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Who'll be there Oscar night?

Forget the presidential campaign. A far more savage, silent race has been raging for weeks now.

It's to snag the coveted Academy Awards nominations that translate into fame, glory and big bucks at the box office. Nominations will be announced Wednesday.

The studio-stoked publicity machine is striving to get members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to focus on just a few of the 238 eligible pictures.

Bowing to recessionary pressures, they've been doing it on the cheap _ down from an average $300,000 to $400,000 a picture. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are thinner by a third this winter with fewer, less elaborate "For your consideration . . ." ads.

There still were scores of Academy voters-only screenings in Los Angeles, but the big push this season was via videocassette. Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Boyz N The Hood and the obscure Irish romantic comedy Hear My Song appeared in mailboxes throughout Beverly Hills and Bel Air in January.

Without a clear-cut favorite such as Dances with Wolves, the balloting for 1991's best movies is expected to be less predictable than usual. Stars and studios are pushing harder to assure recognition at the 64th Academy Awards ceremony scheduled March 30.

Why else would Jodie Foster, Robin Williams and Kevin Costner stoop to appear at a charity luncheon hosted by the Hollywood Women's Press Club? Why else would the normally publicity-shy Foster make eight TV talk show appearances, not counting the Today show, where she abruptly stomped off camera when Bryant Gumbel insisted on talking about John Hinkley? Why else would Bette Midler do late-night duty with Arsenio Hall and Johnny Carson?

The front-runners are emerging from the mist, touting their Golden Globes and New York and Los Angeles film critics associations awards.

Let's run through the major categories.

Best picture

The top five _ Bugsy, Beauty and the Beast, Silence of the Lambs, Prince of Tides and JFK _ are fairly obvious until you factor in the variables.

Movies aren't nominated for artistic achievement alone. How they reflect on the film industry, who's associated with the projects, and how they fit with Hollywood tradition influence the Academy electorate, all of whom vote for best picture. (Actors nominate actors, cinematographers nominate cinematographers, and so on.)

Director Barry Levinson's Bugsy, named 1991's top dramatic film by the foreign press association (the Golden Globes) and the L.A. film critics, is a guaranteed nominee. It stars this year's hottest couple, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. It's opulent. And it's relatively restrained for a gangster flick.

Beauty and the Beast would be the first animated film to snatch the coveted nomination, and the Academy hates to set precedents. But it's such a wondrous achievement _ and so profitable _ that its nomination seems assured.

Besides, Beauty and the Beast would be a fine counterpoint to Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs. This tale of unmitigated, misogynistic-tinged evil has two factors working against it: It's grisly _ not a quality the Academy likes to fete _ and it was released at the beginning of 1991. Nominees and award winners historically have been end-of-year releases. Academy members have monumentally short memories. Yet, working on Lamb's behalf is its current Top 5 ranking among video rentals.

Prince of Tides is glossy, unabashedly romantic and based on Pat Conroy's highly regarded novel. That's a perfect combination, particularly since it's headlined by comeback king Nick Nolte and director-star Barbra Streisand.

JFK is arguably the best-crafted film of 1991. But it borders on political irresponsibility, and it's made by Oliver "They're out to get me" Stone. (Stone probably thinks this article is part of The Conspiracy to keep JFK from being nominated.) The director's personality and the hype surrounding his picture's premiere could undeservedly hurt its nomination chances.

Underdog contenders include: Thelma & Louise, a fine choice in light of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy; Grand Canyon, which has been embraced by Santa Monica Yupsters and the self-righteous of Beverly Hills; and The Fisher King, which boasts the ever-popular Robin Williams. Boyz N the Hood isn't one of the year's five best movies, but a nomination would demonstrate how liberal the Academy can be. City of Hope and Barton Fink are too esoteric for Academy constituents.

Best director

The director nominees usually coincide with the candidates for best picture. Expect Levinson (feted by the L.A. film critics), Demme (N.Y. critics and National Board of Review) and Stone (Golden Globes) to be nominated. Streisand, snubbed for Yentl, is practically assured a nod for Prince of Tides. She will be the first American woman ever to be nominated for directing.

The wild card is the fifth slot. Disney's unheralded directing team isn't going to get diddly for Beauty and the Beast.

This gives Ridley Scott a shot for Thelma & Louise, Terry Gilliam a chance for The Fisher King, Lawrence Kasdan a hope for Grand Canyon and first-timer John Singleton a prayer for Boyz N the Hood. (The last scenario would be worth it just to burn the ever-contentious Spike Lee.)

