Oscar 1995: Which Movies Deserve Nominations

Hard to believe, but the contest for the Oscars, the most important awards in the international film world, has already begun, even though the Oscar ceremony itself will not be telecast until March 25. The race for these highly influential and prestigious awards commences as soon as the calendar year ends. The reason for that is simple: To qualify for Oscar nominations, a film must be released in L.A. for 7 consecutive days prior to January 31.

So where do we stand now that the ballots for the coveted prize have been mailed to the 5,000 Academy members Are we going to fly to the moon with Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 Drink ourselves to death with Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas Revisit Jane Austen's territory with Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility

Ron Howard's Apollo 13, the second most commercial film in l995, generated $172.1 million in domestic grosses; the year's top-grossing picture is Batman Forever with 184 million. Howard took a considerable risk when he decided to direct this self-consciously heroic adventure. He must have figured that a moon shot that almost ended in disaster was dramatic enough for a movie. And it was: Just like ancient explorers ravaged by weather and fatigue, the astronauts on this l970 moon trip are forced to withstand all kinds of bizarre physical humiliations.

Apollo 13 follows the three astronauts through preparation, launch, the hours on the way to the moon, and then the accident and the cold, terrifying ride back home. Contained and realistic as it is, the movie nevertheless works up terrific excitement. By today's standards, the movie is very straight, very square stuff, but it's also stirring and emotionally satisfying. When the module is going crazy, turning red-hot as it enters the Earth's atmosphere, you're with the three men, and you are absolutely scared.

For a long time, it looked as if Apollo 13 were not going to have any competition at all in the Best Picture Oscar category. But that was before the release of Ang Lee's crowd-pleaser, Sense and Sensibility, based on Jane Austen romantic novel, with an all-star British cast that includes Hugh Grant.

These top contenders for Best Picture represent different facets of Hollywood and different styles of filmmaking. Hollywood insiders have already touted the conflict between them as battle of the sexes. Heroic and adventurous, Apollo 13 is a classic “boys movie”; the only significant female role is played by Kathleen Quinlan, as Jim Lovell's wife.

Sense and Sensibility is also old-fashioned, but in a literary sort of way. Beautifully written by Emma Thompson, who's sure to win an Oscar for her astute script, it's an accomplished, handsomely shot costume drama. You know the genre. You've seen the Merchant-Ivory movies, A Room With a View and more recently Howards End and Remains of the Day, both starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

I have no doubts that these most deserving films will receive Best Picture and other nominations. But what about the other three vacancies I suspect they'll come from the following movies, each of which presents a problem to Academy voters.

Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas swept all the critics awards, including the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics associations. Though solid, it's a small-scale, intimate two-character drama about the relationships between an alcoholic (wonderfully played by Nicholas Cage), who's determined to drink himself to death and a victimized hooker (played by Elizabeth Shue). Surprisingly, the movie is not dreary or depressing; in moments, it's even humorous and romantic.

But as expected for such a “small” art film, it has not been popular at the box-office; so far, it has grossed slightly over $2 million domestically. Which is peanuts–less that the promotion and advertising budget spent on a major Hollywood film per week. Rumor has it that many Academy members haven't seen Leaving Las Vegas and that they may have to catch it up on video.

Bob Reiner's romantic comedy, The American President brings up a different set of questions. The movie suffers from an overdose of hype by the industry–long before it was released it was rumored to be a blockbuster. But it opened to largely mixed reviews and generated only mediocre response at the box-office. The president, played by a handsome Michael Douglas, is modeled on such Democratic leaders as Kennedy and Clinton. Will the Academy honor a fantasy film, in the Frank Capra tradition, about American politics at these cynical times Will the Academy insist on championing a film that not many people saw

Questions also hang over Oliver Stone's controversial biopicture, Nixon, with Anthony Hopkins as the monstrous president. Stone's career has thrived on provocation, but despite all the fuss he stirs up, the Academy has been kind and even generous to him. He's one of handful filmmakers to have won two directorial Oscars: for Platoon (l986) and for Born on the Fourth of July, three years later. And with all the scandals about how JFK distorted reality, the movie received Best Picture nomination and won several technical awards.

Despite recurrent criticism that the Academy favors blockbusters over small, independent films, with the notable exceptions of Apollo 13 and Disney's computer-animated Toy Story, few of the year's top-grossing pictures are likely to win major accolades from the Academy. As far as big-budget actioners are concerned, Batman Forever, Die Hard With a Vengeance, and Goldeneye are simply not exciting or good enough. They also lack prestige–a crucial factor for serious Academy considerations.

Several years ago, Disney campaigned hard for–and succeeded in getting Beauty and the Beast the first ever Best Picture nomination for an animated feature. The studio now hopes that the same rosy future will happen to their fabulously popular, fabulously produced Toy Story.

But as always, the last word belongs to the Academy, which is nothing if not full of surprises. Watch out for the dark horse, who this year could be Clint Eastwood's late-in-life, adult romance, The Bridges on Madison County, a quiet film that made more money in the U.S. than Mel Gibson's Braveheart. It's hard to think of two stars in today's Hollywood who are more popular or respected than Clint and Meryl Streep.

l995's Top-Grossing Films (in $)

1. Batman Forever, 184.0
2. Apollo 13, 172.1
3. Toy Story, 147.2
4. Pocahontas, 141.5
5. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, 104.2
6. Casper, 100.3
7. Die Hard With a Vengeance, 100.0
8. Goldeneye, 92.4
9. Crimson Tide, 91.4
10. Waterworld, 88.2