The Hunt for Oscar Predictions: When he considers this year's Oscar nominees, our critic's head hurts. But here are his picks, anyway.

March 24, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Kind of a scary year. "Sense and Sensibility" had the look of the swank, Brit, big-ticket piece the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves to honor with an Oscar. Then there was that anthem of gung-ho, can-do spirit, "Apollo 13," patriotic as all get-out, another sort of movie the academy has a tendency to adore. A two-horse race, figure six for one, four for the other, with the Brit coming out in the lead.

Oops. Another miscalculation.

Instead, along came a Scotsman named William Wallace, the subject of Mel Gibson's old-fashioned -- and old; it dated from May -- epic, to get 10 completely unexpected nominations, throwing the whole thing up in the air.

And then those blasted double-death downers "Dead Man Walking" and "Leaving Las Vegas" blow in from out of town and throw their butts down and will not go away. They mess it up even more!

And then from nowhere, this talking-pig opus, "Babe," a faux-naif Aussie comedy about a porker who thinks he's a barker and makes the nation believe it. Charm, audacity or just an extra-long "I want a Clark Bar" commercial?

The fat and easy days of "Forrest Gump," when a professional prognosticator could knock out his picks in 10 minutes and go an easy 8 out of 10, ain't around no more. This one is tough. You have to think about this one. Ouch! At my age, that hurts.

So here's my best shot. If I go down in flames, don't call to gloat. If you do better than I do, don't write the editor. You're still not getting this job.

Best Supporting Actress: Let's begin with an easy one. Mia Sorvino put on a whiny voice, dyed her hair jet blond and got buff in the gym for the role of the tart in "Mighty Aphrodite." Cheapness always works; you'd never suspect she's a neo-conservative from Harvard! But she won't win. Mare Winningham was an eye of calmness in "Georgia," but she won't win either, because nobody ever saw the movie, which hasn't even opened in Baltimore. Kate Winslet was wonderful in "Sense and Sensibility" as headstrong, emotional, self-dramatizing "sensibility," and, in a normal year, she would win.

The Oscar, however, will go to Joan Allen, for "Nixon" and her turn as Pat. It was an extraordinary impersonation that caught its subject's iron dignity and stoicism as well as her intelligence, a stunner in a movie from the Oliver Stone who tends to make most Republicans look like fascist warmongers.

Best Original Screenplay: "Mighty Aphrodite"? No. Hollywood hasn't really forgiven Woody Allen for his crimes, his crimes not being cohabiting with his wife's adopted daughter but having a string of box-office failures and also hating Hollywood and going to Europe on a jazz tour during Oscar week. An Oscar for "Toy Story" in this category would completely miss the point: It was technique, not writing, that distinguished that computer-animated gem. "Braveheart" has a shot, but such an award would fail to honor the movie's prime mover, Mel Gibson, and pay dividends only to his stalking horse, screenwriter Randall Wallace. "Nixon?" Nah.

Rather, here's a chance that not even Hollywood will blow to pay homage to one of the cleverest films of the year. That's the astonishing and delightful enigma, "The Usual Suspects," with its Byzantine plot and its nostalgic insistence on a mythic master criminal pulling all the strings. Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie will nab the golden boy.

Best Adapted Screenplay: You'd think Mike Figgis for "Leaving Las Vegas," as a way of rewarding him for his astonishing audacity in making Hollywood want a movie nobody in Hollywood wanted. Wouldn't "Babe" have a chance, too, as a nice way to memorialize a film that's cute but probably not going to go all the way? Factor out "The Postman" and "Apollo 13," the first because all the nominations are enough,the latter because no one really liked it a lot.

That means the novelty nomination will get it -- actress Emma Thompson for her brilliant adaptation (six drafts in longhand on yellow tablets while waiting for the blocking to stop and the shooting to start on a decade's worth of other movies) of "Sense and Sensibility." Who could resist that one? Tinseltown still loves a good story.

Cinematography: Not a great category this year, a year in which few films were visually distinguished. Most experts seem to be picking "Braveheart," but I found its photography conventional: Auld Scotland looked much more poetic and resonant in "Rob Roy." "Batman Forever" was gleamingly professional, big-studio filmmaking but for that same reason coldly unmoving. "Shanghai Triad" was probably the best-photographed film of the year, yes, but the close-knit, tribal cinematographers aren't going to acknowledge an Asian film as such. Nobody saw "A Little Princess."

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