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Controversy Swirls Around Omissions From the Oscar List

Last night's Academy Awards drew some flak from people who insist the choices were slanted (report below). Our critic's own choices at right.

THE Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is used to disagreement. For the past 62 years, its annual Academy Awards race has drawn howls from film-lovers convinced their favorite picture or performer has been slighted on Oscar night. This year, however, disagreement has escalated into controversy. Many moviegoers and industry professionals feel the year's best films were not among the winners in last night's ceremony - because a faulty nominating process kept them out of the running in the first place.

``Do the Right Thing,'' written and directed by Spike Lee, was not nominated in the best-picture race, although many critics placed it on their best-10 lists for 1989. The film was named in other categories, including best supporting actor (Danny Aiello) and best original screenplay. But this wasn't enough to stop some observers from suggesting that unspoken racism tipped the balance against the production, which was made by a largely African-American cast and crew.

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``Roger & Me,'' hailed by many as the funniest and most socially alert documentary in years, was left off the list for best feature-length documentary. This drew a widely circulated letter of protest signed by more than 40 filmmakers, including such respected figures as Mira Nair and Haskell Wexler, who have themselves been Oscar winners or nominees. Addressed to ``the film community,'' the letter defended ``Roger & Me'' on grounds of quality and social relevance, and cited director Michael Moore's pledge to use some of the movie's revenues to fund a foundation supporting social-issue filmmaking. Academy defenders point out that ``Roger & Me'' has been criticized by reviewers for manipulating events and poking fun at working people. Still, the controversy has widened to involve charges and countercharges about the Academy's nominating committee, which includes a film distributor whose own documentaries have been Oscar contenders.

``Camille Claudel,'' the French entry for best foreign-language picture, is being shown in theaters - and was seen by most Academy voters - in a print nearly 15 minutes shorter than the version actually nominated last month. The same discrepancy affected Isabelle Adjani's nomination for best actress. According to Variety, the entertainment trade paper, this resulted from ``one of many arcane rules ... that are long overdue for revision'' to conform with ``realities'' of the American movie scene.

Film-industry commentator Lawrence Cohn also notes other anomalies in the foreign-movie race, including selection procedures designed to enhance the chances of pictures from secondary film-producing nations - but which may actually favor a cinematically active country such as France, which was also represented in this year's race as ``minority coproduction partner'' on two additional entries, ``Cinema Paradiso'' from Italy and ``Jesus of Montreal'' from Canada.

Taken together, these controversies made 1990 one of the rockiest years in Oscar's recent history. Most of the estimated 1 billion people who watched last night's ceremony were probably unaware of any disputes. Still, observers within the movie world are asking if such problems may spark changes in the Academy's practices, or at least in the thinking and voting that go into the awards.

A long-heard complaint against the Academy is that its rules are outmoded, and that its membership is too distinctive - since it lives and works in the film community and has a rather high average age - to represent the average ticket-buyer. The omission of such talked-about films as ``Do the Right Thing'' and ``Roger & Me,'' along with confusion over the ``correct'' edition of ``Camille Claudel'' and Ms. Adjani's performance, crystallized anti-Academy attitudes.

Ironically, the best argument in defense of the Academy is a cynical one: that the Oscars are nothing more than a popularity contest and a publicity gimmick. So it hardly matters what pictures wind up in the race. There is much to be said for this view, which implies that most moviegoers regard hype and favoritism as traditional parts of Hollywood's game, and therefore a legitimate ingredient of the Oscar race and its attendant hoopla.

It's altogether possible that the Academy will take a lesson from this year's disputes and revise its rules, its voting practices, its membership list, or all three.

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If this doesn't happen, most Oscar-watchers will tune in to each year's ceremony as happily as ever. And this will be just fine - if everyone remembers that Oscars are predicated on considerations of popularity and publicity alone, and are not measures of artistic quality or socially redeeming value.

That's hardly an ideal situation, of course. But that, I'm afraid, is how it is.

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