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CRITIC AT LARGE

Entrusting Oscar to the Democracy of the Academy

January 12, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

This is that time of year when the actors and actresses who are voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are asked to make decisions that would test the combined skills of Solomon, a 16th-Century alchemist and a referee at the Super Bowl.

The all-embracing question: Are the Oscars a true measure of excellence, or a popularity contest?

Subsidiary questions include:

What about the actor who was wonderful in a film nobody liked?

What about the actor who was wonderful in a film nobody saw?

Is comedy really harder to do than tragedy, or do you go with the role that looks hard? More generally, how do you weigh the comparative difficulty of a role, the challenge the actor faced and conquered? What about scenery-chewing versus the power of restraint?

What about the child actor who may never again fit a role so perfectly? (Christian Bale in "Empire of the Sun" springs to mind.) How much do you take a whole career into account when you judge the one role at hand?

Those are only a few of the ponderables, or imponderables, the voting quandaries that actors face. Sentimentality, for example, fills the air like a heavy infusion of perfume. An odd sense of fairness ("he had one last year") occasionally enters the proceedings. Old slights and arrogances sometimes blur the consideration of the work itself.

All you can do is put your faith in the power of democracy to do right. Luckily, the actors' branch of the academy is the most numerous, with something like 2,000 voters, and thus the most democratic, although the voter-actors confront the largest field of choice by far. All those supporting performances, let alone the star parts, are intimidating to think about.

Are the Oscars a popularity contest? Inevitably. And in the area of supporting performances more than any other, promotion probably pays off. It narrows the field of view, and in the case of newer actors, the publicity may answer such meaningful questions as "What was the name of the guy who played her crazy brother?" or "Who was the tall dame with one black eye?"

It is a consolation that nobody wins who is entirely undeserving. By definition, all the candidates did well; they did the jobs while thousands were unemployed.

It is just that the onlooker, employing a combination of sentiment, prejudice, insight and sour grapes, says that each year some even more deserving work fails to make it into nomination, let alone achieve the gloryland of Oscar.

I read the early line summarized by Jack Mathews in a recent Sunday Calendar, and I generally suspect that the sure things, nomination-wise, are as they are said to be. But I tip my hat (partly to scratch my head) about a few entries that are apparently beyond even the longest odds.

Consider Paul Newman's "The Glass Menagerie," for example. Were there that many better performances than Joanne Woodward's? Or John Malkovich's as her wandering son?

(Malkovich raises another question: How you handle the performer who is competing with himself? Malkovich was also more than splendid in "Empire of the Sun," but seems to be a contender for neither performance, possibly because we have all come to take brilliance as a matter of course when Malkovich is in sight.)

Peter O'Toole does not seem to be in the running for his ambiguous role as a cynical Mr. Chips in "The Last Emperor." It serves him right for not being his usual flamboyant self.

In all the enthusiasm for John Boorman's "Hope and Glory," I wish due note would be paid to Sarah Miles, who like Carroll Baker in "Ironweed" has matured impressively since the sexy roles of yesterday.

Although his fellow directors rather than the actors will give him a nomination if they do, I hope that John Huston is more than a sentimental choice as best director for "The Dead." In its autumnal elegance and its depth of feeling for a time, a place and a people, it is the work of a master, of whatever age and condition.

Back with the actors I hope Christine Lahti is more than a long shot for "Housekeeping," although I suspect Bill Forsyth's strange and quiet study of an eccentric lady and her nieces has not been widely seen. But Lahti, taking the audience from amusement to deep concern, is both restrained and wonderful.

Robin Williams is certainly a contender for best actor, although it seemed to me that "Good Morning, Vietnam" as a whole did not live up to its own expectations. Its minor characters were overdrawn, its plot points overstressed. Yet Williams revealed that beyond the rapid-fire comic tongue there lurks a fine actor of great sensitivity.

The scene in which he performs in the middle of the street for an audience of GIs en route to battle is funny on the surface and wrenching within, in the split-level way I think the film aimed for throughout. Williams, who has not been well served by movies, serves this one awfully well, despite its cumbersome artifices.

The nominations will come and we can try to guess where insight triumphed over popularity per se. We will also be able to see whether magnanimity ran amok and the voters forgave Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg their successes.

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