Cover Story

Oscar Preview: Statuette of Limitations

Sometimes Oscar politics make it an honor just to be dominated

This year's nominations spawned the usual outrages: Director Andrew Davis' The Fugitive received a Best Picture nod, but Davis himself was slighted; Robert Altman got on the director's slate, but his Short Cuts was shut out of every other contest. Yet public disses can be soothed by critical balm. It's behind the scenes, among the Academy's rule makers and rump movements, where members fight the most bitter battles-lobbying for rule changes, settling for second best, or seizing a shift in voter tastes to win recognition. Below, dispatches from the awards front.

Beauties vs. Beasts Always bet on latex — it beats a light dusting of Max Factor nearly every time. That's been the rule since 1981, when the Academy finally began handing out Oscars for Best Achievement in Makeup-makeup artists who prefer subtlety are usually smothered by those who opt for showmanship. This year's race is no different. Schindler's List displays painstaking period makeup, and Philadelphia uses makeup and wigs to simulate a degenerative illness. But the heavy favorite is Mrs. Doubtfire, featuring Robin Williams' plastic-fantastic nanny. Says two-time winner Michele Burke, ''A no-makeup look can be amazing, but you're not meant to notice it.'' And voters usually don't. Burke herself won for the latex-laden Quest for Fire and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Multinationals Welcome
This year, in their umpteenth rematch, international politics clashed with Academy politics in the foreign-film category. In '93 the Academy was embarrassed when it had to rescind a nomination after learning that an Argentine director had gotten Uruguay to submit his film. This year the acclaimed Blue — shot in France with a French cast by top Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski — failed to benefit from new Academy guidelines seemingly tailor-made for it: Only three out of four of a film's key creators must be from the sponsoring country. France didn't care; it submitted Germinal instead — but didn't make its usual berth in the final five. Who did? Three Asian hybrids that gained from the guidelines: Vietnam's The Scent of Green Papaya, which was shot in France; Hong Kong's Farewell My Concubine, by China's Chen Kaige; and Taiwan's The Wedding Banquet, which filmed in New York.

Long Live Shorts!
In November 1992 the Academy announced that the year's live-action short and short documentary nominees would be its last. Alarmed, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, and Robert Redford, among others, fired back a letter urging ''the Board of Governors...to continue awarding Oscars to this vital cinematic form.'' At their next meeting, the 36 governors put their shorts back on, pending an official study, which later supported their claim that shorts are more often found on TV than at the multiplex. Still they voted unanimously this January to continue the short-form awards. The death threat may have heightened public interest. ''A lot more people want to see the films that are nominated. Before they ignored them,'' says Sundance Film Festival's John Cooper. ''It's probably the best thing that ever happened to shorts.'' — RS

Originally posted Mar 18, 1994 Published in issue #214 Mar 18, 1994 Order article reprints