By Steve Daly
Updated January 12, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST
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THE HOLIDAYS may be over for the rest of America, but this week marks the start of Oscar Advent in Hollywood. It’s that soul-searching time of year when film folk of every religion (and nondenominationals too) focus their thoughts of spiritual fulfillment on a single house of worship, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Last week, as tanned power players flew back from tropical breaks, they hunkered down to stacks of free cassettes and plowed through copies of Daily Variety chockablock with Oscar campaign ads. Still, the most important buzz isn’t in the mail. It’s in the air, which crackles with talk of a dark-versus-light derby between the two hottest contenders for Best Picture: Sense and Sensibility, the front-running filly, and Leaving Las Vegas, perhaps the broodiest Oscar dark horse to come down the straightaway since 1969’s Midnight Cowboy.

It’s not surprising that Sense, a sunny period piece ingeniously compressed from Jane Austen’s 1811 novel of fitful courtships, tempted chastity, self-sacrifice, sisterly love, and ultimate marital bliss, now occupies the slot that Forrest Gump filled last year. It’s the sort of high-minded crowd-pleaser that the industry likes to delude itself into believing represents Hollywood at its best. If she’s watching, surely Ms. Austen would appreciate the joke: In a culture ruled by monosyllabic, muscle-bound heroes, everyone loves to champion demure, principled heroines — as long as they don’t have to risk their own money putting such women on the screen in the first place.

”Some people have said, ‘Oh, you jumped on the Jane Austen bandwagon,”’ says Sense producer Lindsay Doran. ”Bandwagon? I pushed for 15 years to get this movie rolling.” A Los Angeles native and longtime development and production exec, Doran is as surprised as anyone by the mini-wave of films — Persuasion, Clueless, the upcoming Emma — lately spun from Austen’s long-available canon. ”When we started with Emma Thompson as the screenwriter [in 1991], we were the only Austen game in town,” she says. ”If we were starting now, I still couldn’t go into a development meeting and pitch it like Speed. I couldn’t say, ‘It’s Persuasion, but on a bus!”’

Despite spells in development hell, Sense looked award bound the moment it began production; after all, Brit-accented literary adaptations have long been the Academy’s cup of tea. The real question is whether voters will spike their Earl Grey with a shot of Jack Daniel’s, courtesy of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. A spare, unflinchingly sordid tale of true love between a suicidal alcoholic and a prostitute, Vegas helped polarize year-end award tallies much the way Pulp Fiction wound up a dark foil to Gump last year. While Sense took Best Picture from the National Board of Review and leads the Golden Globe contenders with six nominations, Vegas, a different kind of hard-luck romance, swept the critics’ citations, with New York and L.A. panels both naming it best picture.

Leaving Las Vegas

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