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Moviegoers were done a disservice: Some of 1992's best performances were not nominated for an award tonight

VARIETY calls the Academy Awards race "the smiling game," and no wonder.

Winning the Best Picture prize can mean $20 million to $35 million in additional ticket sales, according to the show-business newspaper.

For a movie like "Scent of a Woman," which is still playing widely in the United States and preparing for its first international blitz, being named Best Picture could mean a box-office bonanza fueled by Oscar-centered ads and promotions.

And don't forget video revenues, which can rocket 15 percent on the strength of a Best Picture win. Such figures vary a great deal from film to film, of course. But industry watchers vividly remember "Driving Miss Daisy," which earned nearly one-third of its $100 million domestic gross after its Academy Award success - in addition to a high international tally credited largely to Oscar's clout.

This is why studios, distributors, and producers have been wooing members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with everything from high-powered advertisements to free videocassettes in recent weeks, hoping to cajole extra votes that will translate into extra dollars.

But while the people who make movies think obsessively at times about sales and statistics, the people who see movies have a right to consider issues of quality, taste, and plain old entertainment. The pictures and achievements nominated for the most and biggest awards aren't necessarily the ones that ought to claim the world's attention.

So here is an alternative Oscar list, giving one critic's opinion of how an ideal Academy Awards ceremony tonight might look.

Best Picture: "Howards End" and "The Player."

That's right, a tie - something the real Oscar race doesn't allow, but something that makes perfect sense when two very good (and very different) pictures happen to arrive in the same year.

"Howards End" is classical filmmaking at its civilized and literate best, charged with the taste and intelligence that have become the enviable trademarks of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose decades of collaboration have never yielded more exquisite results.

"The Player" is modernist filmmaking at its challenging and unpredictable best, charged with the wit and iconoclasm that director Robert Altman has cultivated over the course of his checkered and often troubled career.

It's to the academy's credit that "Howards End" was allowed into the race despite its nonstudio pedigree and non-Hollywood credentials; and it's to the academy's discredit that "The Player" was excluded, surely because of its sardonic stand against Hollywood crassness and commercialism. If there's going to be a Best Picture, it should really be the best picture - or best pictures, in this case.

Best Director: James Ivory for "Howards End" and Robert Altman for "The Player." The same dual Oscar is appropriate here, for all the reasons just mentioned - plus the sheer tenacity that Messrs. Ivory and Altman have shown by remaining film-industry mavericks through so many projects for so many years. May their rebellious breed continue to thrive.

Best Actor: Denzel Washington for "Malcolm X."

He deserves the prize not because he's an African-American performer (although part of his achievement is to have developed his talents to such a high point in an environment long dominated by whites), but because he's simply brilliant in one of the year's most complex and difficult roles. If you have any doubts, look at the recently reissued "Malcolm X" documentary and compare Mr. Washington's portrayal with footage of the great leader himself; it's uncanny how accurately Washington has captured the rea l look, sound, and style of Malcolm X while still articulating the role with his own insights and inflections. Bravo!

Best Actress: Miranda Richardson for "Enchanted April," "The Crying Game," and "Damage."

Oscars are given for a single performance, but Ms. Richardson made three strong impressions in 1992, and it makes sense to honor such a heady achievement with the grandest available prize, as the New York Film Critics Circle did in its voting earlier this year. True, one of these movies ("Damage") isn't very good, but Richardson's acting is one of its strongest points - and her work in "The Crying Game" is positively brilliant, although it's been overlooked in the brouhaha over that picture's more sensat ional ingredients. Triple-threat performers are rare, so extra appreciation is clearly in order.

Best Foreign-Language Film: "Toto le Heros."

This feisty Belgian picture, directed by first-time filmmaker Jaco von Dormael, tells the story of a man who's convinced his entire life was stolen by another baby when they were switched at birth. The style of the movie is as offbeat as its plot, leaping around in time and mixing fact with fantasy as if they were practically the same thing. It's not a perfect film, but it's much livelier than "Indochine" or "Close to Eden," the only contenders in this race that American moviegoers have yet gotten a chan ce to see.

In other categories: I'd choose "Howards End" and "The Player" in yet another tie for Best Adapted Screenplay, with "Glengarry Glen Ross" next in line for this award. "The Crying Game" would get Best Original Screenplay, on the basis of its originality and its insistence on rethinking stereotypes. Tony Pierce-Roberts is my choice for Best Cinematography in "Howards End," the latest in a superb string of Merchant Ivory productions he's shot.

And for Best Documentary, it's time for one more tie: "A Brief History of Time," the expressive Errol Morris documentary about disabled physicist Stephen Hawking, and "Brother's Keeper," directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, about a rural New York community that rallied around an eccentric family when one of its members was accused of murder.

Neither was nominated. This is a disservice both to moviegoers, who may overlook them as a result, and to the academy's credibility, since it is supposed to recognize all the best work of the past year.

Memo to Oscar: Be more alert in 1993.

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