Unlike almost all athletic contests, where objective winners can easily be determined, artistic contests are won, and lost, subjectively. Never a year passes but that every movie fan utters an internal "we wuz robbed" when some favorite movie or performer or technical wizard is passed over for an inferior choice.
As I write this, in late January, all the significant film societies, local and national, have passed out their awards—invariably making people wonder if the film critics have seen the same movies that the people have seen. And down the road, in mid-April, come the Oscars, the big ones, to the popular imagination the only awards that really matter.
Contrary to anti-Hollywood myth, the Academy's taste is neither philistine nor arcane. Good, sometimes excellent, movies and performers win these awards. Only rarely, as in the near-complete shutout of Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple a few years back, does a popular movie fail to win at least one major award (except in the case of trash like Beverly Hills Cop II, whose box-office success validates critical disdain for box-office success).
Now comes the time for going out on limbs, recognizing that whatever I, or you, think should win Academy Awards may well have nothing much—if anything at all—to do with what the Academy thinks should win Academy Awards. Never mind; this critic business isn't for the faint of heart, so herewith I offer my choices for the top Oscars.
The best picture of the year 1987 is Empire of the Sun, which features a child-centered perspective on World War II. Steven Spielberg has brilliantly imagined a story closely based on the true adventures of a man who as a boy lived in Shanghai just before World War II and found himself interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp for four years. There he grew up, cast off his spoiled childish image of the world, and learned to survive, to cope with adversities, and to wriggle through the enemy's bureaucracy, as he eluded the despair of many of his countrymen. It is a gorgeously photographed and thoughtfully conceived film and is in many parts unforgettable.
Other potential winners include Hope and Glory, The Last Emperor, Broadcast News, Ironweed, The Dead, and My Life As a Dog, the latter a foreign film that for the Academy's usual bizarre reasons isn't eligible for the best foreign-language film but is eligible for any other awards.
Best actor: This is a category ripe with worthy nominees and Oscar winners. My choice is the star of Empire of the Sun, a 13-year-old British boy, Christian Bale, whose selection would be unusual. His is more than just a touching child performance, it is a knock-out. The kid looks as innocent as the choir boy he portrays early on in the movie; he must grow four years during the course of the film and transform our image of him from detached amusement to involved concern. This is a remarkable achievement for a youngster, and Bale succeeds gloriously.
Other possible best actor Oscar winners include Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, Michael Douglas in Wall Street, Steve Martin in Roxanne, Bob Hoskins in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Gary Oldman in Prick Up Your Ears, and Kevin Costner in No Way Out. My sentiment leads me to Christian Bale, in any case, but then I'm a pretty soft touch for kids, though Hollywood usually finesses this kind of situation. My choice is definitely a long-shot.
Best actress: Holly Hunter, of Broadcast News, doesn't quite dominate the movie, but she is unquestionably the most compelling ingredient in it. She came before us in the weirdly charming Raising Arizona early in 1987, bouncing around so energetically that few people really focused on her face. She then leapt into everybody's awareness with the new film, a smooth, largely plausible story of television "journalism" and of three people, two men and a woman, who make their way through that particular maze.
The intensity of Hunter's performance is balanced by a quirky quality that makes her character, the hard-driven and hard-driving TV news producer, at once captivating and somewhat off-putting. This isn't the kind of woman who makes life easy for anybody, or for herself, but she gives a compact center to the story and is never tiresome to watch and consider.
Other possible Oscar winners in this category include Christine Lahti of Housekeeping, Lillian Gish or Bette Davis in The Whales of August, Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Meryl Streep in Ironweed, and Anjelica Houston in her father's last film, The Dead. All splendid, though I lean to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.
Just what makes a best supporting actor or actress nominee is often puzzling. If, for example, Spielberg could maneuver young Christian Bale into the best supporting category, which would be a lie, the kid would win. That would be stretching the rules by which Oscar plays, since the boy is clearly Empire of the Sun's star, so somebody else is going to take the best supporting Oscar. I think he should be Lee Ermey, who plays the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket. Ermey was a drill sergeant in the Marines, and so some might discount his performance as less acting than reincarnating his own reality. But playing yourself is harder than it seems in the abstract, and this chillingly intense performance is not a mere rehash of the actor's previous job description; it is first-rate acting, and it gives Stanley Kubrick's movie about Marine training and Marines in battle in Vietnam a grit and necessary ugliness that leaves viewers—at least it left me—breathless. Ermey's is the performance that won't leave my mind.
In the best supporting actress category, the pickings are slimmer, in part, happily, because so many of the most admirable women's performances in 1987 were in the starring category. Still, one does stand out: Kathy Baker's, as a working girl in Street Smart. This is the movie that stars Christopher Reeve, minus his Superman suit, as a TV journalist in over his ears. But the movie's real power is in two supporting performances—Morgan Freeman as a dangerous pimp and criminal and Kathy Baker, in a role that is usually a cliché but in her hands takes on a new freshness. It is, in fact, a haunting performance.
Who knows what Oscar will do in April? If I were the Academy, you would know, now, who the winners will be. And if cabbages were kings…
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is film critic for Boston's WBZ Radio, the Tab chain of newspapers, and the Around Town Cable TV Network.