The battle of the Oscars an astonishing 21 years ago might tell us just how much the awards race has changed. I mean, heading into the race it looked like three of the favorites to land Best Picture nominations were also displaying extremely strong Best Actress contenders. Two would make it come nominations morning. A dark comedy, social drama, slickly written, with Frances McDormand. And the other, an honest, moving, audience-alluring mother-daughter drama. The Best Actress race would also, for once, be a Meryl Streep ‘will she — won’t she?’ affair, rather than a formality. A very popular actress would miss out on an acting nomination for a film called Mother. In fact, only two Americans made the Actress list in the end. Sounds familiar actually.
Woody Harrelson would also eventually be nominated. Though his film would be the subject of some negative media coverage. Kenneth Branagh would appear in one of the year’s very best films. As would Willem Dafoe, in a much fancied film. Female singers would also be talked about in high esteem for their acting. Daniel Day-Lewis shines in costume-heavy picture. Hans Zimmer scores a nomination. As does Diane Warren for Original Song. And Roger Deakins turns up in the Best Cinematography category too. There’s a piano-tinkerer portrayed by an acting breakthrough, recognized by the Academy in the Best Actor category. But, in the end, the big winner would be an English picture set during World War II.
The English Patient would steamroll its way through the 69th Academy Awards on the night, taking all 7 of the first categories it was nominated in. Incredible. Duly noted, as Andrew Lloyd Webber quipped “Thank God The English Patient didn’t have a song”. He and Tim Rice had just won Best Original Song for Evita with “You Must Love Me”. It was Billy Bob Thornton who broke The English Patient‘s streak. A surprising, but extremely popular win, beating Anthony Minghella’s extraordinary writing, for Adapted Screenplay with Sling Blade. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas would also lose next. But that was it. Best Director and Best Picture were a certainty. Nine Academy Awards for The English Patient, equalling the record by Gigi (1958) and The Last Emperor (1987).
This was not the easy ride the Oscar success implied. Producer Saul Zaentz, director Anthony Minghella, and much of the cast deferred payments earned because of such financial difficulties. The production was actually forced into a temporary halt – in real danger of being shut down. Early in shooting, Minghella had tripped, breaking his ankle, and had to direct the rest of the picture on crutches and leg in a plaster cast. Before 20th Century Fox bailed, they were not quiet about their doubts over whether Anthony Minghella could make such a grand film. They also pushed for Kristin Scott Thomas to be replaced by Demi Moore. Good gracious.
Once Miramax, and he-who-shall-not-be-named, arrived, as well as Sydney Pollack coming on board, The English Patient plowed through its limited budget to completion. And as awards season kicked into gear, the film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s “unfilmable” book was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Even with its slight early showing with the critics awards. Saul Zaentz, producer of Best Picture winners One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, was also going to receive the Irvin G. Thalberg award. Surely the inevitable was on the cards.
If you weren’t convinced then, and have not been since, then I implore you onto a long journey to 100 vital frames from The English Patient. With the help of Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, I have blissfully scoured the enduring movie for some of the greatest moments of the film. This project took me days and days to complete. Be patient, and prepare to be illuminated.