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Good Losers Prove That Winning Isn't Everything

March 25, 1993|ELISABETH GRAHAM | Elisabeth Graham is a free-lance writer who occasionally contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

If winning isn't everything, why don't we ever see an ad trumpeting a movie's number of Academy Award nominations the morning after the envelopes are opened?

Hollywood, which will laud its own in a telecast that begins Monday at 6 p.m., tries to perpetuate the myth that "it's an honor just to be nominated" but saves its highest praise for the winners. In many cases, however, a look at the big losers can provide at least as much viewing enjoyment as the more celebrated victors.

"Becket," for instance, had the misfortune of being released in 1964, when "My Fair Lady" swept the field. It won only one Oscar of its 12 nominations, for its crafty screenplay adapted from the Tony Award-winning play. The film, incidentally, stars Oscar's most prominent bridesmaids, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, each of whom eventually chalked up seven nominations without a win.

Burton is splendid as Thomas a Becket, who goes from wench-mongering rascal to saint after being named Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II, his boyhood friend. O'Toole's Henry is as tremulous and emotional as Burton is intensely contained, and both do justice to the subtleties of the screenplay. "Becket" is lovely to look at as well, but its visual treats always take a back seat to the thrust-and-parry performances.

Another film nominated for 12 Oscars was 1948's "Johnny Belinda." But the film only took home one award--for Jane Wyman as best actress--and was snubbed everywhere else for Laurence Olivier's showy "Hamlet" and "The Treasure of Sierra Madre."

Wyman's performance as a deaf farm girl is nicely understated, and she gets strong support from co-nominees Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead and the perpetually underrated Lew Ayres. "Johnny Belinda" is touching material and noteworthy for its non-exploitative treatment of the girl's struggle to keep her child despite her disability.

Soap operas have been recognized by Oscar, from "Mrs. Miniver" to "Terms of Endearment." But none of those that have been honored can match the slick pleasures of the big loser for 1977, "The Turning Point." It was nominated for 11 Oscars but won none in the year of "Annie Hall."

A glamorous and savvy backstage glance at ballet, "The Turning Point" can be treasured for its preservation of Mikhail Baryshnikov in his prime but also for the canny insider's edge brought to the film by director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine are completely believable as aging rival ballerinas without dancing a step and are clearly not taking their melodramatic turns too seriously.

"The Color Purple," a sentimental adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, was given one of the most controversial cold shoulders, in 1985, when it received 11 nominations--including one for best picture but none for director Steven Spielberg--and proceeded to win zero.

Other big losers:

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." With its 11 nominations and one award (for original story), this is the most conspicuous of the many films that were "Gone With the Wind" in 1939.

* "The Pride of the Yankees." It went one for 11 in 1942 despite being one of the best screen biographies and tear-jerkers of all time and the best baseball movie ever. It won only for editing.

* "Chinatown." Mowed down by "The Godfather, Part II," Roman Polanski's 1974 fully realized film noir tallied only one win (for original screenplay) for its 11 nominations.

Oscar's B List

"Becket" (1964), directed by Peter Glenville. 148 minutes. Not rated.


"Johnny Belinda" (1948), directed by Jean Negulesco. 103 minutes. Not rated.


"The Turning Point" (1977), directed by Herbert Ross. 119 minutes. Rated PG.


"The Color Purple" (1985), directed by Steven Spielberg. 152 minutes. Rated PG-13.


"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), directed by Frank Capra. 129 minutes. Not rated.


"The Pride of the Yankees" (1942), directed by Sam Wood. 127 minutes. Not rated.


"Chinatown" (1974) directed by Roman Polanski. 131 minutes. Rated R.

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