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Oscar Nominations: Very Little There

In 1995, America and Oscar generally agreed on the movies that deserved recognition. "Apollo 13," "Babe," "Braveheart," "Il Postino," and "Sense and Sensibility" all were box-office hits, all had uplifting and traditional values-friendly messages, and all were nominated for best-picture, with Mel Gibson's stirring "Braveheart" snaring the statue. By contrast, early '90s best-picture winners like "Dances with Wolves," "The Silence of the Lambs, " and "Unforgiven" proffered downbeat efforts denouncing America's treatment of the Indians, glorifying sadomasochism and depicting the worst in depressing Western fare.

The list of 1996 Oscar nominations was announced on February 11, and indicates how very little Hollywood had to offer last year. Perhaps it's a reflection of the mediocre nature of the best-picture nominees that most were short on populist appeal; and perhaps there's a correlation between the lack of populist appeal and the dearth of positive messages in these films. With the exception of "Secrets and Lies," about a woman who seeks out and becomes reacquainted with the child given up for adoption many years ago, the films nominated as best-pictures - "Jerry Maguire," "Shine," "Fargo," and "The English Patient" - fail to match their predecessors in the inspiration department.

Tom Cruise's title character in "Jerry Maguire" is a ruthless and self-centered sports agent at the beginning of the movie, and though he doesn't exactly experience a road-to-Damascus transformation, he does become ethical and family-oriented at movie's end. It's definitely not for children - there's a lot of cursing and a fairly explicit premarital sex scene - but adults can enjoy his redemptive journey. It's a love story, and that's about that.

"Shine," though much more offbeat than "Jerry Maguire," is also about a man transformed, first for the worse, then for the better. Pianist David Helfgott is driven to mental illness by both internal factors and his father's bullying, but after meeting the woman he will eventually marry, he returns triumphantly to his music. As portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, Helfgott isn't quite normal - at times, he jabbers in a language partly of his own making - but he's clearly a good-hearted fellow, and that's about that, too.

"Fargo" is problematic. Most of its primary characters are despicable, and it's remarkably, stomach-turningly bloody - aspects which will alienate many, and rightly so. But it's no "Pulp Fiction," which dealt with violence so coolly and so gratuitously and so distantly that when a man has his brains splattered all over the inside of a car, the audience laughed. That the gore in "Fargo" isn't cheap or titillating is attributable mostly to the presence of its main character, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the very pregnant sheriff who brings the murderers to justice. The juxtaposition of the carnage and depravity surrounding the woman with the precious new life within her makes the film vividly human instead of gratuitously shocking.

The final best-picture nominee (and the overall nomination leader, with twelve) is "The English Patient," which is thought to be the front-runner. For all its technical excellence - the photography is brilliant, and Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas deserve the acclaim they've received for their performances as the central, adulterous couple - "Patient" is morally empty. It exalts "romance" at the expense of values such as commitment to one's spouse and loyalty to one's country. That the real Count Almasy was more sympathetic to the Nazis than he's depicted as being in the movie is interesting: Were the movie true to history would the plot have worked?

As always, what wasn't chosen is a story as well. Happily, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" was left out of the best-picture category, meaning that the egregious Oliver Stone, one of its producers, will have no chance to give a wacky acceptance speech. (But if you're who likes nonsense at the Oscars, there's hope: Its star, Woody Harrelson, was nominated for playing the title character, so watch for him to sport the same hemp tuxedo wore at the Golden Globes.) Shut out as well in the major categories were "The Birdcage," a mildly amusing commercial success that, unable or unwilling to clash with conservatives on the issues, opted to smear them instead, and "Evita," which stars the ever obnoxious Madonna.

Indeed, 1996 was a year for some particularly awful movies, proving that Hollywood's temptation to insult the senses has not been reduced. "Striptease," the Demi Moore smutfest, and "Michael," featuring John Travolta as a sexually promiscuous angel (yes, you read that correctly) stand out. A favorite of mine from '96 was Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!," nominated only for best song. This small, wholesome picture is far more entertaining than the grandiose "The English Patient," proving, I suppose, that it'll be a cold day on Sunset Boulevard when the Academy thinks the way I do.