Oscar normally doesn’t stir until after Labor Day. But 1993 has seen a surprisingly strong slate of award contenders: Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Gene Hackman and Holly Hunter in The Firm, and John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire. Now, the real games begin: Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence kicks off the Best Picture race, with Michelle Pfeiffer a strong Best Actress candidate and comic scene-stealer Miriam Margolyes contending for a Supporting Actress slot. Men playing gay characters have often been smiled upon at nomination time (William Hurt even won for 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman), so the odds look good for M. Butterfly‘s John Lone and Jeremy Irons, who have the advantage of showy roles in a sexual-obsession melodrama. Gary Oldman, whose nomination is overdue, is a long-shot Best Supporting Actor nominee as the dreadlocked pimp in True Romance. And in a not-great year for women’s roles, don’t count out the strong ensemble of The Joy Luck Club.
Short Cuts, the opening-night selection at the New York Film Festival, is guaranteed to be a critics’ darling — and since last year’s The Player was rudely done out of a Best Picture nomination, the Academy may take care not to snub Robert Altman twice. The film’s 22 actors might have a hard time getting noticed — they’re all in supporting roles — but keep an eye out for perennial Academy favorite Jack Lemmon, who has the advantage of a built-for-Oscar monologue. Early reports also give high marks to Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez as plane-crash survivors in director Peter Weir’s Fearless, Robert De Niro directing himself as a bus driver in A Bronx Tale, and Debra Winger as a slow-witted woman spurned by her community in A Dangerous Woman, looking unglamorous in a way that Oscar loves.
In Oscar terms, there’s no business like showy business, which means that the more elaborate the sets and costumes, the better the chances for recognition. Exhibit A: James Ivory’s sumptuous Howards End — nine 1992 nominations. Keep an eye out for recent Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Ivory’s latest, The Remains of the Day. Oscar also loves a showy handicap (Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot), so this year’s Best Actress front-runner might be Holly Hunter, who plays a mute woman in Jane Campion’s The Piano. And don’t be surprised if Campion becomes only the second woman (following Lina Wertmuller) to be nominated for Best Director. Others to watch: Pacino as a career criminal in Carlito’s Way, Danny Glover as a homeless vet in The Saint of Fort Washington, and Robin Williams (who’s owed for Aladdin) as a Tootsie of a nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire.
Now it gets tough: Take the serious subjects — the Holocaust, AIDS, Vietnam — and the directors behind Schindler’s List, Philadelphia, and Heaven and Earth, add The Piano, Short Cuts, M. Butterfly, Six Degrees of Separation, The Age of Innocence, Much Ado About Nothing, and The House of the Spirits, and you have 10 films vying for five Oscar slots. Then there are the actors: December alone brings Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia, Schindler‘s Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, Tommy Lee Jones in Heaven and Earth, Robert Duvall in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, and In the Name of the Father‘s Daniel Day-Lewis. What will separate the insiders from the also-rans? Look for dazzling transformations (wigs, latex, weight loss), showboating scenes, and authentic-sounding accents. Of course, a great performance never hurts either.