Pic’s biggest Oscar battle will be to counter its reputation as a commercial project. Not helping is the possessory “John Grisham’s” in front of the title. True, past films based on Grisham novels like “The Firm” and “The Client” have picked up nominations — mainly in the acting categories. Whereas this kind of fare was once the staple of the best picture ranks, films that earn large amounts of money today can be as unendearing to Academy voters as films that disappear without a box office trace. And since the Grisham adaptation is up against films with unarguable literary pedigree such as “The Wings of the Dove” and “The Ice Storm,” it may have some difficulty being taken seriously.
A possible counterbalance is the fact that it was adapted to the screen and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, one of Hollywood’s most respected and Oscar-honored talents — five Oscars and 10 nominations as well as two Cannes Palme d’Or awards. He co-won the best adapted screenplay award for the first time in 1970 for “Patton” and then for “The Godfather.” For “Godfather II” he won as producer, director and writer. So it would not be wise to count Coppola out for either a directing or a writing nomination — or both.
It also helps that the film boasts an impressive array of characterizations, starting with Matt Damon’s star-making turn in the lead. (Still, if Damon gets a best actor nod it will probably be for his scrappy “Good Will Hunting.”) The possibilities in the supporting categories are rich indeed, starting with Danny De Vito’s likable shyster and Jon Voight’s imperious legal adversary. Other supporting turns come from Mickey Rourke’s humorous take on the ultimate crooked attorney, Danny Glover’s sagacious judge and Johnny Whitworth’s hapless victim of the system. Realistically, the always reliable De Vito and the recently resurgent Voight have a shot, backed up by other good work this year; De Vito in “L.A. Confidential” and Voight in “Rosewood.” De Vito has never made it to the actor’s circle of five. Voight, of course, has a best actor nomination for “Midnight Cowboy” and the Golden Guy himself for “Coming Home.”
Of the four excellent supporting performances by women in the film, Claire Danes, Teresa Wright, Mary Kay Place and Virginia Madsen, it’s really up to the actors’ branch to decide which, if any, they will deem worthy of mention. Place has the more heart-rending role and Madsen’s is the smallest but also the most defined and showy one. Danes is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising young talents and the voters may find this as good a place as any to nominate her. Or they may get nostalgic for Wright, who was last nominated (twice) in 1942, winning in this category for “Mrs. Miniver.”
And speaking of pedigree, the film’s dramatic score is by the great Elmer Bernstein, who has given us everything from “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (his Oscar winner) to “Ghostbusters” to “The Grifters” and “The Age of Innocence.”
Finally there’s John Toll’s cinematography. Toll won back-to-back Oscars for his work on “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart.” And though “The Rainmaker” is not as spectacular a vehicle as those two epics, having two Oscars on his mantle always makes, him — like Coppola and Bernstein — a serious threat.
Classic Oscar credentials: 2 (Courthouse epics have scored)
Cause celebre: 3 (Oscar hates insurance companies like the rest of us)
Vanity element: 5 (You don’t get Coppola without it)
The David vs. Goliath syndrome: 0 (Grisham is Goliath)
The feel-good movie of the year factor: 4 (Kicking insurance butt)
The Unavoidable, inexorable buzz pic: 1 (Damon-mania)
Idiot savants have more fun: 1 (Seen Mickey Rourke lately?)
Timing is everything: 3
O.Q. total: 19