Picky, Picky, Picky Awards: As Oscar night approaches, critic Stephen Hunter puts on his evening attire and starts getting critical -- and not just of movies.

March 23, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

May I have the envelope, please? Thank you, my dear. By the way, don't you look lovely tonight and what are you doing after the ceremony? Anyhow, for best picture, the winner is

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let us play the game according to the rules. Let us take our long, slow, cute stroll to the climax of the 69th annual Oscar ceremony, predicting hither and yon as we meander. (Channels 2 and 7 will broadcast the awards show at 9 p.m. tomorrow.) And let's obey some other rules, too. Kids, repeat after me: Rules Are Fun. So, let's play the fashion rule game, by painting a picture of the host of our ceremony in high Oscar splendor. He's wearing an ancient blue Joe Banks shirt, unusually pressed and starched for him because this is a special day. He's got on those green cotton pants that have never even seen an iron and look like drapes in a fraternity house. Shoes: work boots, natch, from C-mart ($55), just the post-industrial thing in clubland.

The host is using the ultra grade of Tums today, Wintergreen flavor. The tablets are a kind of dusty moss color -- to match his pants; the yellow cap was chosen to set off his teeth. If he gets a li'l cranky toward the end, ladies and gents, that's because he forgot to take his first dosage at breakfast. In fact, he forgot to take breakfast. He almost forgot to come in today.

Enough with fashion and heartburn.

Let us begin our trip with the supporting actor hunks. They are: Cuba Gooding Jr., "Jerry Maguire"; William H. Macy, "Fargo"; Armin Mueller-Stahl, "Shine"; Edward Norton, "Primal Fear"; and James Woods, "Ghosts of Mississippi."

The temptation here is to go for the homers. This is probably the most Maryland-dense category in several years, ever since Wallis Warfield Simpson was up for her starring role in "The Royal Follies of 1936."

Both Macy and Norton are local boys made very good. Macy, who is from Cumberland, is a longtime character actor with a lot of mileage. He's stunning as Jerry, the financially strapped businessman in the Coens' great "Fargo," whose perfidy sets in motion a whole evil train of nastiness and murder. Norton, from Columbia, is a Wilde Lake and Yale grad. In "Primal Fear," his first film role, he chilled to the bone as a Kentucky runaway accused of murder who boasted both angelic and devilish personalities.

Of the two, I'd prefer to see Macy win, because he's been so good so long, and Norton has so much eerie talent he'll surely be back again, and soon. But neither will win. Nor will Armin Mueller-Stahl as the bad father in "Shine," and particularly not James Woods, whose makeup deserves far more credit than he does as Byron de la Beckwith in "Ghosts of Mississippi." No, the certain victor here will be Cuba Gooding Jr., whose flamboyant stylings as a football stud entered the imagination and whose catchy phrase, "Show me the money," entered the language. He is all but unstoppable.

Supporting actress

Moving on to another easy shot, the supporting actress category, where the players are Joan Allen, "The Crucible"; Lauren Bacall, "The Mirror Has Two Faces"; Juliette Binoche, "The English Patient"; Barbara Hershey, "The Portrait of a Lady"; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, "Secrets & Lies."

How easy is this one? Why even bother to talk it through? (Because: Rules Are Fun!) Binoche has the second most possible shot, that is, if "English Patient" really gets a head of steam up early and rolls through the evening untouched, but I don't think it will, or she will. The proper winner should be Marianne Jean-Baptiste of "Secrets & Lies," who brings an easy decency and unforced naturalism to that impossibly intimate film. But she has less chance than I do. Nobody really liked "The Portrait of a Lady" or "The Crucible," both of which were big, expensive, prestige products that delivered neither at the box office nor in the slick crits 10-best lists.

But it wouldn't matter if the nominees were Ms. God and Mother Teresa. The winner will still be Lauren Bacall, the liveliest thing anywhere near Barbra Streisand's "The Mirror Has Two Faces," and an old-time pro with links back to a Hollywood golden age (Read my lips: Bogart). She'll win in a walk.

Foreign film

In the foreign film category, the nominees are "A Chef in Love," Georgia; "Kolya," Czech Republic; "The Other Side of Sunday," Norway; "Prisoner of the Mountains," Russia; and "Ridicule," France.

This is always a challenge for someone who usually has seen none of them, owing to the somewhat lethargic reality of art-film distribution to this region. But this time, I've seen three, so let's hope it's not "A Chef in Love," which I presume is from the Georgia that used to be in the Soviet Union and not the Georgia that is somewhere between Florida, South Carolina, Texas and, um, isn't Alabama down there too? Let's also hope it's not "The Other Side of Sunday," from Norway -- at least I know where Norway is.

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