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Oscar gives small films a big snub

Spike Lee was robbed. The Woodman and Stephen Soderbergh, too. So were Kelly Lynch, Laura San Giacomo and Andie McDowell.

What do they have in common? Peanuts.

They all represent smaller, out-of-the-mainstream movies that the Academy of Motion Pictures tends to overlook at Oscar nomination time.

Spike Lee's $6-million Do the Right Thing was the most inflammatory, most important movie of 1989. But nominating a picture that advocates civil disobedience when racial equality can't be attained through traditional means is akin to the Academy shooting itself in its collective 4,700-member foot.

Lee and his movie deserved nominations for best picture and director. They won awards in those categories from the the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. But Lee is a radical _ think of what he might say at the Academy Awards ceremony _ and he isn't an insider in Beverly Hills, where racial unrest in Bedford-Stuyvesant is hardly a burning topic.

The Academy instead tossed a bone to Spike for his original screenplay and to Danny Aiello who plays an Italian-American pizza parlor owner who loves the neighborhood that turns against him. Now, if Lee had directed a movie about the life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Soderbergh's psycho-sexual comedy sex, lies and videotape stole Spike's thunder at the Cannes Film Festival. Andie MacDowell, the actress who played the frigid Louisiana housewife in Soderbergh's movie, split the L.A. Film Critics Association's best actress award with Michelle Pfeiffer of The Fabulous Baker Boys. Supporting actress Laura San Giacomo, who played MacDowell's adulterous sister, received the critics' New Generation Award.

The Academy gave sex, lies and videotape a single nomination _ for original screenplay. In the Oscar electorate's eyes, Soderbergh's modest meditation on modern-day relationships was too insignificant to consider. That's what you get for being a first-time director working on a $1.2-million budget with a cast of no-names.

(Yet, if the Academy considered how much sex, lies and videotape cost to make and how much it grossed, its return was proportionally better than Batman's.)

Woody Allen was nominated for best director and screenwriter and Martin Landau for best actor for Crimes and Misdemeanors. Yet, this superb reflection on good and evil and the existence of God failed to win a nomination for best picture. It's the peril of being too intellectual for the entertainment-fixated electorate.

Drugstore Cowboy, a $3.5-million movie about drug addicts roaming the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, postulated that drug hysteria would someday be used by politicians to set up a right-wing police state. That's hardly a popular premise, so the Academy just said no to fine portrayals by Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch. The Academy also snubbed screenwriters Gus Van Sant and Daniel Yost, who adapted James Fogle's novel, and had won awards from the New York and Los Angeles critics groups.

Every year there are nominations that make one wonder if the Academy electorate is living on Mars. Dan Aykroyd's portrayal of a southern Jewish mensch in Driving Miss Daisy was arguably his best performance to date. But it was his imposing girth and the make-up department's wrinkles that did most of the emoting for him. Julia Roberts got this year's Academy nomination as the medical weepie martyr of the year for her dying Southern belle in Steel Magnolias. Next to Dolly Parton's, it was the weakest performance in an ensemble that included the much more deserving Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah and Sally Field.

Similarly, it was surprising that Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin were both nominated in the supporting actress categories for Enemies, A Love Story, but the film's lead, Ron Silver, was overlooked as best actor. (This is particularly disappointing in light of Robin Williams' nomination for Dead Poets Society, a movie about school boys for which he essentially did a stand-up comedy routine as a nonconformist teacher.)

It was reassuring to see acting nominations for Kenneth Branagh in Henry V, Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot and Isabelle Adjani for Camille Claudel. These represent out-of-the-mainstream movies.

But one wonders whether film makers and the public would be better served by another awards group _ one for only low-budget and independent films.

Pictures like sex, lies and videotape, Drugstore Cowboy, Do the Right Thing, Mystery Train and Sidewalk Stories consistently get lost in the shuffle. They rank among the most important films of the year. But they can't compete against the public appeal and big budgets backing Driving Miss Daisy and Born on the Fourth of July.