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Front-runner Film: The usual way to handicap the Best Picture race is to bet on the most overpraised film of the year.

Statue of Limitations

This year's Oscar nominations reward mainstream predictability

By Richard von Busack

'The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible." That was Oscar Wilde's description of an English fox hunt. And naturally that quip recalls the other better-known Oscar, contended for by various Industry unspeakables on the night of March 27. In that spirit, I offer some predictions, on the grounds of likeliness, just deserts and worst-case scenarios.

Best Actor
Russell Crowe, Richard Farnsworth, Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn and Denzel Washington

The best was Farnsworth for The Straight Story, that troubling yet serene epic by David Lynch. With the Oscars, however, the race isn't always to the swiftest (or in Farnsworth's case, the slowest). Crowe's performance as the whistle-blower in The Insider was solid work, but it was monotonously solid--he overdid the colorlessness. What is Penn's lead role in Sweet and Lowdown doing in this kind of company? It was essentially a Tijuana Bible-derived interpretation of a jazz musician's life--a character actor's piece stretched out for the full length of the movie.

Most Likely: The Oscar to Spacey for being Spacey.

Most Deserving: Denzel Washington, who was very good in the baloney-laden The Hurricane.

Worst-Case Scenario: Penn.

Best Actress
Annette Bening, Janet McTeer, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank.

During every election, an old crank or two will write in "Abraham Lincoln" or "George Washington" on his ballot. Do you get the feeling that Meryl Streep will still be getting Oscar nominations after she's dead? She has a dedicated following--she'd have to have practically a cult to receive a nod for the almost universally hated Music of the Heart. Janet McTeer was nominated, I think, on the basis of her reputation as a Broadway stage actress--thus her inexplicable nomination for her uncomfortably twangy, sugary mom in the soft-headed Tumbleweeds. McTeer wasn't very good, but Bening in American Beauty was worse--a cardboard shrike. The mark of a great performance is one that leaves something to the imagination. That's how the really best female performance of last year--Sigourney Weaver in A Map of the World--went overlooked; it confused the mainstream mind.

And speaking of that mainstream mind, no one seriously expected Élodie Bouchez or Natacha Régnier, both flabbergasting in the French import The Dreamlife of Angels, to be nominated. Similarly, it can't be hoped that Swank can win for her star role as Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon in Boys Don't Cry; she just doesn't have enough backing.

Most Deserving: Moore for years of the strongest and smartest acting in the movies, some of which enlivened the baffling misstep The End of the Affair.

Surprise Candidate: Swank.

Most Likely and Worst-Case Scenario: Bening.

Girl, Interminable: Angelina Jolie should get the nod for best supporting actress, because her performance was too excruciating not to win.

Best Supporting Actress
Toni Collette, Angelina Jolie, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Chloë Sevigny

This category is always the best of the nominations. Jolie's drool factor is going to help her here--check out Troy Patterson's slaver in Entertainment Weekly: "Her beauty, frankly, is obscene." So was her overemoting in Girl, Interminable, and where does she go from there? (Suggested next project: Screaming My Head Off--The Diamanda Galas Story. "It's not television, it's HBO.") Collette was perfectly OK as the working-class mom in The Sixth Sense, and if you saw how embarrassingly self-conscious Collette was in Emma and Muriel's Wedding, you'd know that she deserves praise for hard work and much improvement. Morton's mute, cloche-hatted waif in Sweet and Lowdown was silent-movie kitsch.

That leaves the two really worthy performances: Keener and Sevigny. Quite a choice. Sevigny was like a prairie Dietrich in Boys Don't Cry. True, the writing in that film was often about as convincing as the dialogue Dietrich uttered back when she was playing those ethereal man-killers and victims of love. Keener, in Being John Malkovich, offered a rib-tickling alternative to her usual Manhattan alterna-girl.

Most Deserving: Sevigny or Keener; I hope they tie.

Most Likely and Worst-Case Scenario: Jolie, because she was too excruciating not to win.

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Caine, Tom Cruise, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jude Law, Haley Joel Osment

If looks could win, the devilish Law (from the so-so Talented Mr. Ripley) ought to. If sentiment prevails, Caine will, for his roles as the ether-bird doctor in The Cider House Rules.

Most Deserving: Duncan, who made The Green Mile so effective that it takes days, even weeks before it falls apart in the mind when analyzed.

Most Likely and Worst-Case Scenario: Cruise, as the chauvinist seminar leader from Magnolia, as above with Jolie.

Best Picture
American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense

The usual way to handicap this category is to pick the most overpraised picture of the year, and so American Beauty wins hands down. The Sixth Sense is a praise-worthy and solemn B-picture, but how could anyone call it the best of 1999? I can't, but it's the best on this list. The Green Mile has, I think, little interest to women, and not enough to rally the votes. The success of The Cider House Rules has been attributed to the usual lobbying by Miramax, but there are two other factors to consider. First, the Academy is composed of plenty of aging members, and The Cider House Rules is the one film of the five that can be watched with comfort by geriatric cases. Second, The Cider House Rules is, in its own wishy-washy way, in favor of reproductive choice. As much as I hated American Beauty, I'd gladly go see it again, if the only alternative were sitting through the nearly three hours of urgent cell-phone conversation that made up The Insider.

Most Deserving: The Sixth Sense.

Most Likely and Worst-Case Scenario: American Beauty.

See you at the Roxie, Sunday, March 26, at the theater's annual Walpurgisnacht of hissing, derision, howling, etc.

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From the March 20, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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