All to play for in the Oscars


Three movies can be expected to lead the field when the nominations for the 74th Academy Awards are announced in Los Angeles next Tuesday at 5.30 a.m. (1.30 p.m. in Ireland). Michael Dwyer on Irish hopes, the big players and studio battles

 Last year's winner, Russell Crowe is back, playing the schizophrenic mathematician and Nobel Prize winner, John Forbes Nash Jr, in A Beautiful Mind, directed by former child star Ron Howard. A hugely ambitious undertaking which will be admired by the Academy electorate, Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in his trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings, has been a high-profile box-office hit all over the world. And the movie musical, once a staple of the Oscars, is back with style and exuberance in Baz Luhrmann's magical Moulin Rouge.

The news is not so good for the Irish. Our only likely contender for an acting Oscar nomination is veteran Fionnula Flanagan as best supporting actress for The Others, but despite the acclaim her performance has generated, the Oscar publicity campaign for that film revolves alomst entirely around its star, Nicole Kidman.

Enya, however, looks certain of a nomination for best film song, May It Be, which she wrote with Nicky and Roma Ryan and which she performs on the The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. Another Irish contender, Patrick Cassidy, has a prospect of a nomination in the same category, for his original aria, Vide Cor Meum, from Hannibal. The other front-runners for film song are Paul McCartney (Vanilla Sky), Faith Hill (There You'll Be from Pearl Harbor) and the recent Golden Globe winner, Sting (Until from Kate & Leopold).

Three Irish short films have made the pre-nominations shortlists - Johnny O'Reilly's The Terms is among the 10 in the running for best live action short, while Cathal Gaffney's Give Up Yer Auld Sins and Ruairi Robinson's Fifty Per Cent Gray are both in the last 10 for best animated short film.

Even by the standards of some unpredictable recent years, this is widely regarded as the most open Oscar race in many a year, with no sure-shot such as Schindler's List or Titanic poised to sweep the statuettes. Consequently, the US distributors have been spending unprecedented sums in promoting the prospects of their pictures - much to the delight of the Hollywood trade papers which have seen a huge upsurge in pre-Oscars advertising, emblazoned with the traditional euphemism, "For Your Consideration". To the chagrin of the smaller companies, the high- powered distributors have been spending up to $10 million just to secure nominations for individual films; the expensive race for the awards themselves gets under way with a vengeance next Tuesday afternoon when the field is narrowed to five nominees in each of the major categories.

"Running a campaign against some of these guys is very, very difficult," comments Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate Films, which is promoting the low-budget Monster's Ball. "Miramax spends a fortune. And the people over at DreamWorks run a campaign like they've got a candidate in the New Hampshire primary." Miramax's obsessive campaigns for Oscars have returned best picture nominations in each of the past 10 years, and the rivalry with DreamWorks dates back three years, when Miramax's Shakespeare in Love sneaked past the DreamWorks production, Saving Private Ryan, to win best picture. DreamWorks took revenge by winning best picture at the last two Oscar ceremonies, for American Beauty and Gladiator.

This year DreamWorks is spending millions on pushing the animation comedy, Shrek, in all major categories, including best picture, while Miramax is backing Iris, The Others, In the Bedroom, Bridget Jones's Diary and the French hit, Amélie. The efforts of both companies have already paid off in the nominations for the BAFTA awards in Britain, where Shrek scored six nominations, including best picture and even best supporting actor for Eddie Murphy (who is heard, but not seen in the movie), and the five best actress nominees were all from movies distributed by Miramax in the US.

Michael Dwyer's review of Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards by Emanuel Levy appears on Weekend 11