The Oscars -- a trend toward 'people pictures'

The Academy Awards don't represent cinema any more than a best-seller list represents literature. The poets, researchers, and bellelettrists of film are mostly ignored by this yearly bash of Hollywood self-congratulation. A few popular favorites are rousingly celebrated, and there the usefulness of Oscar ends.

Still, this flashy love feast is a widely watched event, seen this year by an estimated 300 million people in more than 60 countries, despite a 24-hour delay caused by the attempted assassination of President Reagan. A media event of this magnitude generates its own importance, and it was encouraging to see the most prestigious prizes go to the domestic drama of "Ordinary People" rather than the bruising brutality of "Raging Bull," the other top contender.

When "Kramer vs. Kramer" swept last year's Oscars, it signaled a trend toward pictures about real people in real situations, rather than sharks and spaceships and special effects. The tendency continued in this year's nominations, which heavily favored human drama, from the pure fiction of "Ordinary People" and "Tess" to the loose biography of Raging Bull," "The Elephant Man," and "Coal Miner's Daughter."

The actual awards bore out this humanistic impulse. "Ordinary People," about a middle-class family with more than its share of troubles, won the "best picture" Oscar. Robert Redford was honored for directing it, and Alvin Sargent for writing the screenplay based on Judith Guest's spare novel. Timothy Hutton picked up the "best suporting actor" prize.

Not a sweep, exactly. But a very healthy showing for this delicate drama. And remember that the top awards -- for best picture and best director -- were hotly contested by Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," which strenuously earns its R rating with pounding prizefight scenes and continually foul language. The only Oscars for "Bull" went to Robert De Niro, who clearly deserved the "best actor" prize for his vivid portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta, and to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Otherwise, the Oscar evening was a show of support for Hollywood's gentler urges. The wonderfully folksy "Melvin and Howard" earned awards for Bo Goldman's original screenplay and Mary Steenburgen's supporting performance. "Coal Miner's Daughter" brought Sissy Spacek to the "best actress" plateau for her portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn. Roman Polanski's luminous "Tess" won prizes for cinematography, costumes, and art direction. These are all "people pictures" from first frame to last, emphasizing the emotional rather than the sensational.

It's too bad "The Elephant Man" -- a warm and amazingly inventive movie --didn't win anything, despite its many nominations. Given the strong trend toward sensitive films, though, it's easy to see why awards were denied the well-meaning but farcial "Private Benjamin," the pretentious "Stunt Man," and the stuffy "Kagemusha."

And now that a Soviet picture called "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears" has won in the "foreign language" category, maybe it will make its way into a few theaters and give moviegoers a chance to figure out how it beat favorites by such renowned directors as Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa. Meanwhile, it's fascinating that a Soviet film -- rare on United States screens these days -- has earned an Oscar just as the more recent "Oblomov" seems to be heading for success with American audiences.

Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen the best achievements of last year, how does 1981 compare? So far, not too well. The family dynamics of "Ordinary People" have given way to the shallow suburban sexuality of "All Night Long." The nastiness of "Back Roads" has replaced the dignity of "Coal Miner's Daughter." Even the loving Americana of "Melvin and Howard" has lost ground to the much colder vision of "American Pop." Meanwhile, the rough tactics of a "Raging Bull" continue in such pictures as "Fort Apache, The Bronx" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

As for the Oscar process itself, it's regrettable that Hollywood still hitches its wagon almost exclusively to financial success -- though it was good to see support for "Melvin and Howard," a critical favorite that has largely bombed out with the public. AS long as the movie community continues to dote on big bucks alone, film will never grow into the great art form it could become. For example, there were special Oscars (much deserved) for Henry Fonda, the special effects of "The Empire Strikes Back," and a valuable gimmick called the optical printer. But where was an A for effort to some director who lost his shirt by risking a really adventurous project, or a nod to some movie poet doing brilliant work in a noncommercial garret? Nowhere in sight.

Still, hope always flourishes in Hollywood. Almost anything can happen there , and just one surprise hit can start a new and unexpected trend. Though recent movies have been largely undistinguished, its hard to be harsh toward an entertainment capital that's wacky enough to end its own Oscar show with a tribute delivered, not by some clam celebrity, but by the crazed character of Norma Desmond in a clipping from "Sunset Boulevard."

Like her, the movies remain unpredictable even when they aren't at their best. For the moment, there's at least a good chance that the positive values of last year's "people pictures" -- reinforced by the latest Oscar ceremony -- will find new momentum as 1981 unfolds.

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