Message of the Oscars

Continuing a Hollywood trend toward "people pictures," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave most of its major awards to movies about familiar human problems in everyday settings. Family drama was the big winner. There wasn't a shark or a robot in sight.

The sweep of Oscars by "Kramer vs. Kramer" had been widely predicted -- be cause of the film's enormous financial success, in addition to its quality as a finely tuned exploration of parenthood and divorce.

This was in keeping with a recent tendency for top prizes to gravitate toward films about recognizable people in recognizable situations, with secondary technical awards going to "special effects" yarns such as "Star Wars" and Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Thus, other major awards went to "Breaking Away" and "Norma Rae," which have also rung up large box-office returns by focusing on personal ordeals of maturity and adjustment. Meanwhile, "All That JAzz" -- a big-budget musical nominated in as many categories as "Kramer" -- won most of its Oscars in such "craft" categories as art direction, editing, and costume design.

In general, however, large budgets made little impact this year. Most of the winners were made on comparatively modest investments and avoided the traditional "blockbuster" image. The exceptions were "All That Jazz" and "Apocalypse Now." But the latter, Francis Coppola's Vietnam epic, remained a runner-up in most of the eight categories in which it was nominated. This was a significant development, considering that last year's top winners were "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home," both Vietnam-related dramas.

For the present, it is clear that Hollywood has settled into a safe, middle-of-the-road approach.Though an "Alien" or a "China Syndrome" are bound to appear from time to time, studios and filmmakers are veering away from escapist fantasy, on the one hand, and overwhelming social issues, on the other.

The April 14 Oscar ceremony offered strong evidence for this, with its emphasis on personal subjects. Even "Norma Rae" presented the subject of unionization from the perspective of a woman fighting for the dignity of and her family and her. Further proof of Hollywood's new conservatism can be found among the early releases of 1980. Films as different as "The Electric Horseman, " "A Small Circle of Friends," and "Sitting Ducks" have all been described by their directors as pictures in the Frank Capra manner -- referring to the maker of such classics as "Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which celebrate the virtues of the common man and the joys of middle-class life.

Humanitarian concerns were found even in the minor Oscar categories. The award for best documentary went to "Best Boy," Ira Wohl's compassionate study of his cousin, a 52-year old retarded man. Unlike most documentaries, "Best Boy" has gone into regular commercial distribution, and its Oscar should help it to greater visibility on a national and perhaps international scale. In the category of best live-action short subject, the prize went to "Board and Care," which features the director's mentally handicapped sister. the contributions of a leading black American are recalled in "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist," which won the Oscar for best short documentary. The prize for best animated short went to a UNESCO-related offering called "Every Child." In these categories, as elsewhere, Hollywood seemed to be honoring substance as well as style.

Despite its present preoccupation with meaningful subjects, however, Hollywood still seems suspicious of films that fall outside familiar patterns and formulas. In addition to being the most expensive of this year's nominees for best picture. "All That Jazz" and "Apocalypspe Now" were also the most visionary and the most intensely personal for their makers. Yet their victories were limited largely to technical areas. By contrast, the winners of the top prizes were slickly crafted pictures like "Kramer vs. Kramer" that stay close to traditional moviemaking paths.

Perhaps the most unconventional film was the winner in the best-foreign-language category: "The Tin Drum" from West Germany, which paints a vast canvas of midcentury life in Germany and Poland, incorporating wildly unexpected narrative twists.

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