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MOVIES : Dances With Oscar : 'GoodFellas' may be cleaning up in the critics' awards, but Kevin Costner's Western epic has all the elements Oscar likes

December 23, 1990|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is The Times' film editor

Greek director Theo Angelopoulos' "Landscape in the Mist" was the best picture of 1990, according to two of The Times' regular film critics, but don't mark your Oscar ballots yet. You're hearing it here first: "Landscape in the Mist" will not win the Academy Award for best picture.

That doesn't mean it isn't the best. It's just . . . foreign, and in the current mood in Hollywood, foreign is only good if you own shares in a studio.

The best picture of the year will not be Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" either, even though that was the best-reviewed film of the year, and the recent winner of both the Los Angeles and New York film critics' awards. "GoodFellas" is a New York film about a bunch of gangsters, and the predominantly L.A.-based academy members do not cotton to rude New Yorkers.

It won't be Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part III" either, even though a third Oscar would be a fitting, if overly generous, capper to that series. Coppola has lost a step or two since his Wunderkind days, and giving the second sequel its top prize would be a virtual confession by the academy that its standards have come down since "Godfather II" in 1974.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 30, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Dec. 23 article handicapping the Oscar race, Joan Plowright was credited with winning the best supporting actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. The actual winner was Jennifer Jason Leigh for "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Miami Blues."

And it won't be "The Sheltering Sky," "Havana" or "Avalon," even though the directors of those movies--Bernardo Bertolucci, Sydney Pollack and Barry Levinson--swept the Oscar table with their last films. Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" won nine Academy Awards in 1987, Pollack's "Out of Africa" won six in 1985 and Levinson's "Rain Man" took home four in 1988. When you make movies as successful as those, your next one is guaranteed to be a disappointment, and for that you must be punished.

So, if none of those, what?

Sungmanitutonka Ob Waci.

That's Lakota Sioux for "Dances With Wolves"--and you can bank on it. Kevin Costner's airy Western, about a Civil War fighting man who wins a frontier outpost and is assimilated by the Sioux he meets there, has Oscar written all over it, in large-print English. It is an ambitious film with liberal humanistic elements that overcame faulty early word-of-mouth, a three-hour running time and a tome of subtitles to become both a critical and a commercial success.

"Dances With Wolves" is making Costner a hero in a lot of voters' eyes: The film has evoked such fond memories of the Western that it could revive the genre and, once again, a leading man has, in his first attempt at directing, shown that actors do know a little something about storytelling (Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon all danced with the wolves before him).

"Dances" has the Oscar guilt vote in its pocket. It has a strong humanistic point-of-view and seems to right some of the wrongs done in all those cowboy 'n Injun movies of the past, not least by casting Native Americans in Native American roles. If John Ford were around to direct this film, we might have seen Timothy Hutton playing Kicking Bird.

Whether Costner will win is another question. There was a split last year when "Driving Miss Daisy" was named best picture while the directing award went to "Born on the Fourth of July's" Oliver Stone. If that occurs again, Scorsese--the most consistent American filmmaker since the fall of Coppola--is the likeliest winner.

There's one other reasonable scenario: a sweep for Penny Marshall's "Awakenings," which opened Friday. The super-sentimental drama about a New York doctor who awakens a ward of comatose patients with experimental drug therapy may win the "Rain Man" vote. It makes people weep and when academy members weep, their votes are often carried along in the torrent.

If Penny Marshall gets a best-director nomination, it will be the first one for an American woman, and though it's unlikely enough of the Old Boys of the academy would vote for her on the final ballot, the more progressive-minded directors' branch might put her on it.

In any event, "Dances With Wolves" and "Awakenings" are the only films that meet one of the two minimum Oscar standards (a liberal point of view about a significant social issue, or it makes you cry), and with "The Sheltering Sky" having turned into two hours of bad desert road, there are no other serious contenders for the Grand Prize.

"Dances With Wolves," "Awakenings," and "GoodFellas" all figure to be nominated for best picture. The other two spots will probably come from a group that includes Barbet Schroeder's "Reversal of Fortune," "The Godfather Part III" and "Avalon."

On the long-shot list are: Stephen Frears' "The Grifters," the best-yet Jim Thompson adaptation but one that may be too dark for the Academy; Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy," probably done in by Disney's and Beatty's super-saturation promotional campaign, and--dare we mention a movie that's taken in more than $200 million?--Jerry Zucker's "Ghost." (Remember: These are impulse choices. Nobody really votes for the best movie.)

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