isadora” (1968), “Mary, Queen of Scots” (1971) and “The Bostonians” (1984). Davis was nominated for her lead role in 1984’s “A Passage to India.” Plowright, Tomei and Richardson are all nominated for the first time.

Eastwood joins a high-profile group of previous actor-director nominees for the same film. Besides Welles and Olivier, the list includes Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner. “Unforgiven” also picked up nominations in such categories as art direction, cinematography and sound.

“We’re pleased as punch,” Eastwood said from his home in Carmel. “The (nominations in) smaller categories are a nice surprise. I’ve been living with the movie for so long. I had the script for nine years. Sometimes the components seem to work and this was one of those times.”

Other directing selections were James Ivory for “Howards End,” Jordan for “The Crying Game,” Robert Altman for “The Player” and Martin Brest for “Scent of a Woman.”

As with the leading actor category, the directing nomination for Eastwood was his first. Jordan and Brest were also nominated for the first time. Ivory was previously nominated for “A Room With a View” (1986). Altman has been nominated twice before as a director: for “MASH” (1970) and “Nashville” (1975).

Of the five directing nominees, Brest is the only one not nominated for a DGA Award. Rob Reiner, who helmed “A Few Good Men,” took his spot on the DGA’s list.

Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia Pictures, which distributed “A Few Good Men ,” said in a statement, “We are disappointed that Rob Reiner, who earned nominations from the Directors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., was overlooked by the directors branch of the Academy.”

The foreign-language film nominees were Russia’s “Close to Eden,” Belgium’s “Daens,” France’s “Indochine,” Uruguay’s “A Place in the World” and Germany’s “Schtonk.”

Original screenplay nominations went to Jordan for “The Crying Game,” in addition to Woody Allen for “Husbands and Wives,” John Sayles for “Passion Fish, ” David Webb Peoples for “Unforgiven” and George Miller and Nick Enright for “Lorenzo’s Oil.”

The screenplay nomination for Allen, along with the nod for Davis in the supporting actress category, was seen as a sign that the Academy hasn’t completely dismissed the filmmaker on the heels of his highly publicized domestic problems.

“I’d hate to see Woody Allen drummed out, in terms of the Academy or having his movies made, because of what’s been going on in his personal life,” said TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy.

Nominations for screenplay based on material previously produced or published went to Peter Barnes for “Enchanted April,” Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for “Howards End,” Michael Tolkin for “The Player,” Richard Friedenberg for “A River Runs Through It” and Bo Goldman for “Scent of a Woman.”

Regarding this year’s strong showing by indie films, especially in top categories, many of the filmmakers involved agreed that the Academy was hungry for quality.

“Much of the public (is) interested in independent films,” said Ivory, reached in Bombay yesterday. “I think the voting of the Academy is tied to the public more than people realize. They too are looking for another kind of film.”

“It’s not about independents,” said Stephen Woolley, producer of “The Crying Game.””It’s about being a good film. People in Hollywood are frustrated with the level of most of the films.”

“There’s something happening,” said Jordan, who admitted he’d considered giving up filmmaking before the success of “The Crying Game.””People want a challenging film.”

Fine Line Films prexy Ira Deutchman, whose company distributed “The Player,” was less complimentary about the nominations, in light of that film’s omission from the best pic category.

“I think Hollywood doesn’t have a sense of humor when it comes to itself,” said Deutchman. “I’m a little shocked that it didn’t get a nomination in that category.””A Few Good Men” and “Malcolm X” were once considered heavy Oscar faves but fared poorly in other recent awards, including the Golden Globes. Eastwood won the best director Golden Globe for “Unforgiven.”

“Scent of a Woman” won Golden Globes for best dramatic picture, actor and screenplay.

A potential source of controversy for the Academy this year is in the docu feature category. “Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II,” a film about black soldiers who played a key role in liberating Jews from German concentration camps, was recently pulled from PBS station WNET-TV pending a review of the film’s facts, which have come under scrutiny regarding its content and accuracy.

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