Best pic combined best elements of indies, studios

Pundits believed it would be a night for Hollywood outsiders, but Academy voters went for a movie whose epic quality fits almost perfectly into best picture lineage, perhaps better than any of the other nominees.

A sweeping historical romance, “The English Patient” has many of the elements of predecessors, from “The Last Emperor” to “Dances With Wolves” to “Out of Africa.” (It has even been dubbed “Out of North Africa.”) And “Patient” clocks in at 162 minutes, one minute longer than “Africa.”

With nine honors, “Patient” fulfilled the predictions of Oscar watchers and reaffirmed the votes of dozens of Hol-lywood guilds.

For all its similarities, “Patient” is a much different movie than “Africa.” And much of how “Patient” got to the screen is in itself unique: The oft-told story of how Fox dropped the movie because producer Saul Zaentz and direc-tor Anthony Minghella wanted Kristin Scott Thomas and not Demi Moore; the three-week wait to get the movie reactivated, with the crew in Italy on hold and working without pay; the tortuous process of shooting in the desert, in which a road had to be built to ship supplies back and forth; and the ability of Minghella to adapt Michael On-daatje’s novel into a motion picture narrative.

“You are totally exhilarated when you hear your picture being called,” Zaentz said backstage. “The most important thing is that it vindicates the film.”

As one of the many “Patient” winners said backstage: “You don’t make movies to win awards. This is as big a gamble as you’ll ever see.”

But if this was the year of the independents, Miramax’s “The English Patient” was the movie that could cross the gulf between the Sundance and commercial crowds.

The movie itself contained the intrigue of spies, the passion of romance, awe-inspiring vistas, a historical context, even the help of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for prosthetics.

Minghella noted the film’s many moods shortly after winning a nomination from the Directors Guild of America: “Any director looking at the film understands what was involved, not just because of the scale of the film but be-cause of the film itself. It has so many different types of activity in it. You go from romantic scenes in crowded ballrooms in Cairo to shooting desert landscapes and airplane crashes to very intimate lovemaking scenes.”

Also putting “Patient” in a no-man’s land between indie and studio film is its $30-million-plus budget —no small amount, especially for an indie. It was one of Miramax’s pricier pics, rivaling even the budgets of recent major studio best-picture winners.

Zaentz himself is a two-time Oscar winner, having won the top prize for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” dis-tributed by United Artists, and “Amadeus,” distribbed by Orion.

But the point made by Zaentz and Minghella is that few major studios, caught up as they are today in marketing and merchandising blockbusters, would allow “Patient’s” producer that degree of leeway with story and casting de-cisions. The Weinstein brothers bailed them out, and, as Zaentz noted in accepting the best picture Oscar, “we had final cut.”

And as many reviewers noted, “Patient” was the type of movie studios used to make. When asked backstage whether “Patient” and other nominated pics would change the event-movie trend in Hollywood, Zaentz had doubts.

“I think it’s an aberration,” he said of the indie domination. “But I think independent filmmakers will get more money to make pictures that they have been dreaming of, that they couldn’t get money for. The studios will con-tinue to make big pictures.”

How will “Patient” stand up to Zaentz’s other best picture winners, “Amadeus” and “Cuckoo’s Nest?”

“There is no answer to that,” Zaentz said. “It takes years before you truly evaluate any film that you’ve done. Any art in any field, whether it is art or composition or writing or painting, takes years before you realize it’s art. You can like it. You can love it. But you can’t tell it’s art.”

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