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The Oscars: focusing on real human beings

February 26, 1981



Real people, if not ordinary ones, have swept this year's Oscar nominations. In real life, "The Elephant Man" was John Merrick, a deformed Englishman who found inner peace and worldly comfort in Victorian London. Likewise, the "Coal Miner's Daugther" is country singer Loretta Lynn, who traveled from the woods of Kentucky to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. And the "Ranging Bull" is prizefighter Jake LaMotta, whose biography is as rough and tough as his profession.

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All these films are in the running for the "best picture" Academy Award, with the "Elephant" and the "Bull" also nominated in seven other categories.

"Coal Miner's Daugther" is eligible for six other Oscars.

Also in the "best picture" race are "Ordinary People," about a tormented middle-class family, and "Tess," based on Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Ubervilles," about a lass whose love life leads to tragedy.

It's a mixed bag of nominees. But the quality is generally high, and there is clearly a trend toward movies about human beings -- as opposed to sharks, and spaceships, and discos. I'm sorry "Melvin and Howard" isn't on the "best" list, since it's the strongest of all the 1980 "people pictures." On the other hand, it's encouraging to note all the oversold and overpraised films that didn't get nominated for anything at all: "The Shining," "Dressed to Kill," and "Stardust memories" among them.

In any case, the nominees have until March 30 to lure crowds and sell tickets with the extra glamour that always emanates from Hollywood at Oscar time. And maybe some good will come of the race. If Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen win for their performances, "Melvin and Howard" could get another shot at commercial success. If "The Last Metro" wins as "best foreign-language picture, " an unusually wide audience could be attracted to this enormously entertaining "art film."

And remember that "The elephant Man," good show though it may be, is really the commercial-sell-out version of David Lynch's previous movie, "Eraserhead." If the "Elephant" lumbers into the lead, it could open the way to another truly personal Lynch project, perhaps his long-awaited "Ronnie Rocket." Come on, Oscar -- do your stuff.