Oscar's Night Out Feeling lucky? Put your money on Clint to win tomorrow night

March 28, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film CriticFilm Critic

More than 20 years ago, Clint Eastwood got to scowl over a rather large handgun at a cowering thug and say, "So, you have to ask yourself: 'Do I feel lucky today?' Well, punk? Do you?" The punk did. Clint blew him away. Things were so much simpler then.

That was in "Dirty Harry," the controversial hit that propelled him to his highest level of recognizability, made him a genuine star and vouchsafed the career that was to follow. But the contempt of the critics for this hoot of right-wing macho was scathing, and one suspects it hurt him.

Now, more than 20 years later, the critics have come to love him. He either outlived or outlasted the loudest of them. More important, his "Unforgiven," a severe and biting anti-western western, has won a number of pre-Oscar critics' awards. And so the question for this most American of icons, as he faces the Academy Awards, is: Do I feel lucky today?

Well, it may take some luck. Eastwood is up against an old Oscar tradition. The last Monday in March is usually the night collective amnesia overwhelms Hollywood. The town, as a whole, forgets that its prosperity is based on kiss kiss bang bang and instead likes to pretend that it's a veddy, veddy refined British manor house. It's "Masterpiece Theater" on La Brea Boulevard.

Eastwood's most heated rival is likely to be a veddy, veddy British film that was made by an American, an Indian and a German. That's "Howards End," directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Of the three of them, it is possible to say that one gets the credit, one wants the credit, and one deserves the credit, but I can't tell you which is which. Anyway, though its pedigree is bogus, "Howards End" is the kind of film that Hollywood adores: discreet, charming, successful, well-made and exactly the kind of film that could not be made in the studio system.

Then there's the Irish renegade, "The Crying Game," with its sensational plot twist and the performance that still has people talking. Right at nomination time, it seemed to be surging, so the chances of it sneaking in and pulling off an upset or two are quite intriguing.

These three themes make tomorrow's ceremony one of the closest horse races in years. Let's go through the categories and see if we can pick some winners.

In the Best Cinematography category, the only real contenders are "Howards End," with its immaculate and sparkly 19th-century England, courtesy of cameraman Tony Pierce-Roberts, and Jack Green's moody, dank and somber palette in the morally moody, dank and somber "Unforgiven."

Forget the bubbly "Enchanted April," the virtually unseen "The Lover" (though the photography was splendid) and the placid "A River Runs Through It." The winner will be the first indication of how the evening will go, and it will be awarded to Green for "Unforgiven," because the look of the picture was so much a part of the feeling of the picture.

Best Adapted Screenplay is no piece of cake: Hollywood has long revered Bo Goldman, who wrote "Scent of a Woman," and he could be the wild-card winner. But he won't be. Neither will another wild-card possibility, Michael Tolkin, though he may deserve it because he brought off the hardest of all tricks: He successfully adapted his own novel for the screen in "The Player." But it was too anti-Hollywood. Forget "A River Runs Through It," because it was dull, and "Enchanted April," because it was trifling. The sure winner is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, for her masterful job of adapting E. M. Forster's "Howards End."

The Yanks are definitely not coming in the Best Supporting Actress Category. Only one of the five nominees is American, Marisa Tomei for "My Cousin Vinny."

She's a wonderful actress. But she won't win. Neither will Judy Davis for "Husbands and Wives," because Woody Allen has committed a great sin and must be punished. His sin? He made an unsuccessful movie.

Plowright wonderful

Joan Plowright was wonderful in "Enchanted April," but that was the other good British movie. Arguably the most powerful movie moment in 1992 (I didn't say the most shocking; you all know what that was) was delivered by Miranda Richardson in "Damage," when she turned from a pudgy, dreamy aristocratic wife into a shrike of venom, a pale and deadly viper of vengeance, in one devastating scene. But she won't win it, because she deserves it. She'll win it in the next few years when she won't deserve it.

No, Vanessa Redgrave will win for "Howards End," as the matriarch whose affection for a friend sets the tragic and ironic chain of action in motion.

The Best Original Screenplay -- is this a choice? Like, they're going to give it to "Husbands and Wives"? Where was the writing? That was his life!

In "Lorenzo's Oil," George Miller and Nick Enright did a superior ,, job of dramatizing a great mass of medical detail, but subsequent claims by many that the movie was fundamentally inaccurate and dishonest preclude its winning.

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