Spielberg Finally Wins the Gold

The Academy Award nominations have been announced,
and to absolutely no one’s surprise, they were dominated by Steven
Spielberg, whose Holocaust opus, Schindler’s List, brought
home an even dozen nominations. In addition, his dino drama, Jurassic
Park
, (the most commercially successful film of all time) earned
another three nods, for technical awards, bringing the Spielberg
total to fifteen. Not bad for a guy who, less than a decade ago,
saw his first effort at so-called serious filmmaking, The Color
Purple
, bring in ten nominationsbut not one for Best Director.
As if that wasn’t humiliation enough for the film’s auteur, when
the winners were announced, The Color Purple came up short
every time, going down in history as the film that earned the most
nominations without winning a single award.

While Schindler’s List is the only film that
could break that mark this year, (The Piano and Remains
of the Day
tied for the second most nominations with eight),
only a fool would expect Spielberg to come home empty-handed once
again. Why the turnaround? Is Schindler’s List that much better
than The Color Purple? The simple answer is no. The two films
are actually strikingly similar in quality and content. They’re
both extremely well-made, powerful, emotionally manipulative studies
of injustice and oppression. (For a detailed list of my grievances
against Schindler- a film I nonetheless admire- see last month’s
Freeze Frame.)

Steven Spielberg on the set of Schindler.

The difference is the decade. In the eighties, Spielberg
was still a boyish Steven Spielberg on the set of "Schindler"
hotshot, and the Academy simply doesn’t like to honor young upstarts.
At that time in his career, Spielberg had known nothing but success,
making Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders
of the Lost Ark
, and E. T.– four of the most successful
films of all time in rapid succession. For the older members of
the Academy, who were unable to dent the Boy Wonder’s box office
record, the Oscars were the last line of defense, the last chance
to put him in his place. Since The Color Purple, Spielberg
has struggled (though not as much as most), again failing to be
taken seriously with Empire of the Sun, and even having his
box office instincts questioned after the relative failures of Always
and Hook. Still the most successful filmmaker of all time, he has
at least suffered a little, and he’s played the game.

And Schindler’s List is, of course, just the
sort of film the Academy loves to honor. It deals with an "Important"
subject, and it offers a certain amount of moral uplift. It’s rare
that truly depressing films win the Best Picture Oscar, though a
few cases, including the Vietnam films Platoon and The
Deer Hunter
, come to mind. But more often, truly powerful films
like Raging Bull and Sophie’s Choice lose out simply
because they are too bleak. By finding a positive message in the
Holocaust, Spielberg managed to have his cake and eat it, too.

While Spielberg made a film that Oscar was bound to
love with Schindler’s List, his friend Martin Scorsese seems
to have badly miscalculated with The Age of Innocence. Originally
scheduled to come out in December of 1992, the film was held for
nine months, a situation many insiders felt stemmed from Scorsese’s
desperation to win the Oscar gold. Common wisdom had it he didn’t
want to compete with Howard’s End, an ironic choice since that highbrow
Merchant/Ivory film ultimately lost out to Clint Eastwood’s lowbrow Unforgiven. At any rate, Scorsese’s decision seemsto have
been for naught: The Age of Innocence wasn’t even nominated
for Best Picture or Best Director awards, and Michelle

Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis were overlooked in the
Best Actress and Best Actor categories. (Though Day-Lewis did pick
up a nomination for his decidedly more compelling work in In
the Name of the Father
.) Scorsese did earn a nomination for
Best Screenplay Adaptation, but up against Schindler, he
doesn’t stand a chance. As it now stands, Winona Ryder, nominated
for Best Supporting Actress, stands the best chance of representing The Age of Innocence on Oscar’s stage.

Among the rest of the nominations, there were a few
pleasant surprises. One has to be delighted by the recognition given
to The Piano, which picked up eight nominations, and seems
a likely winner for both Holly Hunter’s riveting performance and
director Jane Campion’s inventive original screenplay. Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father is another film that deserves every
nomination it got, finding a powerful, personal story in the heart
of the troubles between England and Ireland. And the lone nomination
for Short Cuts, to Robert Altman for Best Director, is proof
that at least Hollywood’s directors appreciate the work of this
brilliant maverick; it’s almost enough to balance the ridiculous
seven nominations (including a Best Picture nod) given to the entertaining
but vapid The Fugitive.

Finally, while Schindler seems a sure bet to win the
lion’s share of Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay
Adaptation, here are my predictions for the other major categories:

Best Actor: Tom Hanks, for daring to play a gay man
with AIDS in Philadelphia; Best Actress: Holly Hunter, for
daring to play a mute woman in The Piano; Best Supporting
Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, for upstaging Harrison Ford in The Fugitive;
Best Supporting Actress: Winona Ryder, for adding a little life
to the otherwise lifeless Age of Innocence; and Best Original
Screenplay: Jane Campion, her consolation prize for The Piano,
since she’ll lose the Best Director award to Spielberg. MM

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