News shocker: N.Y. critics are downright civil

I’ve been recalling the stories of how John Simon and Manny Farber enacted a High Noon critics’ showdown; how Rex Reed quit after some slight, real or imagined; how Michael Sragow always showed up wearing a T-shirt with his 10-best list printed on it; how one critic continually harped in meetings that another didn’t practice serious criticism; and how the formidable Pauline Kael used to sit at one end of the table surrounded by her numerous acolytes (although rumor had it this year that Pauline, reportedly supplied with the latest cassettes by the studios, continued to put “the word” out from rural retirement).

So imagine my shock when my first National Society of Film Critics meeting the other day turned out to be a tranquil, at times even jocular affair at which the only darts thrown were aimed in the easy direction of Michael Medved. Not that the 19 voting members present in New York were in complete harmony — far from it, although “Schindler’s List” received more unified support here than it did at any of the previous critical conclaves. It’s just that, as is the case at Los Angeles Film Critics voting meetings, the reputedly more cantankerous National crowd didn’t take differences of opinion personally, and all the critical factions seemed to get their way somewhere along the line.

The big news coming out of the year-end awards announcements, of course, was the unprecedented “Schindler” sweep of best picture honors from the four major critical groups — the National Society, N.Y., L.A. and the National Board of Review.

Spielberg’s long-in-coming anointment by the East Coast critical fraternity (there was only one woman present among the 19 voting members of the National Society) was another part of the story. But it might not have happened — a couple of critics remarked, only partly in jest, that the group could be accused of placating “Schindler’s” most unhelpful champion, Medved, if it voted the best director award to Spielberg rather than Jane Campion. (In fact, New York scuttlebutt has it that Rupert Murdoch’s favorite film critic is being groomed by his boss to run for public office. If so, film criticism’s gain would be the public’s loss.)

HAVING BEEN A PASSIONATE PARTISAN of “Unforgiven” last year, this season I again found myself backing many of the winners. “Schindler” was my choice for picture, director and supporting actor (Ralph Fiennes) — winners all — as wellas for screenplay, which did not. “Schindler” has also been winning the cinematography honors (sharing them in L.A. with “The Piano”), and while I gave Janusz Kaminski my second-place vote, I persist in rallying behind Conrad Hall’s work in “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” It stands out for brilliantly providing a visual correlative for the child’s intensely focused point of view.

I also voted for David Thewliss, whose corrosive, inexhaustible lead performance in “Naked” emerged victorious, and I can’t argue with Holly Hunter, who has swept all the awards for best actress, although I think an equal case can be made for Ashley Judd, as “Ruby in Paradise” is unthinkable without her.

The weakest category is undoubtedly supporting actress. While I admired the overlooked Joan Allen in “Ethan Frome,” some of the actresses’ work in “Short Cuts” and “The Age of Innocence” and the startling Anna Paquin in “The Piano,” no one stood out in this area this year.

My choice for best foreign-language film, “Farewell My Concubine,” sailed through the first three critics’ voting sessions. It led after one inconclusive ballot at the National Society but lost ground on the second as another Chinese film, “The Story of Qiu Ju,” came from behind to win.

WHAT ANY CRITICS THINK is of questionable relevance where the Oscars are concerned, and Daily Variety does not indulge in crystal-balling or playing favorites where the Academy Awards races are concerned. However, this could be the occasion to clear up one matter that is continually misreported and conjectured about in the media, that being which critics group has most often indicated which film would win the Academy Award.

In the 18 years since 1975, the New York Critics and the National Board of Review have each been in accord with the Academy for best picture on seven occasions, although the N.Y. group has agreed only once since 1983, on “The Silence of the Lambs.” The L.A. organization has paralleled Oscar’s taste six times, but just once since 1984, for “Unforgiven” last year. The National Society and the Academy have seen eye-to-eye only twice in 18 years, on “Unforgiven” and “Annie Hall.”

For four years running — from 1985-1988, encompassing “Out of Africa, “”Platoon,””The Last Emperor” and “Rain Man”– the Academy picked a film that wasn’t favored by any of the critics groups. If “Schindler’s List” goes on to win the Oscar, there will be a number of critics out there worrying that their taste has become disturbingly mainstream and conventional.

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