If you think of the New York and L.A. film critics’ awards as equivalent to the Iowa presidential caucuses, and the Golden Globes as a kind of New Hampshire primary followed by lots of polling in scattered jurisdictions (the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild), it’s obvious that the apex of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory season — the Academy Awards ceremony — is the general election. But in truth, the Oscars work like a Super Tuesday Night, with spoilers and long shots still hanging in, hoping to divide the vote and conquer.
The political metaphor didn’t much apply last year, when the Forrest Gump landslide was a foregone conclusion. But this year, it’s showbiz as usual. Among Academy members, there’s a patriotic Apollo 13 contingent that’s irked about director Ron Howard’s getting snubbed. There are fervent Leaving Las Vegas fans who can’t understand how it missed the Best Picture circle. The grass roots will be torn up if Mel Gibson doesn’t win for Braveheart. And when the envelopes are finally opened March 25, some folks won’t be surprised if a little pig goes a long way.
FOR HIM: Prepare to toast Cage, who’s been on an awards bender for his bravura performance as a man drinking himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. Oscar should be one more for the road.
AGAINST HIM: Only the whiff of decadence coming off Vegas — conservative Academy voters do like a chaser of redemption.
FOR HIM: He shed 20 years, then grew old, playing a music teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus. Like John Travolta last year, Dreyfuss, 48, is the comeback kid, returning 19 years after his last nomination — and win — as Best Actor for The Goodbye Girl.
AGAINST HIM: He didn’t die in the end, and even Travolta didn’t win.
FOR HIM: In a marathon performance, he went beyond impersonation to make Nixon’s Tricky Dick truly human — no small trick for the one Brit in this race.
AGAINST HIM: A human Nixon? Some Academy members refuse to entertain the thought. Plus, he won a 1991 Oscar for playing another strange character, Hannibal Lecter.
FOR HIM: Always compelling on screen, he got to play the year’s most extended death scene as the convicted murderer facing lethal injection in Dead Man Walking. His peers would like to see him act more.
AGAINST HIM: The Brando of his generation, Penn is a prickly personality who doesn’t cuddle up to the industry.
FOR HIM: Talk about dedication to your craft. Postponing a needed heart operation, the Italian comic actor literally gave his life to complete The Postman, a tender tearjerker of a movie on its own.
AGAINST HIM: Yes, he died, but Academy voters barely knew him. How sentimental can they really be expected to get?
THE LOWDOWN: Everyone should relax and have a cocktail. With Penn and Troisi splitting the competition, prohibitive favorite Cage rolls to victory.
FOR HER: Denied four times, including last year for The Client, she’s overdue, and with Dead Man Walking she’s got the perfect vehicle, playing a flesh-and-blood nun and wearing no makeup.
AGAINST HER: Residual dislike of the politically passionate actress and fear of an Oscar-night lecture instead of a thank you.
FOR HER: The world-weary prostitute she played in Leaving Las Vegas stripped away the heart-of-gold clichés in the year’s most unromantic love story — and she showed surprising strength in a career-making role opposite Cage.
AGAINST HER: She’s been welcomed to the club, but now she needs to pay her dues.
FOR HER: A genuine glamour gal who knows how to play the star, she graduated to serious actress playing a Scorsese moll in Casino. And she held her own against Robert De Niro without resorting to flashing him.
AGAINST HER: Campaigning goes only so far. Hollywood figures her nomination was reward enough.
FOR HER: Her lonely housewife in The Bridges of Madison County wrung real emotion out of a bathetic book and added a new accent to her repertoire.
AGAINST HER: With two Oscars already (for Sophie’s Choice and Kramer vs. Kramer) and now 10 nominations, even her supporters concede she can do this in her sleep.
FOR HER: Plucky girl, she wrote her own role in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
AGAINST HER: As with Streep, the bar is higher for Thompson, a three-time nominee and winner for 1992’s Howards End. And one Oscar per year is enough: The Academy is likely to hand her the trophy for best screen adaptation.
THE LOWDOWN: In a strong and familiar field, Sarandon is the actress to beat. An upstart Shue could emerge victorious if support for Streep disappears.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
FOR HIM: A virtually unknown character actor, he ignored W.C. Fields’ famous advice and played second banana to a pig in Babe. He not only maintained his dignity as Farmer Hoggett, but he also made a name for himself. A cool long shot.
AGAINST HIM: A virtually unknown character actor, he played second banana to a pig.
FOR HIM: Playing thoroughly grounded flight director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, he shone as an understated American hero. Long admired by his peers, he was named best supporting actor by the Screen Actors Guild.
AGAINST HIM: Compared with his competition, he can’t boast many flashy ”actor’s” moments.
FOR HIM: Hollywood’s reigning heartthrob, the star of Legends of the Fall and Seven got brownie points for taking on a supporting role as a manic madman in 12 Monkeys.
AGAINST HIM: High negatives for this scenery-chewing role — and simple jealousy. He’s already got his pick of parts and multimillion-dollar deals.
FOR HIM: He’s built a solid resume from playing toughs in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and other indies. As a preening fop with a dangerous temper in this year’s other Scottish epic, Rob Roy, he proved he could stretch a wee bit.
AGAINST HIM: Unredeemed villainy doesn’t usually capture the Academy’s heart.
