This year's Academy Award race offered a choice between sentiment and substance. Predictably, the vote leaned heavily toward sentiment. But there was a clear nod to substance, too, hinting that American movies may continue their recent climb toward grown-up values.
Or maybe it was all a matter of money. By smiling on ''Chariots of Fire'' and ''Reds,'' the benevolent Oscar has boosted the box-office prospects of the two films that had most at stake in the Academy sweepstakes. Meanwhile, the high honors for ''On Golden Pond'' gave an extra pat on the back to what Hollywood loves most: a blockbuster.
In a nutshell, ''Chariots of Fire'' and ''On Golden Pond'' blitzed the major categories. ''Chariots'' took best picture and best original screenplay. ''Pond'' walked away with best actor, best actress, and best adapted screenplay.
In some areas, the two films have little in common. ''Chariots'' is a modest British production with an unlikely subject -- runners in the 1924 Olympics -- and a little-known cast. By contrast, ''Pond'' is a glossy Hollywood package, featuring two of the greatest living stars (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn) in a tale about growing old and dealing with difficult family relationships.
What links them is their unashamed sentiment. For all its gruff humor and trendy four-letter words, ''Pond'' is really an old-fashioned tear-jerker, from the gushy nostalgia at the beginning to the smooth reconciliations at the end. ''Chariots'' comes from a related category, the uplift movie, full of lyrical slow motion and inspirational editing. There's nothing wrong with these genres, which have produced classics in the past. But neither ''Chariots'' nor ''Pond'' has the look or feel of a classic. Rather, they are nice little movies with plenty of flaws to balance their profoundly conventional virtues.
At the other end of the Oscar spectrum, the enterprising and unconventional pictures were ''Atlantic City'' and ''Reds.'' With its quirky dialogue and eccentric story, about an aging hoodlum in New Jersey, it's surprising that ''Atlantic City'' got nominated for anything. Yet there it was, in the race for best picture and best original screenplay, and Louis Malle up for best director and Burt Lancaster for best actor. Of course, its actual batting average turned out to be zero. But fans of innovation and intelligence were encouraged by its very presence in the contest, especially considering its modest production values and arty image.
''Reds'' presents a more complicated situation. Its victory in a major category - Warren Beatty as best director -- speaks highly for the present mood in Hollywood. The industry might well have shied away from this picture. Its subject, the early years of American and Russian communism, is unusual and potentially controversial. Its structure, with alternating dramatic scenes and ''eyewitness'' interviews, is equally so.
Still, it was named in every important race, leading the pack with a dozen nominations. And its Oscar for best director was backed up by Maureen Stapleton's victory as best supporting actress, plus a nod to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Not a sweep, exactly, but a respectable showing - and evidence that Hollywood can appreciate fare that is leagues more inventive than ''Chariots'' and ''Pond.'' Imagine this year's Oscars if, say, Beatty had lost to Steven Spielberg of ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' and Stapleton had been edged out by Joan Hackett of ''Only When I Laugh.'' With all due respect to the people who ended up losers, such a result would have wiped originality and audacity right off the Academy's map.
The trouble is, one could easily wish for an ''art film'' emissary with better credentials than ''Reds.'' While its bold structure and unexpected subject are good starting points, Beatty leaves it at that, developing the bulk of the picture into a standard and rather goopy love story. As happened in real life, protagonist John Reed barnstorms for the Communist cause, lends a hand with the Bolshevik revolution, and radicalizes everything in sight. Yet through most of it, filmmaker Beatty manages to keep the storms of history in the background, concentrating his energy on handsome John's tempestuous affairs with lover, wife, and fellow radical Louise Bryant.
The result is a ''romance,'' as Beatty accurately termed it in his acceptance speech. As such, it's a step forward: When was the last love story with such historical depth and epic sweep? But measured against the great film it might have been -- a probing study of the interface between personalities and politics on a world scale -- it's a disappointment.
Sure, there's plenty of precedent for romanticizing this particular subject. In a very different way, Reed did so himself in his book ''Ten Days That Shook the World,'' which is anything but an objective account of events dispassionately observed. Still, director-star-co-writer Beatty might have given us a little more history and a little less histrionics. He didn't. And maybe that's why Hollywood felt free to honor him despite his daring in tackling the communist crusade in the first place.
Looking at the rest of the Oscars, there were a few surprises in areas not swept by ''Pond'' and ''Chariots.'' The versatile veteran John Gielgud won as best supporting actor for the flimsy ''Arthur,'' nudging out Jack Nicholson's strong portrayal of Eugene O'Neill in ''Reds.'' Michael Kahn's slam-bang editing of ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' won over ''Reds'' and ''The French Lieutenant's Woman,'' which presented subtler and more delicate challenges.
And in the upset of the year, ''Man of Iron'' -- the entry from Poland -- did not win as best foreign-language picture. Rather, the Hungarian drama ''Mephisto'' took the prize for its pungent portrait of a German actor caught in the snare of Nazism. So much for the conventional wisdom that the second-rate ''Man of Iron'' would automatically win for political reasons, given American sympathy for the Polish labor movement, which is the subject of Andrzej Wajda's film. By contrast, the best-documentary Oscar for ''Genocide'' probably surprised nobody.
It is widely believed that ''Chariots of Fire'' and ''Reds'' had most to benefit from Oscar victories -- ''Chariots'' because it is still a current film with big audiences ahead of it, ''Reds'' because an Academy Award should make its length (3 1/2 hours) and historical subject seem less intimidating to potential viewers. Both films are certain to capitalize on their wins, and even the long-running ''Pond'' will surely pick up still more dollars by riding for a while on Oscar's broad shoulders.
In the final analysis, this -- the box office -- is what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is all about. And that is both the enduring strength and the perennial weakness of the American movie scene.