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Is Oscar Getting Deeper? Academy Just Might Prize Substance After All

One year does not a trend make. But if the list of Oscar nominees for 1996 is any indication, Hollywood may have developed a split personality.

Which plays out this way: While continuing to market movies that make money, Hollywood also is willing to reward movies that offer more than just Adam Sandler beating up (and getting beaten up by) Bob Barker.

In announcing its nominations on Tuesday, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences consistently opted for substance over style, largely ignoring big-budget studio efforts over smaller, independent-minded efforts.

The standard news about this year’s nominations involved stately “The English Patient” and its 12 nominations, “Jerry Maguire” being the only studio-made film among the five Best Picture nominees, the little-seen Australian film “Shine” tying the Coen brothers creation “Fargo” with seven nominations, and Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and Billy Bob Thornton (“Sling Blade”) earning Best Actor nods by playing characters that even Forrest Gump would recognize.

The news also includes snubs to the likes of Madonna, Courtney Love, Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet,” Debbie Reynolds, Cameron Crowe and more.

But, as always, there’s more to the Oscar nominating process than simply a qualitative listing. When you have winners and losers, the trick is in divining the difference.

The winners

“The English Patient”: Anthony Minghella’s sensitive adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel is 1996’s version of “Out of Africa.” It’s just the kind of throwback film - epic, romantic and tragic - that Hollywood loves to admire.

“Fargo”: Despite making a half-dozen intriguing films of varying quality, director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen have yet to win an Oscar. “Fargo,” featuring Oscar-nominated performances by the likes of Frances McDormand and William H. Macy, is their best chance to date.

“Shine”: Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign, which included sending out hundreds of video screeners to academy voters, this little Australian entry reached an audience that might otherwise have ignored it. Few outside Australia had heard of Shakespearean actor Geoffrey Rush before this, but now he is a genuine threat to take home acting gold.

Cuba Gooding Jr.: In “Jerry Maguire,” he implored Tom Cruise to “Show me the money!” After this, despite competing in one of the toughest categories of all, Best Supporting Actor nominee Gooding may just get shown all the money he can handle.

“Secrets and Lies”: British filmmaker Mike Leigh specializes in absorbing studies of life. And this film - which involves a working-class white woman (Best Actress nominee Brenda Blethyn) reuniting with the black daughter (Best Supporting Actress nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste) whom she gave up for adoption - is far and away his best.

“Jerry Maguire”: A triumph of form over substance, this celluloid-thin yet entertaining study of a man developing a conscience ended up being about the best that mainstream Hollywood could accomplish in 1996.

Billy Bob Thornton, Emily Watson: Balding, bearing a hayseed accent and a name straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel, Thornton pulled off one of the most affecting performances of the year in a film that he also wrote and directed. Best Actress nominee Watson emerged from Cannes Grand Prix winner “Breaking the Waves” as that film’s lone representative.

The losers

William Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh adapted the screenplay, directed the action and performed wonderfully well as the title character in a brilliant, four-hour version of “Hamlet.” Baz Luhrman directed a stirring version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Between them, they earned a measly five nominations.

John Sayles: America’s greatest unsung filmmaker directs what may be his greatest work (“Lone Star”) and is rewarded with a single nomination - for Best Original Screenplay.

Madonna (“Evita”), Courtney Love (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”), Debbie Reynolds (“Mother”), Denzel Washington (“Courage Under Fire”): Better luck next year.

“Courage Under Fire”: Great reviews early in the year seldom pan out. Oscar has a short memory.

Meryl Streep: The meatier role in “Marvin’s Room” went to Diane Keaton. Same for the Best Actress nomination.

“The People vs. Larry Flynt”: Director Milos Forman is nominated as Best Director, but the film he directed is not.

Alan Parker, Cameron Crowe: Parker’s “Evita” earned traditional filmmaker nominations (editing, cinematography, art direction) but missed out on the glamour nods. Crowe, on the other hand, wrote Best Picture nominee “Jerry Maguire” but apparently let the film direct itself.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Academy Award Nominees


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