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Sentimental Favorites : Paul Newman has been nominated seven times for Best Actor and has never won. Marlee Matlin has never had a movie role before. Now each has a chance to walk away with an Oscar.

March 15, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Nikki Finke is a Times staff writer.

THERE COULDN'T BE three more symbolic words in the language of Hollywood than the envelope please. Like the pressing of a stopwatch, they signal the start of that most elegant of moments when every Oscar contender is bound equally by hope. At this year's 59th awards presentation, on March 30, two of the nominees, coming from unusually different acting backgrounds and personal perspectives, will be caught in that spotlighted instant.

Seven times a contender, never a champion, Paul Newman at 62 is still waiting for his Best Actor Oscar. Every so often members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognize a perennial runner-up not only for an individual performance but for an entire body of work. John Wayne received such an accolade in 1969. This year, Paul Newman is being judged not only for his nominated role as "Gramps" Fast Eddie Felson in 1986's "The Color of Money" but also for four decades of anti-heroes in such classics as "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Hustler."

And occasionally, Academy members honor a newcomer whose first major performance has achieved a kind of greatness due to circumstance. In 1985, Cambodian refugee Haing S. Ngor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in "The Killing Fields" playing a man who, like himself, had survived a hideous war. This year 21-year-old Marlee Matlin stole her movie, "Children of a Lesser God," without uttering a single word in her role as Sarah Norman, a young deaf woman. Still, Matlin's could become one of the most short-lived of stardoms if her own hearing impairment prevents her from ever being cast in another major role.

With eight other nominees, the two will wait for the watch to stop and wonder if their time has come.

In 1986 Paul Newman thought his moment had come and gone when he was awarded an honorary Oscar recognizing "his personal integrity and dedication to his craft." He felt it was "for people who are already up to their knees in weeds. But at least I was working at the time on "The Color of Money," so I knew something that they didn't know: that the pasture was quite a bit in front of me."

Newman suspected that he was giving an Oscar-quality performance under Martin Scorsese's direction. So he doesn't mind when others tout him as this year's sure thing. "I think it's nifty of them," he says. "And I'm getting a lot of that, yes."

But anyone who expects Newman to come right out and say, "Yes, I want the Oscar," is going to have to wait until those blue eyes turn brown. Newman darts around the issue while still managing to convey the absurdity of his winless condition. "It's like everything else. What's important to you on Tuesday is not important to you on Thursday and then becomes very important to you the following Tuesday."

All well and good, but sitting in a windowless coffin of a screening room at Trans-Audio Studios in mid-town Manhattan, where he has spent the last two weeks mixing his latest directorial venture, "The Glass Menagerie," Newman realizes that today is a Wednesday. He crinkles his well-established wrinkles, and laughs, first quietly, then uncontrollably. The more he laughs, the more he begins to see, somehow, a parallel between Oral Roberts' recent plea for money and his own imagined plea for Oscar.

"Um," he says, starting slowly, building up, "Oral Roberts has said that if he doesn't raise the money by the end of March, God is going to call him home. Then whatever will He do to me?

"My next project is floundering. So if those guys out there don't tap me for this, I think I'm going to go to that great rehearsal hall in the sky."

Even as a joke, it's as close to begging as Newman may ever come.

In contrast with Cool Hand Luke's profane levity, Marlee Matlin reveres her nomination. Weeks after becoming the first deaf actress so blessed by the Academy, she is still gushing. "I feel very, very wonderful. I feel very, very honored."

In a Palm Springs hotel room where the desert sunshine backlights her chestnut curls and moon-white skin with an otherworldly halo, sans new boyfriend (fellow Oscar nominee and "Children" co-star William Hurt, who has already won a Best Actor for 1985's "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), Matlin jumps up and down excitedly as she talks. "When I was a little girl," she informs through a furious but fluid burst of signing translated by her personal assistant and interpreter Jack Jason, "I always watched the Academy Awards on television. I always thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice just to be there? Wouldn't it be nice just to be in one film even?' And it all came true."

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