Although Martin Scorsese is popular among directors, his ultraviolent Cape Fear is too distasteful to be considered. It was booed at a recent Academy-sponsored screening.

Best actor

Anthony Hopkins, the incarnation of evil as Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, has been viewed as a top contender since Silence of the Lambs premiered. He was voted best actor by the New York Film Critics Circle but curiously was named best supporting actor by the National Board of Review.

He'll share nominations with Beatty as gangster Ben Siegel in Bugsy and Golden Globes and L.A. Film Critics Association award-winner Nick Nolte as the angst-ridden former football coach in The Prince of Tides.

Robin Williams may get a nod for Parry, his homeless man in search of the Holy Grail in The Fisher King. He's a perennial nominee, and the Golden Globes voted him best actor in its musical-comedy category.

Danny Glover has a strong shot as the earthiest and most likable character in Grand Canyon. He's one of the few blacks in a studio-backed, Oscar-caliber picture.

Kevin Costner could be recognized for his portrayal of New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison in JFK. He was riveting, and his performance was a monumental improvement over his Nottingham-by-way-of-California turn in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

River Phoenix gave a nomination-worthy, image-breaking portrayal of a narcoleptic prostitute in My Own Private Idaho. But the role is too controversial for the staid Academy electorate.

Best actress

Thelma & Louise's tag team of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon and The Silence of the Lambs' Jodie Foster are the strongest in the field. Foster took home a Golden Globe and the N.Y. Film Critics award for her dramatic portrayal of FBI trainee Clarice Starling in Lambs.

Bette Midler won a Golden Globe in the musical-comedy category for her USO crooner in For the Boys. That makes her a likely nominee, if only for bravely supporting so much latex and paraffin on her prematurely aged face.

Annette Bening burned white-hot in Bugsy. Laura Dern was lustrous as the housekeeper who couldn't say no in Rambling Rose. Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker captured the unspoken intimacy of their characters in Fried Green Tomatoes. Masterson and Parker are considered newcomers and their picture, like Rambling Rose, is too low-profile for recognition.

Better poised _ as well as posed and manicured _ is Barbra Streisand, playing the outspoken Jewish psychiatrist in The Prince of Tides. Some character stretch.

Long-shots include Jennifer Jason Leigh for her drugged-out Texas narc in Rush and Isabelle Huppert for Madame Bovary.

Best supporting actor

Robert Duvall's substantial legacy (including a 1983 Oscar win for Tender Mercies) should boost his prospects for a much deserved nomination as the loving father in Rambling Rose whose every sentence has the smoky-sweet sting of Kentucky bourbon.

He'll likely share the nomination with Golden Globe winner Jack Palance as the leathery cowpoke in City Slickers. Contenders include Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky in Bugsy and Jeff Bridges as the down-on-his-luck DJ in The Fisher King, as well as three JFK candidates: Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Tommy Lee Jones as suspected conspirator Clay Shaw and Joe Pesci as the toupee-topped mercenary David Ferrie.

Robert De Niro turned in his best performance since Raging Bull as the malevolent con in Cape Fear. It might prove too good _ that is, too intense _ for the Academy, particularly in field with so many potential nominees.

Samuel Jackson won the New York film critics' supporting actor award for his crack addict in Jungle Fever. Michael Lerner won the L.A. critics' award as the Louis B. Mayer clone in Barton Fink. Both could squeak past Kingsley, the JFK crowd and De Niro on the basis of the critics associations' kudos.

Best supporting actress

Golden Globe winner Mercedes Ruehl will likely win an Oscar nomination for her put-upon video store owner who helps redeem her boyfriend in The Fisher King. Her competition will likely include Jessica Tandy as the wondrous story spinner in Fried Green Tomatoes.

The rest of the pickings are slim: possibly Kate Nelligan as the manipulative mother in The Prince of Tides; Juliette Lewis as the sexually inquisitive teen in Cape Fear; Diane Ladd as the hard-of-hearing mom in Rambling Rose; Maggie Smith as a grown Wendy in Hook, and Anjelica Huston for Morticia in The Addams Family.

The weakness in the supporting actress category points to Hollywood's continuing reliance on male-driven stories.

While there were a handful of movies starring women _ notably Thelma & Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes _ most roles for women continued to be in the sub-supporting victim/distressed lover/cold businesswoman/slave to the kitchen category.

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