Three years ago, producer Stanley R. Jaffe left a cutting room to attend the Academy Award ceremonies. ''As I sat there and watched,'' he recalls, ''I was wishing that I was working on a picture like 'Coming Home' or 'Deer hunter' - a picture that was about something and that somebody would want to see. I had this awful feeling I'd just spent two years on this little picture that nobody was going to see.
''You go through that. Any producer who says he doesn't is lying - and they don't come any more sure of themselves than me. That's why a producer needs a positive support system around him. But even that didn't stop me from feeling very low that night.''
The movie Jaffe was editing at the time was called ''Kramer vs. Kramer,'' and a year later it won almost every award in sight. And while that was happening, Jaffe's head was deep into his next film, ''Taps.'' Though it didn't appear in this year's Oscar nominations, a small picture it is not, either technically or cerebrally.
On the surface, it tells the story of a group of students in an American military academy - run by a rigid, retired general - who seize the academy and defend it with weapons of war when developers threaten to take over the school and tear it down. The film has been seen variously as an antiwar tract, a tribute to honor, a defense of the military, and a dramatic warning against the effects of extremism. Jaffe sees it as none of these things, but he is also impatient when asked to explain the message he wanted to convey in ''Taps.''
''The first picture I ever did,'' he says acerbically in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, ''was 'Goodbye Columbus.' When we screened it for a group of college editors in New York, one of them asked the director, Larry Peerce, what he meant to say in the film, and Peerce said, 'What's the difference? I can tell you what I meant, but it really doesn't matter. I can't sit next to everybody and interpret the film the way I would like it interpreted. The picture means whatever you got out of it.'
''Same way with 'Taps.' Is there a reason I made it? Absolutely. Is the message clearly getting across to everyone? Apparently not. Is it getting across to enough people? Yes.''
OK, so what is the main point of the movie?
''My principal concern,'' Jaffe says, stressing each word, ''is that we are not watching what is going into the heads of our children. We are sitting in a society where Pavlovian responses are elicited by words like 'honor,' 'country,' 'duty,' 'friendship' - words if spoken by a single voice can lead a lot of people, especially children, down garden paths. There must be other voices entering the makeup of our children. In this case, we are talking about children in a military academy, but it could just as easily have happened somewhere else. It is finally, I suppose, a plea for the importance of a breadth of education. Our children are the most important assets in our world. That's why I am obsessed with doing pictures about them.''
If this kind of passion in a filmmaker seems a distant cry from the conglomerate figures who now own and frequently run the motion picture business, it is. Stanley Jaffe is possible only because he's successful. On his terms.
He had his run in the executive suites of Hollywood. He was actually born to such a job. The son of the chairman of the board of Columbia Pictures, Jaffe grew up at the feet of men like David O. Selznick and Jack L. Warner, who put a very personal stamp on all their films. But young Jaffe also immersed himself in the other side of the film business, the side that was taking over when he was growing up: high finance. After he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance, Jaffe was the complete film executive, steeped in tradition, creativity, and finance.
It took him only a few years of working in the industry before he was named president of Paramount Pictures - at the age of 29. The one quality that neither Jaffe nor his employers took into account, and that finally made such a job impossible for him, was passion.
''I had a big enough ego,'' Jaffe says, ''to move into a job like that at 29 and say, 'Sure, give me enough money to work with and I'll fix things for you.' I wasn't old enough to know that I wasn't supposed to say 'yes.' ''
During Jaffe's two years as studio head, he made some very big films for Paramount - among them ''The Godfather'' and ''Love Story.'' But he was restless. Even though he had a lot of autonomy, he disliked working in the ''confines of bureaucracy.'' He wanted to call his own shots, so back he went into film production.
''This has got to be, first and foremost, a creative business,'' he says. ''We don't manufacture underwear. I've got to believe - I do believe - there's a way to make good and thoughtful and entertaining movies and still make it work as a business - and not just by dealing with numbers.
''We've got hired guns running a lot of movie studios today - people who aren't first and foremost interested in the motion picture business. People who don't understand that unless you make a good film, the numbers don't mean anything. That may be starting to reverse itself. There were some really expensive clunkers put out this Christmas. The numbers have gotten ridiculously high and we may start seeing more decisions made by motion picture people.''
