"Beauty" pageant

Oscar nominations for suburban satire and Denzel Washington; "Mr. Ripley" and Jim Carrey snubbed.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 16, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

So what will Jim Carrey's I'm-mugging-to-hide-the-pain speech be like at this year's Academy Awards ceremony? Carrey was clearly the biggest loser when the official Oscar nominations were unveiled on Tuesday morning. Several other big names were crossed off the dance card, including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks and Ralph Fiennes.

David O. Russell's fine "Three Kings" was completely shut out and several other high-end films -- "The End of the Affair," "Magnolia," "Topsy-Turvy" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" -- were severely dissed. But the biggest industry story of the day is clearly Jim, spurned again.

Judging by the Oscar nominations, 1999 looks a little less like a groundbreaking year in the history of American film and little more, well, ordinary. Two of this year's best picture nominees are huge hits that dabble in the supernatural ("The Green Mile" and "The Sixth Sense"), two are critics' darlings that did mediocre business in the heartland ("American Beauty" and "The Insider") and the fifth is a family oriented heartwarmer that falls somewhere in between ("The Cider House Rules"). That's a pretty typical ratio for the Academy, which can always be trusted to veer to the right at the last moment.

Personally, though, I'm delighted to see "American Beauty" at the top of the list with eight nominations. While I don't think it's a perfect movie by any stretch, it's nonetheless a daring, ambitious and often breathtaking work of art. If it wins, it'll be -- in my humble opinion -- the most original American film to cop the best picture Oscar since "Midnight Cowboy" 30 years ago. (If you want a place bet, though, consider "The Sixth Sense" -- big money and a child star are a hypnotic combination for Academy voters.)

As a confirmed Carrey fan -- albeit one who's somewhat ambivalent about his turn toward capital-A Acting -- I bought into the conventional wisdom that his performance as the late comedian Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon" made him a favorite for the best actor statuette he has long coveted. But the mixed reviews and stinkola box office "Man on the Moon" encountered seem to have doomed Carrey's Oscar bid after missing with "The Truman Show" in 1998.

This shouldn't be too surprising; the Academy's members are, after all, human beings (well, mostly) and as such are as vulnerable to buzz and hype as the rest of us. Anyway, you can expect to see two things this year: plenty of cheesy E! network stories about "Jim's Oscar Curse"; and Denzel Washington standing on the dais of the Shrine Auditorium next month with that little guy in his hand.

Why Washington? Well, his performance as wrongfully imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter in Norman Jewison's "The Hurricane" really is magnificent, even if the movie is a dismaying mishmash (its inaccuracies are the least of its problems, in my view). Secondly, and more cynically, actors in social-message movies always have a leg up on the competition at awards time, and only one black man has ever hoisted best actor honors (Sidney Poitier, for his I-like-nuns role in 1963's treacly "Lilies of the Field").

You might argue that serious consideration is due Russell Crowe (for "The Insider") and Kevin Spacey (for "American Beauty") -- and in fact Crowe would get my vote -- but I'm betting the Academy's voters will feel that Washington's hour has arrived, while the other two are still paying dues. Richard Farnsworth ("The Straight Story") and Sean Penn ("Sweet and Lowdown") are prestige nominees, strictly along for the ride, although the latter nomination, coupled with Samantha Morton's best supporting actress nod, suggests that the Academy still carries a torch for Woody Allen, well into the Soon-Yi era.

On the distaff side, industry gossips are virtually awarding the best actress figurine to Hilary Swank for her remarkable performance as a doomed cross-dresser in "Boys Don't Cry." Pretty much the same reasoning applies as in Washington's case, with the added bonus that Swank is a heterosexual playing a gender-bent character (always a mark of Hollywood virtue). Of course Meryl Streep has been nominated for about the 55th time (for the unwatchable "Music of the Heart"), and Annette Bening could certainly win as part of an "American Beauty" sweep. But Swank's biggest threat is probably Janet McTeer for her much-celebrated role in "Tumbleweeds," which received no other nominations.

The best supporting actor award should just be mailed to Tom Cruise's house right now -- it's a fine example of a star playing a small part in a low-budget film, and it's a way for the Academy to honor P.T. Anderson's baffling "Magnolia." Best supporting actress is completely up for grabs: Angelina Jolie ("Girl, Interrupted"), Catherine Keener ("Being John Malkovich") and Chlok Sevigny ("Boys Don't Cry") are all at precisely the right moment in their respective careers.

As usual, the best director award will act as a sort of leading edge for the best picture competition, and at least one of the best screenplay awards will go to something slightly unexpected -- possibly "Election" or "Being John Malkovich." Perhaps the Hollywood establishment isn't warmly embracing a new generation of films and filmmakers this year. But it sure ain't giving Jim Carrey any love either.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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