Who has better instincts - the pundits or the people - when it comes to predicting the Academy Awards race?
Judging from some of this year's evidence, regular moviegoers are better at this game than the critics whose reviews they read during the rest of the year.
A ticket service called MovieFone polled film fans across the United States, and they prognosticated the top four Oscar slots without a flaw: ''Braveheart'' and Mel Gibson for best picture and best director, Nicolas Cage of ''Leaving Las Vegas'' for best actor, and Susan Sarandon of ''Dead Man Walking'' for best actress.
Turning to the so-called experts, Film Comment magazine asked a dozen critics and Hollywood-watchers to forecast the outcome, and in the most important category of all - best picture - most marched confidently toward ''Babe'' or ''Sense and Sensibility,'' with only two foreseeing the ''Braveheart'' victory.
Seven managed to predict Gibson's conquest in the best-director race, though, and in the acting categories they voted overwhelmingly for the actual winners. This unanimity among journalists, moviegoers, and the Academy suggests that Cage and Sarandon have captured something special in their performances, and therefore deserve the Oscars they so delightedly accepted near the end of the 3-1/2-hour ceremony.
For people who champion traditional values on the wide screen, the results of the evening were a mixed bag. The biggest winner was ''Braveheart,'' with victories in three technical areas as well as the top creative categories. While this much-enjoyed epic is certainly traditional in story and style - unfolding its 13th-century tale with vintage Hollywood flourishes and the proverbial cast of thousands - it follows a dubious modern trend by speaking against violence while filling the screen with enough mayhem to fully justify its R rating.
In other important races, most of the winning performers portray characters few would consider role models: Cage plays a self-destructive alcoholic, best supporting actress Mira Sorvino plays a prostitute in ''Mighty Aphrodite,'' and in ''The Usual Suspects'' best supporting actor Kevin Spacey plays a criminal of legendary evil. While all are first-rate in technique, it's worth pondering why so many of the year's most-honored screen portraits add up to such a rogues' gallery, and why performances in less abrasive pictures like ''Babe'' and ''Sense and Sensibility'' and ''The Postman'' - the latter supported by a hugely expensive Miramax Films promotional campaign - went unrewarded.
There was one morally resonant speech during the ceremony, courtesy of Sarandon, who stars in the powerful ''Dead Man Walking'' as a Roman Catholic nun who befriends a prison inmate condemned to death for a vicious crime. The movie contains some horrific material, taken from the real-life case it's based on, but its message is a genuine condemnation of violence - including the violence of capital punishment - and in accepting her award, Sarandon called for ways to ''nonviolently end violence'' and ''heal.'' One suspects that Sister Helen Prejean, whose actual experiences inspired the movie, was happy to hear these words as she sat in the audience.
Other bright spots in the evening included two awards for documentaries - the short ''One Survivor Remembers'' and the feature ''Anne Frank Remembered,'' now playing in theaters - both dealing with the Holocaust, which needs commemorating more urgently than ever as some ideologues try to downplay its importance or deny it altogether.
The winner for best foreign-language film, a Dutch drama called ''Antonia's Line,'' carries an endorsement of women's independence that's lively and energetic, if simplistic (and sexually explicit) in spots. And admirers of wholesome adventure can take comfort in a few secondary awards for the popular ''Apollo 13,'' shut out in the top categories but honored for its solid editing and soundtrack.
Special awards also paid tribute to old-fashioned movie values. Chuck Jones was honored for directing more than 300 cartoons - giving life to everyone from Tom and Jerry to Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner - during a 50-year career at the Warner Bros. and MGM studios. In a similar though more contemporary vein, John Lasseter accepted an Oscar for the high-tech animation of ''Toy Story,'' one of the year's most delightful G-rated surprises.
And the versatile Kirk Douglas received an award for a lifetime of distinguished achievement as both a star and a supporter of thoughtful entertainment, as pictures like ''Paths of Glory'' and ''Spartacus'' attest. His presence was a welcome reminder that art and commerce are not entirely incompatible, even in Hollywood, and that star power can serve constructive purposes if it's ethically and responsibly used.