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CRITIC AT LARGE

Few Sure Bets For Academy Bids

January 12, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The nominating ballots for the Academy Awards go into the mail this weekend, and the trade-paper advertising in behalf of films and candidates has reached avalanche proportions, culminating Friday in a veritable catalogue of sleek persuasions.

It is a suspenseful time for cynic and hopeful alike and, to gauge by the wildly disparate awards already announced by the several critics groups here and in New York, there seem to be relatively few sure things.

It could in fact be an interesting season, especially if the 4,000 or so academy voters were to duplicate some of the critics' unsolemn choices, as for Steve Martin, who has just received a second best actor award for "All of Me," and Kathleen Turner, who has a second best actress award for her performances in "Romancing the Stone" and "Crimes of Passion."

When the chronicle of the 1984 film year is set down, it will obviously note among other things the coincidence of three films centering on farm wives forced to take charge and see if they can hold farms and families intact. I can't remember such thematic closeness since "Up the Down Staircase" and "To Sir With Love," both about inner-city teachers trying to provide inspiration amid a defeating tumult, were released within days of each other in 1967.

Noteworthy in the Film Year Are Three Movies Coincidentally Centering on Farm Wives Taking Charge and Trying to Hold Their Families Intact But in the end the wonder of the farm pictures is not how alike they are, but how different. They become a collective essay on the varieties of the cinematic experience.

Two of the films, "Country" and "The River," have virtually identical scenes--farmers shouting in protest as a neighbor's goods are auctioned off. Both were copying actual news events as they have been covered by television.

Even so, the two films are profoundly different in size and feeling: "Country" a sort of minimalist exercise, austere and almost Pinteresque in its elliptical ways; "The River" a big, grab-you-by-the-throat melodrama, with a brilliantly executed flood scene to get things going and a nightmarish interlude of desperate men captive in an ancient steel mill in which they are working as strikebreakers.

Robert Benton's "Places in the Heart" has its own melodrama--a hellish tornado sequence, a shooting, a near lynching, the lacerating struggle to get the cotton picked--but it retains a kind of intimacy as a personal reminiscence of a time and place, transmuted into story.

What is interesting is that all three films conclude on notes of limited hope and optimism at best. In "Country," the struggle to save the farm has hardly begun, but it has begun with a reunited family. "The River" says explicitly that sooner or later the fates will probably deliver another devastating wallop.

The messages are that survival and faith are all, expressed eloquently in a church scene at the end of "Places in the Heart." This is a long way from happy ever after, and without the purgative power of a really good cry. It remains to be seen if audiences are ready for such limited satisfactions, even when presented with earnest artistry.

The sparest of the three, "Country," has been a disaster at the box office. "Places in the Heart" has done much better. "The River" commences its regular commercial run next week.

Mark Rydell, who had good and bad reviews for "The River" during its academy-qualifying run in December, including a thoughtful zapping from Sheila Benson in these pages, has learned, insofar as you can learn, to be philosophical, he says. "Pauline Kael said 'Golden Pond' was Mopsy and Popsy at the Lake," Rydell remarked a few days ago.

"I try to move you; I admit it," Rydell said. "For me, art's not worth its salt unless it moves you. People talk about manipulation, but that's a misnomer in a way. For me, art is organizing reality to create an effect. That's not quite the same thing.

"A good script gives you an architecture of events, but what the events do is help you see that what the characters feel is more important than what they say. If you're making a movie, you have to reach inside to discover what those feelings are.

"It's a funny thing: People say they like to have a good cry at the movies now and then. But I don't think people like to weep; it makes them feel vulnerable. Look at the people who resented being moved by 'Terms of Endearment.'

"Some people turn to cynicism. It's a device they use to save themselves close involvement with a situation. But I'm offended by cynicism. If you're a film maker, you can't really be a cynic; you have to be an optimist of sorts, even if you pay for it sometimes."

The ongoing problem, Rydell says, "is to find material that's going to mobilize you for two years, so you can lead 150 people or whatever the company is and nourish writers, actors, crews.

"I've always been attracted to obstinate, persistent people, individuals going against forces and circumstances--the sailor falling in love with the hooker in 'Cinderella Liberty.' "

Rydell is currently preparing "Nuts," based on the play that had a long run here, about a young woman on trial for her sanity.

"I like people who think they can go against the odds and make a difference. There's never a shortage of people who say it won't work, you can't handle it.

"But I'm a Jewish kid from the Bronx. It works sometimes. You've got to believe it."

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