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Welcome flexibility marks the Oscar choices

Oscar made a clear choice on his favorite movie of 1984. After nominating both ``Amadeus'' and ``A Passage to India'' in 11 categories, he smiled on ``Amadeus'' in eight of them, including the coveted best-picture slot. ``Passage'' got short shrift by comparison, scoring its only coup when Dame Peggy Ashcroft was named best supporting actress.

All of which is fine with me. ``Passage'' is the more respectable of the two, with its moody E. M. Forster story and National Geographic images; but ``Amadeus'' is more stimulating, whether or not one cottons to its provocative fantasies about Mozart's private life.

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Milos Forman earned his best-director prize, moreover, by making ``Amadeus'' both ornery and orderly. And the year saw few performances more intense than F. Murray Abraham's in the challenging role of mad, morose Salieri. Peter Shaffer's screenplay (adapted from his Broadway hit) is also a plausible winner. My only quarrel is in a technical area: The cinematography of ``Amadeus,'' by Miroslav Ondricek, has vastly more impact than the Oscar-winning work of Chris Menges in ``The Killing Fields.''

The race for best actress was dominated by three women who fought for their land. In choosing Sally Field for ``Places in the Heart,'' the Oscar voters went for all-out sentiment over the complexity of Sissy Spacek in ``The River'' and the intelligence of Jessica Lange in ``Country.''

There's nothing wrong with a nod to sentiment now and then, though, so I join in the applause. I also cheer the victory of Robert Benton's original screenplay for ``Places,'' with its transcendent ending that some call irksome but I find sublime.

It has been widely noted that recent nominations by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have steered more toward high quality than box-office clout. This is true to a degree, although low-budget and independent pictures still have an uphill fight against their big studio cousins. (Films on both ends of the spectrum, from ``Ghostbusters'' to ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' were completely left out of this year's running.)

In the actual vote, too, Hollywood status didn't always win the day. While the talented Sally Field has previous Oscar credentials, other big winners are anything but established studio fixtures -- especially first-time nominee Dame Peggy and the remarkable Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won as best supporting actor in his very first acting job.

These victories show a welcome flexibility in today's Hollywood, which knows how to honor newcomers as well as its own, at least from time to time. More on feminist video

Additional thoughts on the feminist video tour initially discussed in the March 21 ``On film'' column: As noted there, optimism isn't the watchword among feminist-minded video artists of the '80s, be they female or male. Running through their work is a clear feeling that the status quo for women, and Americans in general, needs a lot of improving.

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At the ``Revising Romance'' preview I attended, this attitude was acknowledged by Linda Podheiser, one of the curators who (with Bob Riley) assembled the program. Anger was a strong ingredient of tape after tape she viewed during the selection process.

I suspect this anger has a couple of sources. One is a general feeling that women have long been oppressed, exploited, and stereotyped. Another is the specific frustration many women have felt at being largely shut out of the film world, including the independent and experimental branches.

Given these conditions, it's natural and healthy to find video -- a flexible and newly accessible medium -- serving as a conduit for expressions of impatience and outrage.

It's also laudable that women have learned to give their works a distinctly feminine flavor. It's hard to imagine a man concocting the mixture of fairy tale and suburban violence that makes up ``Possibly in Michigan'' by Cecilia Condit, or weaving the homespun texture of Eleanor Antin's videotaped puppetry.

Despite these trends, moreover, feminist video is diverse and unpredictable. This is clear from ``Revising Romance,'' which serves up works as varied as ``Soap'' by Deans Keppel, a minimal study of household drudgery and soap-opera fantasy; ``Vault'' by Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, a surreal satire on media glamour; and ``Mother'' by John Knoop and Sharon Hennessy, a searing vision of male-female relations. (``Mother'' is one of the strongest videos I've seen lately, by the way, and not one of the weakest, as last week's article seemed to suggest.)

In sum, video is giving women -- and sympathetic men -- a new and malleable tablet on which to carve their grievances and engrave their dreams. Its future is open and exciting.

Playdates for ``Revising Romance,'' in addition to those given last week, include this Saturday and Sunday at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.; this coming May at the Northwest Film Study Center in Portland, Ore.; and Oct. 25 and Nov. 17 at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Canada.

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