When watching the Oscars on TV, it's difficult to gauge clapping and shouting except in the cases of standing ovations or stunned silences. In person, levels of enthusiasm become thunderously clear.

Sit in the audience and it's easy to see that that the biggest conflict in the Academy is waged in the Academy members' minds, between their urge to award weighty, "worthy" movies and to acknowledge the pictures they actually enjoyed.

I learned this firsthand 21 years ago, when E.T. went up against Gandhi.

As critic for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and then Rolling Stone, I regularly attended Oscar ceremonies as a guest. But this one made the split in the Academy's mindset emphatically, audibly obvious. The dressed-to-kill audience strove to be respectful, but any mention of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece shook the rafters while Gandhi evoked at best polite applause.

Yet Gandhi beat E.T. and that other sublime 1982 entertainment, Tootsie, in almost every category, including best picture and director. Gandhi even won best costume design -- a hilarious choice considering Gandhi's austere clothing.

By the time Gandhi's producer-director, Richard Attenborough, accepted his second Oscar, for best picture, my row-mates had decided they'd had enough. Once Attenborough declared after an exhausting buildup, "You honor Mahatma Gandhi and his plea to all of us to live in peace," co-host Dudley Moore asked "Is it still this year?" -- and before Moore finished his question they began their rush to the exits.

In an instant classic and oft-stolen quip, Herald-Examiner columnist Joe Morgenstern (now critic for The Wall Street Journal) theorized that Gandhi won because Gandhi himself was everything Academy voters wanted to be: moral, thin and tan.

As E.T. demonstrated, Academy voters -- a Hollywood and international elite open to membership by invitation only -- often don't know what to make of towering achievements that are smack in the middle of the richest American film traditions. In directing, artists who've brought time-tested genres to new psychological depths or artistic heights often go unrecognized. So do actors who have seamlessly melded their star personalities with vital new characterizations.

Sam Peckinpah made the two greatest Westerns of the last 50 years, Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, but wasn't nominated for directing either of them. Spielberg should have been given an award for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T., but he found Academy approval only when he turned indisputably serious with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.

Thriller-master Alfred Hitchcock won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for "the most consistent high level of production achievement" instead of any best director prize. Only an honorary Oscar went to the immortal Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner). The same with Howard Hawks, who throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s was equally adept at crime films (Scarface), screwball comedies (Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby), Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo), private eye films (The Big Sleep), science fiction (he produced the original The Thing) and exotic adventures (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not). Even Frank Capra didn't become an Academy favorite until he stopped making sensual, morally ambiguous movies like The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), showcasing the greatest actress of the early sound era -- the fierce and luminous Barbara Stanwyck.

Undervalued actors

In acting, Stanwyck and Cary Grant and most recently Peter O' Toole accepted honorary Oscars, not best actor or best actress awards. Robert Mitchum never got a "real" or honorary Academy Award. William Powell and Jean Arthur were nominated (Arthur only once) but didn't win, and one of the most influential stars and talented actors of them all, Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), failed to grab a single nomination. Compensation for Robinson, too, came as an honorary Oscar.

Last year, the Academy outrageously ignored The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. If Academy members vote their hearts this year, The Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Finding Nemo and Seabiscuit will loom large in the nominations, along with smaller movies like In America, The Station Agent, and the inexplicably beloved Lost in Translation. If they vote for what they think they're supposed to like, look for those twin monuments to torpor, Mystic River and Cold Mountain, to weigh heavily on the list.

One thing's for sure. Many of the best performances of the year will not be mentioned.

Don't get me wrong: The Academy has often been adventurous in its acting picks. This year, for example, I expect Shohreh Aghdashloo as well as Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley to be nominated for House of Sand and Fog. All three deserve it for keeping the audience on tenterhooks as the story of a snowballing real-estate fight follows its too-neat path to tragedy.

But the Academy tends to over-value performers who break with established images (like Charlize Theron in Monster) or adopt disguises (like Nicole Kidman in The Hours) or accents (like Meryl Streep in anything). And the Academy tends to undervalue performers who dig deep into their own personalities and screen personae and find something revelatory and new.

Kurt Russell overflowed with gritty grandeur as a vigilante-style cop in Dark Blue. He started out as slyly entertaining as Denzel Washington in his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day (2001). But he ended up tapping infinitely deeper wells of truth, because director Ron Shelton and Training Day's own screenwriter, David Ayer, treated the character as a full tragicomic hero, not a crowd-pleasing villain to be exploited and killed off.

