ACADEMY FINALLY TAPS SPIELBERG

The 1986 Oscar nominations will be announced Wednesday, but no one expects the sort of fallout that occurred last year when everyone in the Milky Way noticed that Steven Spielberg had been excluded from the director's list.

You'll recall that Spielberg's "The Color Purple" received 11 other nominations, including one for best picture, but the boss himself was overlooked by his peers in the directors' branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Spielberg had missed the cut on a more deserving occasion--"Jaws," perhaps his best picture, was nominated in 1975 and he wasn't--but this time, it was supposed to be a two-horse Oscar race between "The Color Purple" and "Out of Africa."

It's hard to win a horse race with no jockey, and when it was all over, "The Color Purple" had received exactly the same number of awards as "Morons From Outer Space"--none.

Spielberg will receive an award this year even though he did not direct a movie. The academy's board of governors has voted to make Spielberg the 28th recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which goes to "creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."

Some people will inevitably read this as the academy's attempt to make up for last year's embarrassing snub, but it's hard to imagine a more deserving recipient of the Thalberg. Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, with him or someone else directing, has turned out some of the craftiest and most successful films in the industry's history. Among them: "E.T.," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and its sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," "Gremlins," and "Back to the Future."

Yes, and "The Color Purple."

At 39, Spielberg is the third youngest producer voted the Thalberg award. Darryl F. Zanuck, who became the first recipient 50 years ago, was 35. David O. Selznick, who won in 1939, was 38.

There are always surprises--of both inclusion and omission--to be found in the inch-thick packets handed out on nominations morning at the academy's Beverly Hills headquarters. (The nominations are being announced at 5:30 a.m. this year, to accommodate the network morning shows on the East Coast, and to allow movie fans in the Sahara to get the news before they put their camels to bed.) It was almost as much of a surprise last year to find Hector Babenco ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") on the directors' list as it was to find Spielberg missing from it.

A few years ago, some people were startled that Peter Yates had been nominated as best director ("The Dresser"), taking up a spot on the ballot they thought should have gone to Barbra Streisand ("Yentl"). Not long before that, Edouard Molinaro ("La Cage aux Folles") appeared on the directors' list and Woody Allen ("Manhattan") did not.

The only comparable surprise to the Spielberg snub this year would be if either Allen, who directed "Hannah and Her Sisters," or Oliver Stone, who directed "Platoon," failed to make the cut. That won't happen. This year, there will be a two-horse race.

Whatever else can be said about 1986 as a movie year (great for Paul Hogan and Paramount; terrible for Prince and Sean Penn), no film divided audiences in the way "The Color Purple" did. David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" got the critics stirred up, but their promises of a sadomasochistic, psychosexual version of Rockwell's America didn't herd many people into theaters.

Still, if there are to be any worthwhile jolts in Wednesday's announcements--and controversy is about the best show we can hope for as we suffer through this long drought in Hollywood--Lynch and "Blue Velvet" offer the best hope.

Lynch, who has won several critics awards for either directing or writing "Blue Velvet," was not one of the five best feature director nominees announced recently by the Directors Guild of America. That list included Stone, Allen, James Ivory ("A Room With a View"), Randa Haines ("Children of a Lesser God") and Rob Reiner ("Stand By Me").

The DGA slate is determined by a poll of the DGA's entire membership, which includes television directors, stage managers and production managers. The list is a good indication of how the directors' branch of the academy will vote, but there is usually at least one difference. The prediction here is that Lynch will be nominated (and that Norman Rockwell will spin in his grave).

Here, at minus two days and counting to the nominations, is what one person sees in his crystal ball for the major Oscar categories:

Best director: Stone, Allen, Ivory, Reiner, Lynch. In the hunt: Haines, Roland Joffe ("The Mission").

Best picture: "Platoon," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "A Room With a View," "Stand By Me," "The Mission." In the hunt: "Children of a Lesser God," "Little Shop of Horrors."

Best actor: Paul Newman ("The Color of Money"), Bob Hoskins ("Mona Lisa"), William Hurt ("Children of a Lesser God"), Jeff Goldblum ("The Fly"), James Woods ("Salvador"). In the hunt: Harrison Ford ("The Mosquito Coast"), Dexter Gordon (" 'Round Midnight"), Jeremy Irons ("The Mission").

Best actress: Sissy Spacek ("Crimes of the Heart"), Marlee Matlin ("Children of a Lesser God"), Kathleen Turner ("Peggy Sue Got Married"), Julie Andrews ("That's Life!"), Anne Bancroft (" 'night, Mother"). In the hunt: Farrah Fawcett ("Extremities"), Sigourney Weaver ("Aliens").

Best supporting actor: Tom Berenger ("Platoon"), Willem Dafoe ("Platoon"), Dennis Hopper ("Blue Velvet"), Ray McAnally ("The Mission"), Michael Caine ("Hannah and Her Sisters"). In the hunt: Daniel Day Lewis ("A Room With a View"), Steve Martin ("Little Shop of Horrors"), Ray Liotta ("Something Wild").

Best supporting actress: Dianne Wiest ("Hannah and Her Sisters"), Cathy Tyson ("Mona Lisa"), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio ("The Color of Money"), Helen Mirren ("The Mosquito Coast"), Maggie Smith ("A Room With a View"). In the hunt: Barbara Hershey ("Hannah and Her Sisters").

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