Best Picture, 1999

American Beauty


Any picture with top prizes from the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Writers Guild, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild should have nothing but smooth sailing heading into the Oscar race. True, Saving Private Ryan seemed like a runaway favorite until the last moment in 1998, but the writers and actors were never fully behind that picture. They are with Beauty, and for that reason, its producers should feel confident while writing their speeches.

If Miramax can convince people that this race is genuinely tight between Beauty and The Cider House Rules as they did last year, then we might have room for an upset. However, not only are people a little wiser to campaign politics than they were last year, but The Cider House Rules is finally not as close in quality to Beauty nor as wide in its appeal as Shakespeare in Love was last year. DreamWorks should be able to have their statuette.
The Cider House Rules

Seemingly destined for also-ran status as early as January, The Cider House Rules defied even the most hopeful prognostications by earning seven nominations. Academy voters like to feel that they are voting for socially constructive pictures, and there is particular pressure upon them to do so after anointing a romantic tragedy and a romantic comedy in the last two years. Cider House's quiet involvement with issues of race, incest, and abortion may lend the picture the desired blend of classical storytelling with "cutting-edge" themes. Many voters, particularly among younger demographics, seem savvy to the fact that The Cider House Rules is not actually about anything, or at least offers no firm statements about the "issues" it pretends to raise. Film may split the convention/sentiment vote with The Green Mile and still has not become a Zeitgeist fixture or box-office success on the level of American Beauty or The Sixth Sense.
The Green Mile

An early favorite that steadily built its audience after a mid-level opening gross to become a $100-grosser. Voters who feel they goofed by honoring Forrest Gump over The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 may be tempted to redress that mistake by voting for the latest Frank Darabont-directed, Stephen King-written prison fable. This film happens not to be The Shawshank Redemption and has not garnered anything like the earlier film's widespread appeal (which is inexplicable to me, in any case). Besides the ominous neglect of Darabont in the Best Director race, The Green Mile did not earn as much as The Sixth Sense, did not achieve the word of mouth of American Beauty, and does not have the social earnestness of The Insider. Even its combination of warmth and melancholy is matched by The Cider House Rules, so in reference to any of the other four films, a vote for this one seems like a compromise.
The Insider

A topical picture that, alone among the nominees, casts its concentration on a crucial public issue and goes after it with all pistons firing. The Insider underperformed at the box office, or at least it did if you're one of these strange people who thought it could actually be a blockbuster (??), but the Academy occasionally overlooks commercial disappointment when nobility and justice are being honored (see Gandhi). Though The Hurricane bowed in time to bear the brunt of the anti-Hollywood crusades of firm historicists, The Insider has nonetheless been hit with more than a few charges of shuffling too many facts for its own purposes. Moreover, Disney, which showed remarkable chutzpah in producing the film, has shown more typical trepidation in campaigning for it, so early momentum has essentially ground to a halt.
The Sixth Sense

Not since Forrest Gump has a studio's summer release so absolutely defied even the most optimistic projections for its box-office potential or cultural appeal. Already the film feels like a benchmark in the history of its genre, and it may not date quite so quickly as the overtly topical The Insider or the less conspicuous but no less timely themes of American Beauty and The Cider House Rules. Twists and goosebumps aside, is The Sixth Sense really more than a proficient and ghostly quiet popcorn picture? Who knows, maybe it is, but to many people the six nominations on the film's behalf seem like reward enough, if not outright extravagant, for a summer entertainment. Older or scare-shy voters may prefer to look at cute orphans and photogenic garbage bags than to see dead people.

WHO WILL WIN: I still say that if any film takes this prize from American Beauty, we will have to call it an upset. That said, I won't be shocked to see any film but the seemingly (and thankfully) defunct Green Mile make it to the podium.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Every other race in the 1990s has included at least one picture which I thought represented a genuine step forward in filmmaking, or at least filled me with the excitement of regarding a smart, engaging, expertly crafted object. This race lacks that kind of contender, so I'm tempted to say that none of the nominees deserve the award, but American Beauty far exceeds the accomplishments of its four rivals and at least suggests in its best scenes what a new kind of Hollywood domestic comedy-drama might look like.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Eyes Wide Shut has been without Oscar buzz virtually since it watched its grosses tumble in its second week of release last July. Two other pictures I admire very much, Bringing Out the Dead and Man on the Moon, never had much buzz to begin with. So, in the interest of appealing to some scenario that might actually have transpired, I would very much have loved to see either Boys Don't Cry, Magnolia, or Being John Malkovich ushered into the final round of contenders. All of them, despite their flaws, offered such powerful and visually enticing examinations of the ways people live or try to live some alternate version of who they really are, which is what going to the movies is said to be all about in the first place.

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