Twenty years ago, Hollywood was riding high. Box-office sales had been increasing throughout the 1990s, and the Oscars tended to reward glossy, well-crafted dramas that were also popular hits. Think “Dances With Wolves,” “Schindler’s List” and “Forrest Gump.” That decade also saw the rise of independent cinema, although such now-classics of the genre as “Slacker” (1991), “Clerks” (1994) and “The Brothers McMullen” (1995) didn’t make it to the Oscars.
So how did the 69th Academy Awards, in 1997, shape up? Most of the movies in contention remain instantly identifiable today. The best picture category included one of the Coen brothers’ best-known films, “Fargo,” alongside one of Cameron Crowe’s biggest successes, “Jerry Maguire.” The biopic “Shine” was also in the running and would earn Geoffrey Rush an Oscar as the brilliant but troubled pianist David Helfgott. Representing opposite ends of the decade’s cinematic spectrum were “The English Patient,” a sumptuous World War II romance, and Mike Leigh’s low-budget, real-world drama “Secrets & Lies.”
The acting awards went to a number of indelible performances. Frances McDormand won best actress for the amiable Minnesota cop Marge Gunderson in “Fargo.” Supporting actor went to Cuba Gooding Jr., as Rod Tidwell, the amped-up football player in “Jerry Maguire” whose catchphrase “Show me the money!” is still in widespread use. Juliette Binoche won supporting actress as the attentive nurse Hana in “The English Patient.” And although Billy Bob Thornton earned a nomination for playing the murderer Karl Childers in “Sling Blade,” he won for best adapted screenplay instead.
In the end, the year’s big winner was “The English Patient.” Anthony Minghella won best director — he would go on to make “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and others before his death in 2008 — and John Seale won for cinematography. In all, the film won nine awards, including best picture.