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Of cannibals and Camelot, beauties and Beatty

The ballots by now have been received, and the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have presumably closeted themselves with their consciences and their memories to nominate the best work in the films of 1991.

Some of their nominations already seem like foregone conclusions. If such names as Anthony Hopkins, Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte are not announced when the finalists are revealed on Feb. 19, their managers should demand a recount. Other names will be more surprising - especially if any of them refer back further in the year than the academy's usual three-month attention span.

Several good stories seem to be shaping up as the 1992 Oscar race gathers speed, and here are some of them:

The Cannibal Vote: Although "The Silence of the Lambs" was released in February, 1991, and academy voters are notoriously incapable of remembering movies made in the earliest months of the year, this movie made such an indelible impact on moviegoers that it is still remembered, and will get nearly as many nominations as if it had been a Christmas picture.

Anthony Hopkins, who starred in the film as Hannibal ("The Cannibal") Lecter, was introduced at the annual Publicist's Luncheon before last year's Oscars as the "Oscar-winner presumptive" for 1992. So he will be, if he is nominated in the supporting actor category. But he will probably be nominated in the best actor category, where he belongs. Then the voters, loathe to honor a cannibal, will vote instead for a more conventional villain like Warren Beatty's Bugsy Siegel. Other nominations for "Lambs" will go to actress Jodie Foster and director Jonathan Demme, and in the best picture category.

The Nolte Phenomenon: This is the year of Nick Nolte, onetime beefcake sex symbol, who has passed through a slough of desponding pictures to emerge as one of Hollywood's most admired actors. The evolution of Nolte from a handsome leading man to a serious actor took place by stages, in which he variously put on weight, grew beards and cultivated hangovers in a successful attempt to be taken seriously - and then, when he was, re-emerged in "Prince Of Tides" and "Cape Fear" as exactly what he started out as, a slim, blond, handsome leading man.

Along the way, he has been responsible for strong and original performances in such films as "Who'll Stop the Rain," "North Dallas Forty," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "48 Hrs.," "Extreme Prejudice" and "Q and A," and now, with back-to-back successes in pictures by Martin Scorsese and Barbra Streisand, he is a sure best actor nominee and the probably winner, unless he falls to . . .

The Beatty Effect: Warren Beatty, one of the smartest men in Hollywood, reinvents himself for one film generation after another. For a time, he worked so little that when "Dick Tracy" was released, polls indicated young moviegoers didn't even know who he was. Now they do again. Beatty's special gift is to attract to himself talented people with unusual outlooks, who help him create movies with a certain uniqueness. With "Dick Tracy," the strong points were visual: set design, special effects, costumes. With "Bugsy," it was an original script by James Toback, which he commissioned and produced.

"Bugsy" has been reprimanded in some quarters for supplying a glamorous portrait of a murderous man. Beatty was charged with exactly the same crime after "Bonnie and Clyde," and acquitted on grounds that the film was a masterpiece. "Bugsy" is not as great, but it's very good, and Beatty and Nolte will be the two leading contenders for best actor. (The film will probably win the best picture award, and a screenplay Oscar for Toback.)

The "JFK" Backlash: Is everybody thoroughly exhausted by the controversy over "JFK"? I hope the academy doesn't ignore the movie simply because it's tired of talking about it. Oliver Stone has been supported by the movie critics, attacked by the op-ed writers, and encouraged by the strong box-office performance of his film. At Oscar time, the academy, which cares more for movies than political fine points, is likely to nominate "JFK" for best picture, Stone for director, assorted actors for their supporting work, and a lot of technicians for their incredible contributions to the movie's balancing act of documentary and reconstruction. But Oscar fears controversy, and only the technicians are likely to take home Oscars.

The "Thelma & Louise" Thang: "Thelma and Louise" came out way last spring, but it made an impression on people, and academy voters will especially remember the work by topliners Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Will they both be nominated in the best actress category? Possibly; the competition is never as intense as in the male category. Will they split their vote? Possibly, but maybe not, because Sarandon enjoys unusual popularity and respect and may actually win the Oscar.

The "Beauty" and the Best Picture: Will "Beauty and the Beast" become the first animated feature to be nominated as best picture? The odds were good before it won a Golden Globe, and now they are excellent, because the Globe voters have shown the academy it can be done. Will it win? No, because it doesn't have people in it, and so voters won't feel they're voting for anybody.

Boyz N the Summer, But Not N the Winter: Last summer, the entire country was singing the praises of "Boyz N the Hood," John Singleton's extraordinary film about the difficulties of growing up unscarred and hopeful in black America. That was then, this is now. Will the film be nominated for best picture? I hope so. But nominations are more likely for "Bugsy," "The Prince of Tides," "JFK," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Beauty and the Beast." Its major Oscar is most likely to come in the "best screenplay" category, the same pigeonhole where the academy filed Spike Lee's work on another great summertime movie about blacks, "Do the Right Thing."

Great Mileage, No Gas: Some of the year's best work came in films from distributors in such financial straights that they're in no position to back them with expensive Oscar campaigns. Orion's "The Silence of the Lambs" seems able to make it, regardless, but Carolco's "Rambling Rose," with its wonderful performance by Laura Dern, may be a casualty of inadequate support. Solution: Dern should hit the talk shows.

How "Grand" the "Canyon"? The sleeper film this year - the one with the best outside chance at the best picture Oscar - is Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," which is quietly picking up speed at the box office, on great word-of-mouth recommendations. It has two key elements going for it: (1) It is a very good film, which never hurts, and (2) It is a thoughtful, positive film about life in American today, and the academy likes to honor films that reflect honor back on the film industry.

One key element in the movie's chances will be its box-office performance in the next few weeks. The voters like a winner. If "Grand Canyon" holds or continues to grow, it may provide a real surprise for "Bugsy" and the other contenders.

A Female Director? Among the women who directed films last year were Jodie Foster ("Little Man Tate"), Barbra Streisand ("The Prince of Tides"), Martha Coolidge ("Rambling Rose"), Jane Campion ("Angel at My Table"), Nancy Savoca ("Dogfight"), Nancy Kelly ("1000 Pieces of Gold") and Kathryn Bigelow for the underrated "Point Break." Will one of them be nominated in the almost-all-male preserve of the best director category? Foster may have the best chance.

A Male Director Gets His Due? Now that Cary Grant is no longer with us, the most talented and unjustly ignored non-Oscar-winner in the industry is Martin Scorsese, who just about everybody agrees is the greatest living director, even though he has lost Oscars for direction to such sometime candidates as Robert Redford. Now Scorsese has the biggest hit of his career, for "Cape Fear," not one of his great films. Wouldn't it be ironic if he got an Oscar for directing this one, after being passed over for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas"?

The Highlight of this Year's Oscarcast: This will depend entirely on whether the producers have the imagination to invite Andrew Strong, the 17-year-old Irish R&B discovery from "The Commitments," to sing one of the nominated songs.

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