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Tough times for the Oscars

Tough times for the Oscars — This year’s Academy members have their work cut out for them in deciding “Best Picture”

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Never Fear, Dumb and Dumber will not be collecting a Best Picture trophy on March 27. But thanks to the paucity of Gandhiesque movies in 1994, we are in for one of the most unpredictable Oscar races in recent memory. Although Hollywood had plenty of commercial success in ’94 — including Forrest Gump ($298 million), and The Lion King ($300 million) — ”box office doesn’t always translate into Oscars,” notes Twentieth Century Fox’s Tom Sherak. ”The Academy tends to think more artistic, more high-minded.” But unlike last year’s competition, when Steven Spielberg‘s Schindler’s List swept many major critic’s lists, this year the critics have failed to reach a consensus. The much-praised but little seen Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes and directed by Robert Redford, took top honors among the New York Film Critics. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, was voted Best Picture by the L.A. Film Critics Association and tied with Forrest Gump as Best Picture over at the National Board of Review.

Gump, of course, is the closest thing to an Oscar favorite in the field — or is it? It failed to make its way onto many major top 10 lists and was called one of the worst movies of the year by New York Times critic Janet Maslin. ”There is definitely a Gump backlash,” insists one source close to the movie. ”If a film is successful commercially, there’s a certain envy out there in the film community. Spielberg knows all about this. If Gump had earned maybe $40 million, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Many believe the film is over the hump thanks to its seven Golden Globe nominations — then again, Pulp Fiction, once considered a dark horse because of its ultra-R-rated violence, earned six. ”Nothing is clear-cut about this year’s race,” says Cynthia Swartz, senior VP of special projects at Miramax Films, which is pushing Pulp Fiction. ”There is this sense that anything could happen.”

That’s precisely what the makers of such diverse films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Little Women, and The Shawshank Redemption are hoping for. All feature Oscar-worthy performances and could be big winners when the nominations are announced on Feb. 14. Perhaps the biggest upset could be scored by the critically acclaimed documentary, Hoop Dreams (it topped Siskel & Ebert‘s lists as best film of the year). Although no documentary has ever been named Best Picture, Fine Line is championing the film as a nominee. ”We feel we have a shot (since we’re) the year’s best-reviewed movie,” says Marian Koltai-Levine, vice president of publicity for Fine Line. ”We’re going for the precedent.”

Not that the studios are about to be upstaged or outspent by the upstarts. The major studios will each shell out up to $1 million for their Oscar campaigns. Where does the money go? In one of the most showstopping efforts, Disney sent the Academy’s approximately 5,000 members an oversize Lion King box, featuring a pop-up cut-out of the main characters and a lavish $50 coffee-table book. Hollywood Pictures’ Quiz Show package includes a copy of the movie, a 21-minute ”making of” video, and a soundtrack CD. Paramount has weighed in with a box of videos, including a Gump cassette that’s worth its weight in Godiva.

For all the hype and money spent, ”in the end, the movies must speak for themselves,” says one studio executive. And Gump and Pulp Fiction speak the loudest. ”Both play with the boundaries of the medium. Pulp is so visionary, so unusual, and there was nothing else like it,” says one industry insider, ”but Forrest Gump also pushed the boundaries of cinema.” This year is much like Forrest’s ubiquitous box of chocolates — who knows what we’re gonna get.