by Roger Ebert (3/95)

Permit me a moment of fantasy. It is the night of Monday, March 27, and the award for "best actor" is announced on the Academy Awards telecast. Tom Hanks walks onto the stage to accept it.

This is a fantasy, because I do not expect Hanks to win this award this year. I think the winner will be Paul Newman. But permit me the fantasy anyway, because if Hanks wins, it will provide such a rich and humorous footnote to "Forrest Gump."

In the movie, you will recall, Forrest had a knack for turning up at all the key moments in recent American history. He visited the White House during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. He was named an All American in football, won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, addressed a peace rally, invented the smiley-face, and taught Elvis Presley how to shake it. Is it not inevitable, and only natural, that he should win the Oscar?

Hanks, whose acceptance speech last year was distinguished in about equal measure by its eloquence and its incomprehensibility, could do worse than to accept this year's award in character, as Forrest Gump. I can see him now, clutching the golden statue and saying, "Well, first of all, I'd like to thank my Momma, who always said ..."

Smile. It would be a great moment in showbiz history, and the acceptance speech should, of course, be added to the end titles of the video release of "Forrest Gump."

But it will not happen that way. Hanks would be the obvious favorite to win as best actor this year if he had not won just last year for "Philadelphia." No actor has repeated back-to-back since Spencer Tracy did it in the late 1930s, and this year, I predict, the voters will consider that Hanks has been honored recently enough.

They will award the Oscar to Paul Newman, who is a great actor with a good role (in "Nobody's Fool") and is universally beloved and respected. It helps that the role is such a compelling one, so simple and yet so deep, the story of a hard-drinking man who still has a lot of growing up to do, and does it, inspired by a son he never really knew and a grandson he grows to love.

"Forrest Gump" will lead the Oscar sweepstakes overall, I believe, beginning with Best Picture and continuing on through eight other categories. It was the year's top- grossing live-action feature and, more importantly, it became a national phenomenon. Audiences went to see it more than once, identifying with its simpleminded but not simple hero, who somehow stumbled, as we all have, through several key decades in America's triumph and trauma.

The other leading contender for Best Picture is "Pulp Fiction," which was not the year's most popular film but was certainly its most celebrated, introducing in director Quentin Tarantino an overnight directorial star whose influence can already be felt on several other movies. If the Oscar establishment embraces "Gump," its younger fringe will champion "Pulp," and I think that will be reflected in the directing category, which Tarantino will win.

The hardest category to predict this year is Best Actress. I look at the list of nominees: Jodie Foster for "Nell," Jessica Lange for "Blue Sky," Miranda Richardson for "Tom and Viv," Winona Ryder for "Little Women" and Susan Sarandon for "The Client." Hmmm. Two names can probably be eliminated: Richardson, because the film has not been widely seen, and Sarandon, a great actress who has done better work in better movies. That leaves Foster, Ryder and Lange. Foster has won twice. That's enough for now.

That leaves Ryder and Lange, Ryder the plucky Jo in the classy "Little Women," Lange the Army wife who lives on the edge of madness in "Blue Sky." Ryder is wonderful, but young. Lange, an Oscar favorite, benefits from the rags-to- riches story of her film, which sat on the shelf for three years after being caught in the Orion Pictures bankruptcy. Lange will be the winner.

The Best Supporting Actor category is easier to predict. Everyone seems to think Martin Landau will win for his virtuoso performance as the aging horror star Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood." I think so, too. The movie itself was so-so at the box office, maybe because the public is wary of movies about movies. But it was widely seen in Hollywood, where everyone could identify with its hero, a man who was in love with the bad movies he made. And Landau brought much more to the Lugosi role than we might have expected: more depth, more humor, and a convincing humanity, lurking there under the Gothic facade.

Best Supporting Actress is another tricky category to predict. Let's say Jennifer Tilly and Dianne Wiest, both nominated for the same movie, split the "Bullets Over Broadway" ballot. Rosemary Harris was splendid as Vivienne Eliot's mother in "Tom and Viv," but (again) did they see the film? Helen Mirren was plucky and loyal as the king's long-suffering wife in "The Madness of King George," but it was not a showboat role. I think the Oscar will go to Uma Thurman, who goes on a date from hell with John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction."

"Pulp Fiction" will also win in the Best Original Screenplay category, for co-writers Tarantino and Roger Avary. Theirs was without any doubt the most talked-about and influential screenplay of the year, placing attention once again on wit and irony in dialogue, after years of formula speeches in movies top-heavy in action. The fact that "Pulp Fiction" was, in part, an action film pointed up even more the possibilities for smart, original writing. The possible dark horses in the category are Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, for "Red," a film the voters valued highly even though it was ruled ineligible in the foreign language category. (Kieslowski is the dark horse in the directing category for the same reason, but in both cases I think the nomination will be his reward.)

For Best Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, I'm guessing that the winner will be Eric Roth, for "Forrest Gump." His win will be part of the Gump sweep in secondary categories. The possible dark horse here is Frank Darabont, writer-director of "The Shawshank Redemption," whose movie started slow but impresses everyone who sees it, and is still building an audience months after its release.

The Best Foreign Film category is always a hard one to predict, and strange choices are made in many years. This year I have seen three of the nominees and admired them all very much; the best is "Before the Rain," a Macedonian film about the region's endless ethnic hatreds. But the Oscar may go to the most popular film in the category, "Eat Drink Man Woman," the fond film from Taiwan about an old chef and his three sprightly daughters.

Now we come to the touchy category of Best Documentary, where (as you may have heard), the academy's nominating committee brought down a storm of scorn upon its shoulders by bypassing an obvious nominee, "Hoop Dreams." I have seen all five of the films that were nominated in the category, but the problem is, few of the academy's voters will have seen ANY of them. The best of the five is "Maya Lin," a wonderful documentary by Freida Lee Mock, about the young Asian-American architect who designed the Vietnam War Memorial. It deserves to win. But will the voters select on the basis of subject matter and go for D-Day, or civil rights? I'll predict "Maya Lin."

The mention of "Hoop Dreams" brings me to the category of Best Editing. This year the category takes on a special interest because "Hoop Dreams" got its only nomination here, and after the firestorm of protest, it's possible that the academy will vote it a sort of consolation prize. The other nominees are all well-edited ("Forrest Gump," "Pulp Fiction," "The Shawshank Redemption," "Speed"), and although there will be a strong sentimental tug toward "Hoop Dreams," I predict the winner will be "Gump," again as part of its big night at the Oscars.

"Forrest Gump" will also win for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. The popular Best Song category will be won by "Circle of Life," from "The Lion King." Although "Gump" is one of the nominees for Best Art Direction, here is one category where it won't win, because of the amazing work done in "Interview With the Vampire." "Little Women" is a shoo-in for Best Costume Design. The Oscar for makeup will go to "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," for the uncanny job of turning Robert De Niro into the monster. Best Musical Score will go to Thomas Zimmer, for "The Lion King." And Sound and Sound Effects will both go to "Gump," giving it a grand total of nine Oscars.

This year's Oscarcast, emceed by David Letterman, originates from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. Eastern time, Monday, March 27 on ABC-TV.

COPYRIGHT 1995 THE EBERT CO. LTD., all rights reserved, cannot be reprinted without permission; Roger Ebert's reviews are available on CompuServe.

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