Fresh faces rule; Miramax nabs 20 noms

Newcomers came on strong, Oscar noms were so eclectic that everyone has a different theory on What This Year Means — and “Patient” proved a virtue.

Miramax’s “The English Patient” led the race for the 69th annual Academy Awards with 12 bids, including best picture and such marquee categories as actor, actress, supporting actress, director and writer.

The other film nominees are Gramercy’s “Fargo” and Fine Line’s “Shine” (runners-up, with seven apiece) and two films that nabbed five each: TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire” and October Films’ “Secrets & Lies.”

“Jerry” is the only one of those from a true major, and the only one filmed in L.A.

It was a year with no discernible pattern. There are a high number of surprise nominees and omissions. People are touting the triumph of independent companies, but few can agree exactly what constitutes an indie. Vet Oscar nominees dominate the below-the-line categories, but the “money” categories are filled with first-timers. It is, in short, an interesting year.

Miramax and Sony Pictures led distributors, with 20 and 18, respectively. Buena Vista and Gramercy have 10 each, Warner Bros. has eight (sharing two with Universal for “Twister”) and Fine Line tied with 20th Century Fox with seven.

October Films, one of the few true indies, earned six noms, all in major categories. Previously the company had only had one, for the docu “The War Room.”

A total of 51 features were nominated this year, with 34 films grabbing one bid apiece. That’s a big jump from last year, when 42 were nominated, with only 23 single-nom pics. And more than half of the 155 individuals nominated this year are first-timers.

Many in the media will remark on the great strides for indies this year. However, the definition of an indie is blurry (thanks to studio ownership of such former indie stalwarts as Miramax and New Line/Fine Line). In addition, the argument that indies have “finally” scored with the Academy dates back at least 11 years, when Island and Alive won the top two acting awards with Geraldine Page (“The Trip to Bountiful”) and William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”); in the past few years, indies have consistently made an impact.

However, it should be noted that of the top vote-getting pics, most were distributed by majors — even though they were frequently initiated by independent companies, such as Cinergi’s “Evita,” which is distributed by Buena Vista. (The tuner tied “Maguire” and “Secrets” with five bids.)

Mysterious ways

The distrib tally points up the continual ups and downs of studios’ yearly output (due in part to luck and to talent moving around). For example, Universal led the nominee race last year with 20 bids, but only has five this year, including the two shared with WB. Paramount, which has the last two best-pic winners (“Forrest Gump” and “Braveheart”) also has five, while Sony Pictures jumped from nine last year to 18.

Good news for “Patient”: In the last 25 years, the film with the most nominations has gone on to win the best pic Oscar 21 times. Good news for the other four nominees: In those other four years, the eventual winner frequently was not even the runner-up in noms.

This year, box office bonanzas fizzled. Only five of the top 10 domestic grossers last year scored a mention, with a grand total of seven nominations for the 10 films. None earned more than two apiece.

Four of the five pic nominees opened in the final quarter of the year, reversing the trend of the past two years. (The exception is “Fargo,” which bowed in March.) This means more pics will benefit from the nominations at the box office (see separate story, page 44).

In addition, four are from original screenplays (the exception is “Patient”), and four are rated R (“Shine” is PG-13).

Out of alignment

As usual, there is a discrepancy between the best-pic and director nominees. (Only three times in the past 68 years have all the film and helmer nominees been identical.)

This year, the helmers of “Patient,” “Fargo,” “Secrets” and “Shine” were nominated: Anthony Minghella, Joel Coen, Mike Leigh and Scott Hicks, respectively.

However, “Maguire” director Cameron Crowe was bypassed, while Milos Forman was cited for “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” one of two nominations that went to the Phoenix Pictures-Columbia film. Forman won Oscars on his previous two noms, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus.” The other four helmers are making their Academy Award debuts.

Four of the men are foreign-born; the Oscar record was in 1987, when all five helmers were born overseas.

Hyphenates

However, Crowe (who, along with the other four, was nominated in the Directors Guild race) won an Oscar bid for original screenplay. Interestingly, four of the five directors are mentioned in the screenplay races. In all, directors are named in eight of the 10 slots in the two writing categories. The two non-helming scribes are Arthur Miller, cited for adapting his play “The Crucible,” and John Hodge, who adapted Irvine Welsh’s novel “Trainspotting.”

All of the five best pic contenders are repped in the writing categories.

The original screenplay contenders are identical to the five put forth by the Writers Guild. However, in the adaptation race, Miller (“Crucible”) and Branagh (“Hamlet”) showed up in the Oscar announcements, replacing WGA choices Elaine May (“The Birdcage”) and Douglas McGrath (“Emma”).

Of the 20 performers in the acting categories, 14 received their first Oscar nominations, and three — Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”), Edward Norton (“Primal Fear”) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets & Lies”) — are named for their film debuts.

