59th ACADEMY AWARDS : HANDICAPPING OSCAR : A Film Critic's Picks for the Annual Office Pool

Oscar time is office pool time. And while it's possible to make a stab at the way the Academy may go--by using tea leaves, cocking an interested ear at the applause at the nominees' luncheon and consulting every oracle except the odds from the Frontier Hotel--there is always a block of nominees that baffle even the canniest home voter. They become each year's tie-breakers.

So, as a public service, I propose to wade fearlessly into these categories and present the First Annual List of Office Pool Tie-Breakers. Actually, these 59th annual Academy Awards also happen to be less predictable than any year in recent memory--the maverick tendency continues right up to the top six awards, which should make it very interesting Monday night.

The categories that usually hold the key to winning pools are the documentaries, feature-length and short; the live-action and animated shorts and the foreign-language films. The trick is, of course, having to see all of them in order to vote, an act which at the same time that it validates the categories, slims down the numbers of voters dramatically. (Can you imagine what would happen if all branches had that stipulation? Price Waterhouse & Co. could abandon calculators and count on their pinkies.)

I suspect that "Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got" will win in the feature-length documentary slot, because of the sheer fascination of Shaw himself and in spite of its running a little long. My personal choice would be "Chile: Hasta Cuando," best-made and most compelling of the lot. The voters' dark horse: "Isaac in America," in which I. B. Singer is his most pixieish and magnetic.

The documentary shorts are a bear to guess: I think academy voters will choose "The Masters of Disaster" (also my personal choice) about a group of black inner-city grade-schoolers in Indianapolis who have become a world-class chess team. They have much the same appeal as the young Jacques D'Amboise dancers, 1983 winners for "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'."

You could bet the farm on "Precious Images," in the live-action shorts category. It's that masterly display of wit in editing that compresses 60 years of peak movie moments into six minutes. We'll carp about where it belongs later--certainly not in something called live action. . . . And you might also be pretty secure with a vote for "Luxo Jr." in the animated shorts, which will make it a first for computer-animated work. These last two are also my personal picks.

Among the foreign-language films, "The Decline of the American Empire" may just do it, although "The Assault," for all its doughy second half, is the sort of Serious Business the Academy voters dote on. For me, "Betty Blue."

And there you have the tie-breakers. Racing through the rest of the ballot, in art direction, try "A Room With a View." Cinematography, "The Mission" (in spite of "Peggy Sue Got Married" winning the cinematographers' prize in their first annual balloting).

Costume design: I think "A Room With a View" will edge out the operatic foolishness of "Otello" and, alas, the lovely wit of "Peggy Sue Got Married." For editing, I'd guess "Platoon" and for makeup, you might hope it would be "The Fly."

Best original score: " 'Round Midnight" would seem to have a lock on it, while "Take My Breath Away" from "Top Gun" is a pretty safe bet as best song. What did you expect, "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space"?

For sound, I think "Platoon" will be on a roll; for sound-effects editing, "Top Gun." Visual effects may go to "Aliens." Among screenplays written directly for the screen, "Platoon" and for adapted screenplay, "A Room With a View."

And now those tough top six: Two weeks ago I might not have said this, but now I think James Woods may just turn up on that stage as best actor for "Salvador." His closest opposition would seem to be Paul Newman and Bob Hoskins.

For supporting actor, Dennis Hopper may win in an example of the Elizabeth Taylor voting principle (right actor, wrong role), since his demoniacally fine "Blue Velvet" performance was tippy-toed over in a favor of his more mainstream "Hoosiers" role.

For actress, I suspect that Marlee Matlin's passion and eloquently flying hands will win the day.

Dianne Wiest would seem to have the supporting actress category to herself.

And although we can be heartened by the Directors' branch for their iconoclasm in nominating David Lynch, this would seem to be a "Platoon" and Oliver Stone year, both as best film and best director.

You can do anything you want with these guesses: Paper hats are nice; homemade paper airlines are even nicer. Backing them with great amounts of cold cash is not suggested. As I have said for years, my usual spot in any office pool is at the bottom of it.

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