By handing most of its top Oscars to ''Gandhi'' rather than ''E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,'' the burghers of Hollywood chose art over heart - rejecting the cuteness blitz of Steven Spielberg only to succumb to the nobility blitz of Richard Attenborough.
Members of the movie community can now congratulate themselves on their seriousness and sensitivity, while resting easy in the knowledge that their votes (translated into ads, commercials, and assorted hype) will probably boost Attenborough's saga to blockbuster status at the box office, adding millions of dollars to the ''gross'' that's the real measure of success in Tinseltown.
As many Oscar soothsayers had predicted, there were few surprises in the 55th annual Academy Award sweepstakes, though the solidity of the ''Gandhi'' victory was more impressive than it might have been. ''E.T.'' prevailed only in such secondary slots as best sound and best visual effects, while ''Tootsie'' and ''Missing'' fared poorly and ''The Verdict'' didn't earn a thing despite plenty of nominations.
Some had expected Spielberg to win as best director, as a consolation prize for losing the best-picture race. Instead, by honoring both ''Gandhi'' as best picture and Attenborough as best director, the voters recognized the close connections between that massive film and the man who labored for two decades to bring it to the screen.
''Gandhi'' also triumphed in other creative and technical categories which could have leaned in other directions. The choice of Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor for the ''Gandhi'' cinematography, for example, came despite stiff competition from Allen Daviau for ''E.T.'' and Nestor Almendros for ''Sophie's Choice.''
Similarly, the John Briley original screenplay for ''Gandhi'' beat out the ''E.T.'' script by Melissa Matheson and the ''Tootsie'' script by Larry Gelbart, Don McGuire, and Murray Schisgal - even though ''Gandhi'' wasn't as ''original'' as the others, borrowing (legitimately, to be sure) from Louis Fischer's celebrated Gandhi biography as well as from history itself.
By contrast, Ben Kingsley's victory in the best-actor race was considered a shoo-in, especially after Kingsley consolidated his current fame with a very different and equally brilliant performance in this year's ''Betrayal.''
Just as predictable were Meryl Streep's win for best actress in ''Sophie's Choice'' and Jessica Lange's for best supporting actress in ''Tootsie.'' The triumph of Louis Gossett Jr. for best supporting actor in ''An Officer and a Gentleman'' had also been universally expected, and it carried the nice extra of making Gossett the first black performer to receive an Oscar since Sidney Poitier a full 20 years ago.
In the remaining major categories, the excellent ''Missing'' unexpectedly beat ''The Verdict'' and ''Sophie's Choice'' for best screenplay adapted from another medium. And a Spanish entry called ''Volver a Empezar,'' little seen in the United States so far, overtook ''Coup de Torchon'' and three other contenders in the race for best foreign-language film.
What's the moral of it all? The victory of ''Gandhi'' over ''E.T.'' is a victory of history over fantasy, human logistics over technical wizardry, the past over the future. ''E.T.'' has captured more hearts - measured by box office take, it's perhaps the most lovable movie of all time - but ''Gandhi'' has cornered the prestige market.
It's heartening to see a sober and reasonably demanding film command such attention in today's largely frivolous movie climate, but only as long as its breadth and ambitions aren't mistaken for depth and insight. For all its sincerity, ''Gandhi'' is an entertainment in the accepted Hollywood sense, with its share of evasions, softenings, and oversimplifications. ''E.T.'' is more flighty, but also more forthright about its limitations. That's one reason it will continue to reign at the box office, even as ''Gandhi'' walks away with the trophies. TMovie ties to Britain
Cinematic ties are strong between Britain and the United States just now. A program called ''The American Film Institute Salutes the British Film Institute'' is touring the US, and a festival tagged ''Britain Salutes New York'' is also in progress, including film as well as other arts.
One unusual movie that shows up in both events is So That You Can Live, a politically outspoken and humanly touching documentary about what it's like to live and work in South Wales.
Its structure and many of its images reflect the viewpoints of Cinema Action, the group that gets collective credit for directing, producing, shooting, editing, and distributing the picture. While its ideas may be controversial - for example, the ending calls for ''complex socialisms'' to solve the region's problems - its compassion is unmistakable, and many of the issues it confronts go far beyond the particular area it concentrates on.
In assembling ''So That You Can Live,'' the Cinema Action group was apparently determined to explore its human subjects in the context of all phases of their environment - natural, man-made, and man-despoiled. The rich beauty of the countryside is contrasted with the mean contours of an industrial town, for instance, with an eye not just for quick visual impact, but for the human implications of such contradictory surroundings.
Historical perspectives also play an important part, especially in the fascinating account of proletarian libraries that enriched the lives of miners in the 1920s and '30s. Indeed, the film makes some of its most moving points by simply focusing the camera up close on bookshelves, the musty bindings of old volumes, and notes scrawled in margins by determinedly self-educated workers of years ago. Surprisingly effective in themselves, such gestures also make a strong contrast with the many scenes of contemporary life, ranging from shots of a family at home to footage of a local strike.
More than five years in the making, ''So That You Can Live'' exemplifies the expressive possibilities of the didactic-documentary form. Americans not familiar with Welsh dialects might wish to seek out screenings of a subtitled print, however, since portions of the spoken sound track may otherwise prove baffling. Showings coming up soon include two in New York. One, at the Public Theater, will run from April 26 to May 1, as part of a series called ''London Calling: The American Film Institute Presents the British Film Institute - Independent Film 1951-1982.'' The other, at the Collective for Living Cinema, will take place this Sunday in a ''Films From Cinema Action'' program connected with a ''New British Cinema'' series that's part of the ''Britain Salutes New York'' festival. All-American comedy
The movies of Hollywood's ''golden age'' often made up in clarity what they lacked in intelligence. In that vein, Max Dugan Returns is an all-American comedy with plenty of chuckles and a clear message: that family ties, baseball, and the accumulation of consumer products are the greatest goods to which Western man need aspire.
The plot centers on a widow named Nora and her teen-age son, who scrape by on her salary as an English teacher. A new boyfriend enters her life, and at about the same time her long-lost father pops up after years of absence. The boyfriend is a cop. The father is a colorful old reprobate who wants to brighten his last days by bestowing expensive goodies on his family, paid for from a satchel of ill-gotten money.
As written by Neil Simon and directed by his frequent collaborator, Herbert Ross, the tale has no bad guys. We're meant to sympathize with dad, because he's finally gotten around to caring for his family; with the cop, because he's so conscientious about catching people like dad; and with Nora, because she doesn't really want to take dad's dubious largess, though she does, every time. The ethical dilemmas aren't resolved at the end, they're forgotten - knocked out of the park as cleanly as the overdue home run that junior predictably wallops in a climactic scene.
There might be something morally questionable about all this, if it weren't so apparent that neither Simon nor Ross means much of what he says. Like many politicians, they seem less concerned with substance than with pleasing their audience of the moment; if they held elective office, one suspects that concession, compromise, and ''hard lines'' would come and go like the winds, according to the perceived moods of their public. In the leading roles, Marsha Mason and Jason Robards give their two-dimensional characters as much nuance as the screenplay allows, and then some. Support comes from Donald Sutherland, newcomer Matthew Broderick, and enough household appliances to open a discount store.