Double duty

Every best-pic nominee featured acting contenders in at least two categories: “Fargo” for actress Frances McDormand and supporting actor William H. Macy; “Maguire,” actor Tom Cruise and supporting actor Cuba Gooding Jr.; “Secrets,” actress Brenda Blethyn and supporting Jean-Baptiste; “Shine,” actor Geoffrey Rush and supporting Armin Mueller-Stahl; and “Patient,” for actor Ralph Fiennes, actress Kristin Scott Thomas and supporting Juliette Binoche.

The actors race reps characters who are wheelchair-bound (Harrelson), severely burned (Fiennes), severely troubled (Rush), and mentally challenged (Billy Bob Thornton).

Thornton scored a double whammy, nominated for actor and adapted screenplay for “Sling Blade.” Other double nominees include Ethan and Joel Coen, joint scripters of “Fargo” and nominated as producer and director of the pic, respectively; Crowe, scripter and a producer of “Maguire”; and Leigh, Hicks and Minghella, all mentioned in writing and directing. (“Shine” was scripted by Jan Sardi, but Hicks wrote the story.) Kevin O’Connell is competing against himself (along with his collaborators) on sound for “The Rock” and “Twister.”

Past masters

Of the six actors with previous bids, only Diane Keaton (“Marvin’s Room”) is an Oscar winner, for 1977’s “Annie Hall.” Among the six vets, Joan Allen is the only acting nominee from last year. Another vet is James Woods, supporting, for “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

Other first-time acting nominees include Woody Harrelson, actor for “The People vs. Larry Flynt”; Lauren Bacall, supporting, “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (her first nom after more than 50 years in films); and Barbara Hershey, supporting, “The Portrait of a Lady.”

Last year, the media had a field day with the fact that only one of the 166 nominees was black. This year, one can see the glass as half-full or half-empty, since there are two in the acting races alone: supporting contenders Gooding and Jean-Baptiste. However, no other minorities are repped in the acting division.

As usual, there is an interesting list of those not nominated in most of the races (see separate story, page 46), which will lead many to talk about “Oscar snubs.” However, it’s impossible to prove why the Acad did not vote for a contender, and such theorizing often overlooks the fact that someone had to finish in sixth place.

Skunked

Among the oddities this year: There are no songs nominated from Disney toons, and 19-time nominee Woody Allen was also shut out; in the adapted screenplay category, Kenneth Branagh is up for the uncut version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” (One industry wag wondered why Branagh wasn’t nominated for “Romeo & Juliet” as well.) One of the contenders for live-action short subject is “Dear Diary,” which marks the first nomination for DreamWorks and the first time an unsold TV pilot has been nominated for an Oscar.

The French broke their own previous record in the foreign-film race, toting up a 29th bid with “Ridicule.” Composer John Williams scored his 35th nom with his work on “Sleepers.” Ben Burtt, who’s scored past noms in sound and sound effects editing, was nominated this year in the docu short subjects race.

Oz juggernaut

After 1993’s “The Piano” and 1995’s “Babe,” “Shine” marks the third best-film nomination from Australia (and the second about a piano-playing neurotic). And while there are no talking pigs this year, “Wat’s Pig” showed up in the animated-short race.

In other races:

* Cinematography: All five Oscar bidders are repped in the American Society of Cinematographers race, which an ASC rep said is an Oscar first. However, the cinematographers race also includes a sixth nominee, Vilmos Zsigmond, of “The Ghost and the Darkness,” who missed out on the Acad contest.

* Editors. Four nominees are the same as those unveiled last Thursday by the American Cinema Editors for their Eddie Awards: Walter Murch, “The English Patient”; Gerry Hambling, “Evita'; Roderick Jaynes, “Fargo”; and Pip Karmel, “Shine.” Joe Hutshing is in the Oscar circle for “Maguire,” replacing Eddie contender Richard Francis-Bruce of “The Rock.”

* Costumes. Acad voters in this contest again demonstrated their affection for the past, as all five films are period pics. In the past five years, only four (“Addams Family,” “Hook,” “Toys” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) of the 25 nominees were non-period.

* Visual effects. Due to the strong technical work in 1996, this shaped up as one of the hottest contests. However, a controversy has added heat of another kind, as one of the workers on “Independence Day” has protested that Acad committee regs only allow four nominees per film (Daily Variety, Feb. 10). “Dragonheart,” “Twister” and “Independence” will compete.

For 1996, 248 films were eligible, compared to 255 pics in 1995.

Nominations were unveiled Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. (PST) at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Acad prez Arthur Hiller and 1995 supporting actress winner Mira Sorvino read the outcome of voting by the 5,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Oscars will be handed out March 24 at the Shrine Auditorium. The kudocast, produced by Gil Cates and hosted by Billy Crystal, will air live on ABC beginning at 6 p.m. (PST).

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