No Oscar for sticking to the facts 'English Patient': It's bloody good, but remember, it's just a story.

March 26, 1997

THEY DON'T give an Oscar for historical accuracy, or it would have been one that "The English Patient" didn't win. The internationally made movie ran away with nine, including best picture, in the 69th annual Academy Awards ritual of self-congratulation before a world-wide audience.

"The English Patient" beautifully integrated some of Hollywood's favorite genres: The "woman's movie" about emotional truths; the young macho violence flick with close-ups of pain and gore; the World War II nostalgia film, and cinematography of nature, such as undulating patterns of desert dunes.

It also realizes in film the poetic vision of Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje. This is a movie that middle-aged parents can take teen-age children to with everyone getting something the others wouldn't understand.

But don't look for historical accuracy. Mr. Ondaatje created a remarkable character, a Hungarian who hung around British archaeologists in Egypt before World War II and did a little spying during it. But he used the name of a real man, whom real survivors remember as a nasty piece of work and not at all as portrayed in the movie.

The big studios were almost shut out from these Oscars. Ditto the big names. An obscure Australian named Geoffrey Rush won as best actor for portraying a real pianist, David Helfgott, who recovered from severe mental illness to play again, in "Shine." This has come under criticism for its inaccurate portrayal of the real Helfgott family. And the music critics, those incorrigible spoilsports of the printed page, have chorused that Mr. Helfgott, however inspiring, is neither a normally functioning performer nor a concert-quality pianist.

Frances McDormand won for best actress as the pregnant police chief in "Fargo," a film that captured the cinema critics' hearts for its off-beat -- and often bloody -- twists and turns. Yet the most remarkable Oscar went to the costume drama, "Emma." That film consists primarily of the words of one of the finest writers of English prose in the history of the language, Jane Austen. It won for music.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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