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The envelope, please...

Is the Oscar race hazardous to our cultural health?

Some say yes. They argue that serious thinking about movies - a powerful force in society - is hardly encouraged by the circuslike atmosphere and emphasis on popularity over substance.

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Others say circus atmosphere is what show business is all about - one of the things, anyway - and that popularity isn't the worst measuring stick for something as mercurial as the Hollywood film industry.

Then, too, high quality does count, at least a little, in the sweepstakes. If not, box-office champions like "Armageddon" and "The Mask of Zorro"

would top this year's nominations, and artful productions like "Elizabeth" and "The Thin Red Line" would be scrambling in the technical categories instead of contending for best picture.

In fact, 1999 provides more evidence than usual that the Oscars can stretch our moviegoing horizons. Nobody expects "Elizabeth" or "The Thin Red Line" to win the highest prize, but the fact that they're nominated has prompted more people to check them out than would have otherwise.

Along similar lines, "Life Is Beautiful" has many detractors, but it's certainly refreshing to see a foreign-language film in the best-picture race for only the sixth time ever.

Indeed, all the best-picture competitors including "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving Private Ryan," the front-runners, are period movies that spice their stories with times and places very different from our own. This can be seen as proof of the film industry's depth and breadth. But it can also be viewed as reinforcing the suspicion that Hollywood likes to steer away from difficult issues of the here and now. It's easy to avoid tough contemporary questions and controversies bad for ticket sales by focusing on the past.

Some skeptics are also renewing their alarms about the "Miramaxing" of culture, with the venturesome New York company Miramax grabbing a record-setting 23 nominations. This reflects its skill at lobbying and hyping as much as the quality of its output. While big-money promoting is a part of show biz, it becomes a pollutant when carried to extremes.

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As if these matters weren't enough to ponder, there's also the hotly contested issue of Elia Kazan's special award. This honor is usually reserved for major Hollywood players - Alfred Hitchcock, for example - who were inexplicably passed over during their careers. Now it's going to a filmmaker who won two best-director Oscars in his prime, but is equally well-known for testifying against industry colleagues in a cold-war anticommunist crusade. His statuette won't quiet the ongoing debate over moral and political questions that his career has come to symbolize.

Hollywood glitz and glamour will reduce such issues to mere background noise during the actual Oscar ceremony of course, as millions of people watch the event (Sun., March 21, 8 p.m., ABC) on TV around the world.

Who will win and who deserves to win? Here are some predictions and opinions from this critic's notebook:

Best picture: The early leader was "Saving Private Ryan," which blends seriousness and entertainment in the proportions Hollywood likes best. "Shakespeare in Love" has Miramax's fierce lobbying in its favor, though, and the trade paper Variety notes that the movie with the most nominations almost always snags best-picture. "Elizabeth" and "The Thin Red Line" are too conspicuously artistic to have a strong chance against the clear emotional currents of the other films. And the odds against a non-American movie ("Life Is Beautiful") winning are lengthened even more by the fact that voters can honor it in the foreign-film category.

Likely winner: a tossup between "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving Private Ryan."

Most deserving nominee: "The Thin Red Line."

Best director: John Madden is probably the favorite for "Shakespeare in Love," but voters may give this one to Steven Spielberg as a consolation prize if his "Saving Private Ryan" loses the top award. Spielberg would grab it eagerly, since he's sometimes been bypassed for this prize. Peter Weir will surely be an also-ran, since "The Truman Show" didn't gather enough support for a best-picture nomination despite its extraordinary merits. And only sheer sentimentality can account for a slackly directed movie like "Life Is Beautiful" squeaking into this race at all.

Likely winner: Madden.

Most deserving nominee: Terrence Malick for "The Thin Red Line."

Best actor: Nick Nolte and Ian McKellan give Tom Hanks stiff competition. Hanks already has so many Oscars that voters may turn elsewhere. But he remains the front-runner unless McKellan sneaks in for "Gods and Monsters," a Hollywood-themed movie with nostalgic appeal for many academy members. Edward Norton is a gifted actor, but the nastiness and incoherence of "American History X" will count against him.

Likely winner: Hanks for "Saving Private Ryan."

Most deserving nominee: Nolte for "Affliction."

Best actress: Three of the contestants - Cate Blanchett, Fernanda Montenegro, and Emily Watson - are non-American actresses in non-American movies, but Gwyneth Paltrow's charm and Meryl Streep's talent make ability as well as nationalism a deciding factor in this category.

Likely winner: Paltrow for "Shakespeare in Love."

Most deserving nominee: Watson for "Hilary and Jackie."

Supporting actor: Five excellent candidates here. Robert Duvall is always at the front of the pack, and justifiably so, but his thinly written role in "A Civil Action" opens the way for James Coburn and Billy Bob Thornton, who made indelible impressions in "Affliction" and "A Simple Plan," respectively.

Likely winner: Thornton.

Most deserving nominee: Coburn.

Supporting actress: Rachel Griffiths has almost as much prominence as Watson in "Hilary and Jackie," but the unfairness of the "supporting" label will be offset if she wins the race. This is a highly competitive category, though. Judi Dench deserves the acclaim she's received for her few-minutes of glory as Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love." Kathy Bates is solid in "Primary Colors," one of the year's best-acted films. And the Miramax factor could help Brenda Blethyn for "Little Voice." The biggest surprise would come if Lynn Redgrave won for her overcooked appearance in "Gods and Monsters," but even that seems possible.

Likely winner: Dench.

Most deserving nominees: Dench and Griffiths.

All suspense will end as the statuettes are dispensed, but questions will linger as to why some of the year's best commercial releases were shut out of the race. Why is there no directing nomination for James Ivory ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries") no acting nomination for John Hurt ("Love and Death on Long Island"), no screenplay nomination for "The Last Days of Disco" or "Henry Fool" or "The Spanish Prisoner"?

On a broader level, does the absence of Jim Carrey for "The Truman Show" and Cameron Diaz for "There's Something About Mary" mean comedy's prestige is currently low unless the Holocaust is mixed up in it ("Life Is Beautiful")? And even if that's true, how could the antic "Rushmore" qualify for nothing at all?

Such are the mysteries of Oscar time, to be debated until next year's event knocks this year's out of memory.

Meanwhile ... the envelope, please!

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