Indie films like "Fargo" and "Shine" upstaged bigger studio fare

Slam! That sound you heard was Oscar’s door closing shut on traditional Hollywood. When the nominations for the 69th Annual Academy Awards were announced Feb. 11, only one major studio made a meaningful showing (TriStar’s five nods for Jerry Maguire, which, significantly, is about a slickster agent undergoing a spiritual crisis). But for the most part, the annual honor roll proved that the movie industry is now ruled by a curious hodgepodge of independent studios, foreigners, and formula-flouting actors. Call it New Hollywood.

This week, coannouncers Mira Sorvino and Academy president Arthur Hiller read the list of filmdom’s newly anointed: filmmakers who tell highly personal stories about outsiders (such as Sling Blade‘s adorable slasher), who call smaller, less controlling studios home (Miramax nabbed 18 nominations, while Twentieth Century Fox got a mere seven), and who are into bargains (three of the five Best Picture nominees — Fargo, Shine, and Secrets & Lies — were made for under $10 million). ”There’s something in the air,” says Best Actor nominee Geoffrey Rush (Shine). ”There’s a hunger out there for genuine emotion, for stories that have some artistic principle — the things that defy market research.”

Or maybe the Academy just has a bad case of self-loathing. Studio execs may be able to console themselves with last year’s record $5.5 billion box office take, but just try putting a balance sheet on the mantel. So what lessons can those suits glean from this year’s nominations?

Oscar: The freshmaker There are enough new faces among this year’s acting nominees to fill up a month’s worth of Star Searches. Fourteen out of the 20 are headed to the Shrine Auditorium for the first time (including 72-year-old Lauren Bacall), and three were nominated for their film debuts: Edward Norton (Primal Fear), Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves), and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies). Meanwhile, the Best Director ranks are just as low profile. Only Milos Forman (The People vs. Larry Flynt) has been nominated before. The Academy couldn’t even spell the name of Fargo director Joel Coen (its stab: Joel Cohen). And he’s one of the more famous names.

Speak in tongues Oscar loves an accent, whether it’s okeydoke Midwestern (Frances McDormand in Fargo) or marble-mouthed Southern (Woody Harrelson in Flynt). Or, best of all, Continental: No fewer than eight foreign actors got nods. ”People are beginning to accept that people talk funny all over the world,” posits Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient). Next year, Fran Drescher will clean up.

This Year’s Babe He probably won’t sell as many dolls as the talking pig, but Best Actor contender Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) is 1997’s lovable, out-of-the-blue nominee. ”I’m more surprised than anyone,” says Thornton, who also directed and wrote the unconventional tearjerker. ”This year people just enjoyed actors acting and hearing the words.” How far off the Hollywood track is ol’ Billy Bob? Thornton, who was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, isn’t even a member of the Academy.

The race card Despite heavy flak last year (including a Jesse Jackson speech), the Academy continues to snub African-American actors. Conspicuously absent from the honors were Samuel L. Jackson, who was considered a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor for A Time to Kill, and Denzel Washington, who many thought would get a Best Actor nod for Courage Under Fire. Says nominee Cuba Gooding Jr. (Maguire), a black actor who bucked the trend, “African Americans are making small strides, which is great. That’s all I want to say about that.”

Waste not, want…more DreamWorks scored its first-ever Oscar nod for Dear Diary (Best Live-Action Short). And leave it to those famously creative DreamWorks execs to take the strangest path to a nomination. Diary, which stars former Cheers regular Bebe Neuwirth as a New York art director, was originally produced as a television pilot for ABC. When the network didn’t pick up the sitcom, it was transferred to film, shown at a Century City theater for several days, then submitted to the Academy. The recycled project now gives the fledgling studio a good shot at its first award.

William Who? The most bizarre nomination? Kenneth Branagh earned a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for his four-hour Hamlet—a script that was barely altered from the original play by that guy Shakespeare.

The big bang Of course, not all was lost for Hollywood’s major film studios. After all, they completely swept the vaunted Best Achievement in Sound Effects Editing category. The contenders: Universal’s Daylight, Paramount’s The Ghost and the Darkness, and Warner Bros.’ Eraser. Take that, Billy Bob.

(With reporting by Gregg Kilday and Susan Spillman)