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Oscar choices influenced by new values

This year's Academy Award race finished the way most handicappers had expected. For one measure of its predictability, a 12-member panel assembled by Film Comment magazine (including critics and film-industry types) unanimously foretold the victors in several top categories and was close to unanimous in others. Surprising or not, though, the results of the competition hint at signs of change in the Hollywood establishment.

It's noteworthy that many Oscar-watchers spotted ``Platoon,'' written and directed by Oliver Stone, as the big winner long in advance. Just a few years ago this violent Vietnam-war drama would surely have been a long shot, ranked far below the safe and even ponderous pictures often favored by the academy.

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Academy voters tend to be longtime Hollywood citizens who built their careers in the old studio system - a system that celebrated formula-bound stories and conservative production values as the most dependable route to box-office success.

Add a sentimental weakness for ``prestige'' pictures with inspiring themes, and you have the reason for otherwise inexplicable events like a multi-Oscar sweep by the top-heavy ``Out of Africa'' or the victory of a well-meaning yawner like ``Gandhi'' over a magical tidbit like ``E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.''

In this tradition, one would have expected ``The Mission'' to triumph this year. It's a good-hearted, beautifully shot, and exasperatingly dull movie - all qualities that seem to attract Oscar votes.

Three other contenders also had strong Academy-type credentials: ``A Room With a View'' with its literary pedigree, ``Hannah and Her Sisters'' with its sophisticated character portraits, and ``Children of a Lesser God'' with its theme of courage in the face of disability.

Yet the winners for best picture and best director were ``Platoon,'' a deliberately upsetting plunge into wartime chaos, and Mr. Stone, an industry maverick with virtually no reputation as a hit-maker.

``Platoon'' is the kind of unconventional, gets-under-your-skin movie that sometimes creeps onto the nomination list even though nobody expects it to get many votes. Its presence in the race shows that Hollywood can't help respecting it - like Bob Hoskins's performance in ``Mona Lisa'' or James Woods's in ``Salvador,'' another Stone offering. But that doesn't mean anyone would vote for it over well-mannered and photogenic items like ``The Mission.''

The fact that ``Platoon'' won in the two top categories is a sign that Hollywood's old guard is being joined by, and influenced by, a younger and bolder generation.

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These comparative newcomers have been shaped by the fragmented, entrepreneurial movie scene of the '60s and '70s - a scene dominated by individual directors and writers clamoring to realize pet projects. The searing scruffiness of ``Platoon'' and the idiosyncratic career of filmmaker Stone speak to this generation more immediately and appealingly than to their older Hollywood counterparts.

This isn't to say ``Platoon'' is a great movie. Its plot mechanics are trite at times, and there's nothing new about its vision of soldiers pitted against one another as well as their common enemy.

Yet it's undeniably a groundbreaker in its iconoclastic insistence on the horror of combat. The victory of Stone and ``Platoon'' could mean a new emphasis on originality in future races.

In other categories, the academy made mostly right choices, given the nominations. Paul Newman earned his first Oscar in seven tries (not counting an honorary award last year) for ``The Color of Money,'' a spunky yet utterly calculated picture. The victory of deaf actress Marlee Matlin in ``Children of a Lesser God'' showed Oscar's perennial willingness to honor a newcomer with uncommon talent.

Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest grabbed Oscars for solid work in ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' as did Woody Allen for his complex original screenplay. Oscar also waxed familiar in smiling on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adapted screenplay for ``A Room With a View,'' from E.M. Forster's novel, and Chris Menges's epic cinematography in ``The Mission.''

The choices were appropriate in many technical categories, too. The makeup award couldn't have gone anywhere but to ``The Fly,'' which carries yuckiness to precarious new heights. The art direction and costume design of ``A Room With a View'' are memorable, and it's nice to see the bebopping score of ``'Round Midnight'' get the nod.

The award for best foreign-language film also went to an excellent picture: ``The Assault,'' a story of history intermingling with personality, directed by Dutch filmmaker Fons Rademakers.

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