HOLLYWOOD — They’re not likely to grab the post-nomination headlines, but a handful of films may grab a few Oscars along the way —with luck, good timing, and the Academy’s continued attention span.
Most of these dark horses, at least this year, appear to have the greatest potential in the acting categories. Leading the pack after appearing in mid-summer is Peter Fonda’s quietly commanding lead performance in “Ulee’s Gold.” Glowingly compared at the time to father Henry’s most humanistic portrayals, Fonda established a resounding, vulnerable center for Victor Nunez’s family drama and owned the screen as he has not in years.
The huge Academy attraction is neither the film’s underdog indie identity, nor any overall strengths of the film itself. Indeed, Fonda’s Best Actor nomination is probably “Ulee’s Gold’s” only chance at any Oscar gold.
Rather, Fonda’s emergence as a total actor here marks something of a discovery of long-buried talent, and not a conventional comeback in the John Travolta mold. This is why Fonda’s performance made such an impression in a summer season of mindless spectacle, and why it has persisted in the minds of Academy voters. The factors which will push a Fonda nomination over the top will be those voters’ word-of-mouth–egging on voting friends to catch it —and if enough voters see “Ulee’s Gold” on video.
Another small and quite different film could surprise the big boys on Oscar day — Barry Levinson’s and David Mamet’s political satire, “Wag the Dog,” carried along by Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman both clearly having the times of their lives in front of a camera. Made cheap and fast, the cynical “Dog” may spurn a good deal of Academy voters — and may simply drop below the rader screen of others–but will surely attract attention on the strength of DeNiro and Hoffman acting together (with a quite funny Anne Heche as a White House sidekick). If anything, Hoffman steals the show from DeNiro, but the mano y mano match between them is precisely the kind of thing that generates Oscar excitement.
“The Apostle,” directed, written and starring Robert Duvall, is another one of those pictures that arrive way out of the left field and manage to land on every critic’s must-see list at the end of the year. Touted as another “Sling Blade,” the picture delivers the small-town American dreamer goods, and seems to provide actresses Miranda Richardson and Farrah Fawcett with the kind of down-home Southern female roles the Academy loves to see glamorous stars in. Duvall, who won the best actor Oscar for “Tender Mercies” and has three other nominations on his resume, has a good chance of being rewarded for this labor of love.
Another Christmas release likely to stir the hearts and minds of the legion of fans of “Babe” is DreamWorks SKG’s “Mousehunt,” starring Nathan Lane. Although the Academy tends to look the other way when it comes to both comedies and children-oriented fare, “Mousehunt” is already generating some of the strongest audience numbers of any holiday release, as is Lane in a reportedly wild comic performance. If Eddie Murphy proved that, with enough bravura, a comic actor can sneak into the Best Actor category, than Lane may have what it takes this year in a not-overly-crowded field. And don’t forget, “Mousehunt” is the beneficiary of DreamWorks’ special effects unit, whose work here may generate much support from Academy members worn out from too many insects and pods exploding in space.
A dark horse with a considerably tougher course to race is Alan Rickman’s debut feature, “The Winter Guest.” Advance Buzz has been focussed on Emma Thompson and Phyllida Law as the film’s bitter daughter and mother, conjuring up memories of actorly spats in “On Golden Pond.” At least one early screening, however, was beset with walkouts, and the film’s glacial pace and ever-so-slowly unfolding relationships will likely try the patience of even elderly Academy voters who — for once — have a movie dramatizing elderly characters.
Buoyed by the Academy’s enteral love affair with British actors — as well as a recognition of an exemplary career — Judi Dench’s feisty performance as Queen Victoria in “Her Majesty Mrs. Brown” has been seen by enough people in Hollywood to not only generate strong support for Dench, but for former stand-up comic Billy Connelly as the gruffly endearing Mr. Brown. Seemingly, every year, Miramax has one contender from the British Commonwealth; with just two possible nominations, “Mrs. Brown” looks to be this year’s model.