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CRITIC AT LARGE

Trying To Get A Read On Those Oscar Bids

February 17, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

"Psephology," the scientific study of elections--a word that I see derives from the Greeks' use of pebbles in voting ( psephos : pebble, ballot)--exists in the dictionary but not much in American usage.

Yet on British television the psephologists are as numerous in their season as weather persons, rich with authoritative, contradictory findings.

There are attempts--we all make them--to lay a little psephology on the Oscar nominations and later on the Oscars themselves. But these are doomed to failure, because there is no scientific data available for study to anyone outside the temple of Price, Waterhouse.

But Oscar-voting and Oscar-reading are both supremely subjective enterprises anyway, a comparing not even of apples and oranges but of apples and plumbing and oranges and sutures.

Charles Joffe, who with his partner Jack Rollins has managed Woody Allen's career for nearly 30 years and produced all the movies he's directed, recalled the other day the enormous pressure from all sides to deliver Allen in person for Oscar night in 1978, when "Annie Hall" was up.

Finally, reluctantly, Joffe called Allen to make the ultimate plea. No problem , Joffe says Woody said. "Just answer one question for me, and I'll be on the next plane."

"Which is. . . ?" Joffe said warily.

"What are the grounds for comparing 'Annie Hall' and 'Star Wars'?" Allen asked, and was not on the next plane. Best , as Allen remarked again the other day, is at best a subjective and unsatisfactory word.

All you can do when the nominations are announced, after you have congratulated the nominees, who are by any standards deserving, is tip your hat with regret, and occasional anger, to those who weren't nominated but could have been, should have been.

(It is necessary to tiptoe around the mine-field question of whom the unnominated should have replaced on the winning ticket.)

For me, the hardest non-nomination to take was of Randa Haines for the direction of "Children of a Lesser God." Like Steven Spielberg a year ago, Haines must have wondered what you have to do to make it. Nominations for best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, best script (she brought in and worked closely with Hesper Anderson on the script that was shot) and best picture; I mean, gee whiz, guys, are you that frightened?

It is certainly not that Haines is a one-shot phenomenon: Her direction of the tough but sensitive film for television about father-daughter incest, "Something About Amelia," left no doubt that Haines will be around a long time--long enough, I hope, for the academy to make amends.

In the same category, I regret that there was no room for Bertrand Tavernier, not simply because I love jazz and think " 'Round Midnight" the best film about jazz yet made but because it was his film from concept to final cut. It confirmed that at least occasionally there is validity to the auteur theory, in which you would say the directors have a vested interest.

Although "The Mission" was substantially honored, the acting branch overlooked the crucial performance of Ray McAnally as the cardinal caught in a cruel whipsaw of conscience.

Yet it is not always clear to the actors themselves that acting and histrionics are not the same thing at all, and that the real power of a performance, and its contribution to a film, may well lie in restraint. That was true of McAnally's work, as it was of Julie Andrews' in "That's Life," an uneven film but one that her contained anguish made memorable.

Yet there is much to be impressed by in the nominations. As Sheila Benson noted Sunday, the list confirms the importance of independent production in the life of American motion pictures.

But the nominations also proclaim that the film of intimacy, of relationships, has not--repeat, not--been surrendered to television, even if television does play in the intimacy of the home.

It is as if, after the recent years when scale and spectacle dominated (because the studios saw size as their competitive edge against the tube and all its works), theatrical movies had rediscovered that people talking is, as a concept, commercially viable. And high time.

The nominations, in truth, were laden with pleasant surprises along with the relatively few rude shocks. The recognition of Oliver Stone's two strong and urgent documents, "Platoon" and "Salvador," for example, suggest that the academy voters can cope with controversy.

The early guessing is that "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Platoon" will fight it out. But, as the Greeks understood, you don't count your pebbles until they're hatched.

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