Surveying the Field of Oscar Hopefuls

This year's roster reflects Hollywood tastes, box-office successes, and a few good films. ACADEMY-AWARD NOMINATIONS

DOES money rule all where Hollywood is concerned?

None of the major nominees in this year's Academy Awards competition hails from a low-rent neighborhood, much less the wrong side of the tracks. All are mainstream productions with important stars and healthy budgets.

Taken as a group, however, they cover more diverse territory than is sometimes the case. Blockbuster hits are duly represented. But so are a few productions - most notably "Rambling Rose," a dramatic comedy with nominated performances by Laura Dern and Diane Ladd - that remind us how pleasant moviegoing can be when human values are taken as seriously as box-office calculations. (The awards ceremony is March 30.)

This doesn't mean the nomination list gives unambiguous clues to current tastes and trends. One of the biggest questions about the 1992 race, for instance, was whether "Beauty and the Beast" would be nominated for best picture - a rarity for an animated film. The answer turns out to be yes, and that's cause for cheer. But was this endearing Disney cartoon selected because of its G-rated excellence, or because it's the first animation in history to rack up more than $100 million in ticket sales? It would be naive to suggest the latter didn't play some part in the voting.

Then again, the most honored film on this year's list is the obstreperous "Bugsy," with 10 nominations including best picture, best actor, and best director - and it has been a box-office disappointment, earning a "mere" $40 million so far. That figure will now soar, of course, on the strength of Oscar's drawing power. But it's noteworthy that Hollywood was willing to look past the picture's lackluster profit margin and bestow its favors on what it perceives as true moviemaking merit.

Money questions aside, does "Bugsy" deserve to be the year's most honored nominee? Of course not. It's a diverting picture, if a violent one, and director Barry Levinson has brought James Toback's quirky screenplay to life with a fair amount of imagination. But 10 pats on the back from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems crazily out of proportion to the picture's modest assets.

Could it be that Hollywood went overboard for "Bugsy" because the film industry is uncertain where its priorities lie nowadays? Very possibly. The movie in second place with eight nominations, "JFK," is a serious and provocative effort that has generated more controversy than all the other contenders combined - an odd choice to be running neck-and-neck with an audience-wooing genre picture like "Bugsy."

MORE evidence of uncertain priorities is found in the No. 3 position, held by two movies - tied with seven nominations each - that couldn't be more different from each other. "The Prince of Tides" is a high-class soap opera that neglects its female characters to focus obsessively on a Southern football coach learning to be a sensitive '90s guy. "The Silence of the Lambs" is a suspenseful, prodigiously violent thriller about a female FBI agent matching wits with a cannibalistic murderer.

Among other things, this odd pairing suggests a heap of ambivalence about the mental-health profession. Who's more representative of the breed - Barbra Streisand's caring and giving therapist, or Anthony Hopkins's psychotic psychiatrist? Hint: Only the latter was nominated for a best-performance award.

Nor was Ms. Streisand nominated for a best-directing Oscar, even though "The Prince of Tides" is in the running for best picture. Opinion is divided as to whether this reflects antiwoman bias in Hollywood, where men still dominate behind-the-camera positions, or a more personal anti-Streisand bias, sparked by uneasiness with her strong and distinctive personality.

Male chauvinism could have played a part in this situation; remember that Penny Marshall wasn't nominated for her "Awakenings" or the popular "Big" in recent years, either. Yet women did not fare altogether badly in nominated films this year. The woman-centered "Thelma & Louise" not only picked up nominations for both of its stars, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, but also brought an undeserved nod to Ridley Scott as best director; and Jonathan Demme's much-nominated "The Silence of the Lambs" is an inven tive enough thriller to place a woman in the traditional good-guy role.

In the race for best foreign-language film, controversy broke out months ago regarding "Europa Europa," the real-life story of a Jewish boy's fight for survival during the Nazi era. German filmmakers refused to name this well-crafted drama as their country's entry in the Oscar competition, and under the rules of this category that eliminated it from consideration.

Germany says the decision was motivated by the fact that "Europa Europa" isn't purely German, but has major funding and participation from other countries - and isn't a very good picture, anyway. Others allege that Germany is simply embarrassed over a film that revives uncomfortable memories of the nation's most malevolent period. Sympathizers hoped that academy members would nominate the movie in a number of other categories to make up for the slight, but only a nod for best adapted screenplay has mater ialized.

If one truly encouraging sign emerges from the list of Oscar contenders, it's the presence of John Singleton as a nominee for the best-director and best-original-screenplay awards. Among the new wave of minority-group members to enter the filmmaking scene in recent years, Mr. Singleton is second only to Spike Lee in the depth of his achievement - even though "Boyz N the Hood," which brought the nominations, marks his feature-film debut.

The film has withstood the bad publicity of violence at movie-theater showings to prove that black talent can prevail if it's strong, original, and tenacious. Singleton is already a winner, whatever happens March 30.

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