Whether or not that happens, Jaffe has no intention of involving himself in bureaucracy again. He's in the enviable position of being able to select his own properties, then spend a loving two years developing each one. He's been remarkably successful at it, falling seriously short only once with ''Bad Company.''
''It hurts a whole lot,'' he says, ''when you make a picture like 'Bad Company,' of which I'm still very proud and nobody - but nobody - goes to see it. . . . I'm very vulnerable to a picture not working because it's something I really care about. It's not just 12 reels or two pounds of film. It's something I believed in, and people are telling me they don't care.''
But there are two strains in almost all of Jaffe's successful films that set them apart - and are also almost totally anachronistic to the life and personality of the man producing them. Jaffe, who talks and thinks passionately, sometimes excessively, seems remarkably evenhanded in dealing with the differing points of view of his characters.
The fact that ''Taps'' is seen thematically in so many ways illustrates Jaffe's facility for balancing conflicting points of view. ''I am never,'' he says, ''without a personal point of view, but I think it's pretentious - and presumptuous - on the part of the filmmaker to load that view. It is very easy to set up straw figures to be knocked down. I think that ultimately the success of both 'Kramer' and 'Taps' is due to the fact that viewers didn't feel there were heroes and villains. Life for most people is not made up of convenient blacks and whites; we live in gray areas, and we deal with them.
''There was no resolution in 'Kramer.' We made the protagonists real people with real virtues and frailties. We've done the same thing with 'Taps.' When we meet the cadet commandant, he is a boy who has bought it all. When we leave him, he is a boy who has come to understand that you can't buy anything 'all or nothing.' The whole world isn't just black and white.''
Jaffe admits proudly to his immersion in cinematic themes involving children; this may have been accentuated by the division within his own family. He has two children, a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Both live with his former wife in New York. Jaffe lives nearby.
''I spend a lot of time with my children,'' he says. ''I like to go to the country with them, where we can spend hours walking in the woods and talking. That's more important to me than anything else. I know that I'm also excessive about my work, and I'm through telling myself the lie that first comes this and next comes that. Not true. Both have to run. You have to have a balance; at least I do. And so I have now reached a point where I can concentrate totally on my work when I'm working, and totally on my kids when I'm with them. And I don't mix the two up.''
Jaffe has examined on film the impact on children of the ''win at all costs'' mentality (in ''The Bad News Bears''), the pull and strain of separation and divorce (in ''Kramer''), and the results of exposure to a single, zealous, rigid point of view (in ''Taps'').
''Whether it's because of the economic pressures on the family that require both parents to go out and work, or the fact that the family unit in this country has been terribly affected by the growing divorce rate,'' says Jaffe, ''we have as a society been turning our children over to others to raise - to the television set or to school systems that are obviously inadequately financed and supported. . . .
''I think we have a chance in the '80s of starting back toward the '50s and to see more emphasis on holding the family unit together than breaking it up. Our only hope for that to happen is our children, and I think we've got to pay more attention to them and to what is being put into their heads. If you bring a child into the world, you have a responsibility to that child in every sense of the word.''
A few months ago, Jaffe's son told him: ''You're always on my case about grades and things like that but you never say you're proud of me for resisting things like drugs. They're all over the place, and my friends are into them, but I'm not because I don't want them or need them.'' Jaffe went home, contrite, and wrote his son a long letter describing his pride in the boy and trying to explain why it had not occurred to him to express it.
''How the options have changed for our children today,'' says Jaffe in wonder. ''When I was 12, the big decision was whether to play football or baseball. Now they have to decide whether or not to take drugs. I really did grow up in a world where we were taught that crime doesn't pay and we stood up when the teacher came into the room. And I grew up with a great passion for this country that was very much my own. We seem to be losing all that. The imagination of our children is blunted on television, and their thinking is done for them. It's time we started doing something about it.''
For his part, Stanley Jaffe plans to continue putting his passion on the screen. His next project will be a film called ''Still Missing,'' which deals with the interplay following the kidnapping of a child. ''It's going to be an intensive story about what happens to relationships in a time of great crisis. It will also be the first picture I direct.''
Then, in vintage form, Jaffe concludes: ''I've been around this business for 20 years, and I'm really good at what I do. I work hard at it, too, so it's not an accident when a film of mine works. Now I want to try directing. I think I've earned that right. If I'm good, terrific. If I'm not - well, that will be interesting to find out.''