What made Dark Blue vastly better than Training Day may be what hurt it at the box office. It's easier to promote a film where the antihero / villain seduces the crowd and then gets killed than one in which he goes through a torturous redemption. Because Dark Blue fizzled financially, award-season promotion was required to gain Russell his due. MGM neglected to provide it.

Nick Nolte in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief was also terrific, bringing his own ornery aura to the sunny South of France. He combined utter veracity with his grungy glamour to embody -- more persuasively than anyone else ever has -- a drug-addicted master thief. Nolte's cold-turkey scene ranks with Sinatra's in The Man With the Golden Arm. But the movie, a stylish update of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 Bob the Gambler, proved to be too urbane and tricky to click with the mass audience. And Nolte's own drug problems might have added to the rap that "he was just playing himself."

Golden performances

Of course, as Golden Age stars like Mitchum knew, playing oneself could be the most difficult of all acting challenges.

The hip rap on Jeff Bridges in Seabiscuit was that he was merely replaying his title role of the inventive auto entrepreneur in Tucker. Actually, in Seabiscuit he gives a much fuller, warmer, and more mature performance of an entrepreneur with heart.

On the indie scene, Peter Sarsgaard and Hayden Christensen ought to get noticed for their intricate, unflashy interplay as moral editor and fabricating writer in Shattered Glass -- though when it comes to smaller films, the Academy often goes for glitzy or gritty flamboyance (hence the groundswell for Theron).

I was astounded to learn that even some people who love In America feel uncomfortable with lead actor Paddy Considine. To me, he's the crucial link in the movie. As a man hollowed-out by grief, he plays peekaboo with the audience. For much of the film, he only lets us glimpse his primal stuff. When his character at last confronts his grief over the death of his son, Considine goes all-out -- and the result is overpowering.

Director Jim Sheridan surrounds Considine with an inspired cast. Samantha Morton as his wife delves deeper than she did in her nominated work for Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, Djimon Hounsou works wonders with a potentially booby-trapped, shaman-like role, and young Emma and Sarah Bolger as the lead couple's children are astonishing juvenile performers, as fresh as Peggy Ann Garner, who received a special award as the year's "outstanding child actress" for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945. The Academy should resurrect those special kids' prizes.

There is no American actress more original, imaginative and versatile than Diane Keaton, and she delivers one of her supremely funny and emotional performances in Something's Gotta Give. Keaton can come up with a hundred variations on reactions that would reduce other actresses to a cliched simper. If any comic artist has a shot at winning the Academy's highest honors, it's Keaton. After all, she helped Woody Allen break the anti-comedy bias when Annie Hall (1977) won four major awards, including best picture, director, writer -- and actress.

Just as great, in her own way, is Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo. As a fish with short-term memory loss, she provided the uproarious Rube Goldberg psychology that kept all of the Pixar computer animators' marvelous curlicues afloat. But the Academy hasn't figured out how to reward actors who make superb contributions to feature cartoons.

Of course, the realm of computer animation also includes Andy Serkis, who was splendid again as the voice (and underlying live performer) of Smeagol / Gollum in The Return of the King. This movie has the most extraordinary set of performances of any fantasy film and maybe any epic: it's hard to choose among Serkis, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Bernard Hill and Viggo Mortensen. (On the movie's thinner female side, Miranda Otto stands out: as a spurned lover turned battlefield heroine, she certainly is stirring enough to win best supporting actress honors.)

For movies like In America and Return of the King, the Academy should follow the lead of the Screen Actors Guild and establish a best ensemble category. If presented early in the evening, an ensemble prize might cut down on the show's running time, since the lead and supporting actors wouldn't feel they had to thank everyone in their company. And a group acting award would add a much-needed touch of class to a night that's supposed to be about collaborative art, not just star power or commerce.

As one director friend put it, "I thought the lure of the Oscars was over when actors started thanking their agents."


Did win: 1932-33 Swank stage-based soap opera Cavalcade

Should have won: Giant adventure King Kong

Did win: 1942 Sentimental pro-British wartime propaganda, Mrs. Miniver

Should have won: Orson Welles' masterpiece of Americana, The Magnificent Ambersons

Did win: 1952 Turgid circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth

Should have won: Scintillating musical Singin' in the Rain

Did win and should have won: 1962 Landmark spectacle Lawrence of Arabia

Did win and should have won: 1972 Epochal family-crime saga The Godfather

Did win: 1982 Reverential, interminable biopic Gandhi

Should have won: Transcendent sci-fi fable, E.T.

Did win and should have won: 1992 Clint Eastwood's best Western, Unforgiven

Did win: 2002 Sizzling song-and-dance satire, Chicago

Should have won: Ecstatic epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

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