FOR HIM: Another actor’s actor, Spacey had a banner year, covering the spectrum of cinematic villainy with his nominated role as a con man in The Usual Suspects and equally clever turns in Seven and Swimming With Sharks.
AGAINST HIM: You have to watch Suspects twice to fully understand Spacey’s performance.
THE LOWDOWN: Forget Pitt. This battle of the character actors stars Harris and Spacey. Harris, 45, has the longer list of credits and the inside track.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
FOR HER: As much as Hollywood hates Nixon, it feels sympathy for Mrs. Nixon, and this respected stage actress invested Nixon’s Pat with a palpable pathos. SAG even included her among Leading Actress nominees.
AGAINST HER: Like the public, some voters refused to sit through Oliver Stone’s three-hour movie.
FOR HER: Forced to wait and worry as the archetypal astronaut’s wife in Apollo 13, she didn’t recede into the background; she became a sympathetic audience surrogate.
AGAINST HER: It was still a fairly limited role, especially compared with those of Winslet and Sorvino, who might have vied for Best Actress slots.
FOR HER: She racked up laughs in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite playing yet another hooker, and Allen’s actresses are Oscar prone. Her performance won her a Golden Globe. With a major Miramax push, the squeaky voice she adopted could put her over in a squeaker.
AGAINST HER: Miramax can push too hard.
FOR HER: Former Brat Packer makes good. As the title character in Georgia, a folk-singer struggling with her self-destructive sister, she delivered a ringing performance as both an actress and a singer.
AGAINST HER: Georgia was probably the least-seen movie in the major categories, making victory an uphill battle.
FOR HER: The SAG and Golden Globe award winner sparked Sense and Sensibility as the very emotional counterweight to Emma Thompson’s calmer older sister. The Academy likes veteran character actors and fresh ingenues in this category — and Winslet’s only 20.
AGAINST HER: She’s only 20; she’ll have other chances.
THE LOWDOWN: A wide-open three-way race: Allen’s got the benefit of a fierce dramatic role, but neither Sorvino nor Winslet can be discounted.
MIKE FIGGIS FOR HIM: He beat the odds, reviving his career with Leaving Las Vegas, a $3.5 million pic that wowed critics and reminded Hollywood that movies don’t always need happy endings.
AGAINST HIM: Though the directors nominated him, the full membership — some of whom hate the film’s roughness — refused it a Best Picture nom.
MEL GIBSON FOR HIM: The Academy loves stars-turned-directors. With Braveheart, Gibson could well join Redford, Beatty, Costner, and Eastwood in a winning tradition. Plus, Directors Guild Award winner Ron Howard isn’t in the running.
AGAINST HIM: The movie was all spectacle — his direction didn’t yield any acting nominations.
FOR HIM: Going way beyond Hitchcock’s dictum that actors are cattle, he made Babe one of the year’s true originals. What speech would be more fun?
AGAINST HIM: A first-timer, he remains relatively unknown. He failed to get a DGA nomination. Bottom line: Academy actors aren’t all that anxious for voice-over work.
FOR HIM: The Postman is the gentlefolks’ choice, a literate, pastoral movie on a human scale that doesn’t descend to Vegas squalor. A win would allow Radford to pay emotional testament to his late star, Troisi.
AGAINST HIM: Subtitles. Will Academy members feel inclined to reward an Italian film by a British director?
FOR HIM: The only nominee to tackle a social issue, he has serious intent on his side. And restraint: The unapologetically liberal actor-director avoided making a tract of Dead Man Walking.
AGAINST HIM: Robbins failed to get either a DGA nomination or a best pic nod. His virtue will probably have to be its own reward.
THE LOWDOWN: Every nominee has his passionate partisans, but Gibson, buoyed by the dominant actors’ branch, should carry the electorate.
FOR IT: It’s the only made-in-America contender. It sold the most tickets (grossing $172 million domestically). It’s on a roll, winning SAG and Producers Guild awards.
AGAINST IT: No one’s very passionate about it, which may be why Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard failed to secure nominations of their own.
FOR IT: A porcine Rocky, it’s this year’s, uh, underdog; it’s already made more money than anyone could have predicted ($62 million domestically); a win would represent a hip protest against the paucity of Hollywood’s imagination.
AGAINST IT: Putting animals center stage at Hollywood’s august event just wouldn’t be kosher.
FOR IT: The one grand epic in the whole bunch, it’s got the most nominations (10), it stands foursquare in support of ”Freedom!”, and it boasts all those fetching men in kilts.
AGAINST IT: Its February rerelease stalled at the box office. The history of Scottish independence isn’t so very dear to the voters’ hearts.
THE POSTMAN (IL POSTINO)
FOR IT: Like 1981’s Chariots of Fire, this could be the little foreign movie that goes the distance. Older voters love its lyrical romanticism. With Cage the favorite for Best Actor, this is a handy way to honor the late Troisi.
AGAINST IT: Only four other foreign-language films have ever competed here; none of them has won.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
FOR IT: Jane Austen is all the rage. It’s sexy but civilized. Its characters speak in complete sentences.
AGAINST IT: Director Ang Lee failed to get nominated. Recent drawing-room dramas — Merchant-Ivory’s A Room With a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day — all failed to capture the big prize.
THE LOWDOWN: Apollo 13 has momentum, but almost anything’s possible in such a disparate field. Only Sense and Sensibility seems to have peaked.