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Do Academy Choices Signal Trend Toward Seriousness?

HAVE the Academy Awards gone serious on us?

As a longtime skeptic who thinks the Oscar race has more to do with publicity and popularity than with art or even heart, I'm not a smidgen surprised to see a slam-bang hit like ``The Fugitive'' among the nominees for best picture. It's the kind of slickly produced star vehicle that pleases the film-industry establishment down to its money-grasping toes.

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But what's this following ``The Fugitive'' on the alphabetical Oscar list? No fewer than four of 1993's most substantial movies - each with a thoughtful theme, a reasonably smart story, and an interest in a social or historical issue far from Hollywood's usual domain. These pictures weren't even filmed in the United States, and the only one with a Hollywood-style budget is a black-and-white Holocaust drama with a running time of more than three hours.

True, a really skeptical observer might point out that ``In the Name of the Father'' has a violent and suspenseful story, ``The Piano'' spotlights sex and nudity, and ``Schindler's List'' has the powerful Steven Spielberg name over its title. In other words, each is equipped with the sort of ancillary element that traditionally propels a picture to the commercial success that Oscar finds so irresistible.

But finding myself in the unaccustomed position of academy defender, I'd reply that the mayhem and sensuality of ``In the Name of the Father'' and ``The Piano'' are deployed in the service of thoroughly respectable points - about the evils of terrorism and the vulnerability of oppressed women, respectively.

As for the Spielberg name, it's never been powerful enough to earn him an Oscar for best director - although it appears that the gravity of ``Schindler's List'' will accomplish what the fantasy of ``E.T.: The Extraterrestrial'' and its ilk have failed to do in the past.

And then there's ``The Remains of the Day,'' a civilized entertainment if ever there was one - the kind of literate drama that might serve as the token art-film nominee in a more typical year. On the academy's current list, tokenism gets turned on its head, with the Hollywood heroics of ``The Fugitive'' seeming more out of place than the earnestness of an understated historical romance.

This isn't to suggest that benign body snatchers have transformed Hollywood's commercial-minded minions into an army of serious-cinema mavens. Several of 1993's best movies are absent from the Oscar list, and it isn't hard to guess why. Nancy Savoca's religious ``Household Saints'' is too obscure, Terence Davies's autobiographical ``The Long Day Closes'' is too delicate, Mike Leigh's blistering ``Naked'' is too ... well, blistering. These films aren't represented in other categories, either, even though Davies's film has exquisite cinematography and Leigh's movie contains a performance by David Thewlis that blasts almost every rival to smithereens.

And if Spielberg sweeps the race with ``Schindler's List,'' it will be hard for us skeptics to resist the impression that academy voters are making up for past slights to Spielberg as well as honoring a new picture they genuinely admire. His contribution to Hollywood's financial health has been so great for the past two decades that everyone in Tinseltown must feel a nagging sense of gratitude, consciously or not.

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Still, this year's best-picture nominations have a solidity and dignity that deserve at least two cheers. They indicate that a long-awaited younger generation of academy members is consolidating a shift in sensibility that was signaled when ``The Silence of the Lambs'' made its sweep in 1992, despite visual and narrative ingredients (those horror-movie shocks) that would have placed it off-limits a few short years earlier.

There's good news in categories other than best picture, too. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett are named for their sensitive acting in ``What's Love Got To Do With It,'' one of the year's most underrated films. Tom Hanks is no better than the overlooked Denzel Washington in ``Philadephia,'' but Hanks's nomination - along with Ron Nyswaner's for best original screenplay - shows that a sincere look at the AIDS crisis is not too discomfiting for Hollywood.

And it's good to see offbeat acting by notably original performers in the running: seasoned professional Stockard Channing in ``Six Degrees of Separation,'' relative newcomer Rosie Perez in ``Fearless,'' and especially young Leonardo DiCaprio for his astonishing work in ``What's Eating Gilbert Grape.''

Surprises may be in store when the actual Oscar outcomes are revealed Monday night amid the usual swirl of self-congratulatory ceremony. Robert Altman could win as best director for the overcooked ``Short Cuts,'' even though it wasn't nominated for best picture. Emma Thompson could win as best supporting actress for ``In the Name of the Father,'' even though she's only in the movie for what seems like two minutes. For that matter, ``The Fugitive'' could walk away with the top prize of them all.

But it's not likely. Look for a Spielberg sweep, with nods to ``The Piano'' and ``Philadelphia'' along the way. That's my prediction, at any rate - but remember that I'm an Oscar skeptic, and my most astute forecasting stands an excellent chance of turning out wildly, hilariously wrong.