ON THE EVE of the 47th annual Academy Awards, to be televised Monday night at 10 with ABC beaming every teditus, expectant and triumphant moment to an estimated audience of 70 million, three movies are in close contention for the major prizes, including "best movie" of 1976. At press time Hollywood columnists and Las Vegas odds-makers were showing a lsight preference for "All the President's Men" and "Network," but don't be surprised if the night belongs to a low-budget sleeper named "Rocky."
It would certainly be more amusing and emotionally satisfying to learn that the Academy's 3,000 or so voting members, whose ballots were due on Wednesday, had elected to go for "Rocky", a heartwarmer so transparently derivative yet appealing that one can't help liking it even while seeing through its devices. The Oscar telecast gives the American movie industry a singular opportunity to attract a vast audience that hasn't been patronising the movies regularly. Enlightened self-interest would seem to favor putting one's most appealing attraction forward.
It's not as if the other leading contenders were making irresistible artistic claims. If anything, "All the President's Men" and "Network" are conspicuous examples of movies that seem to overrate themselves. The desire to express something important and contemporary is stamped all over them, but in the long run neither reflects a coherent or urgent point of view about contemporary events. These firms represent Jekll-and-Hyde extremes of pseudo-topical solemnity and pseudo-topical frothing-at-the-mouth. Their pecultantly contrasting perceptions of the news media - excessively respectful in the case of "APM" and excessively sornful in the case of "Network" - seem to meet by going too far in opposite wrongheaded directions.
"Rocky" can be dismissed as a banal conception, but there's a canny, disarming popular instinct guiding its very banality and conventionality. Sylvester Stallone, the young actor who made his own break by inventing and portraying the character of Rocky Balboa, a regenerated pug, has the and feelings reflect general longings for a little recognition and self-respect and for a second chance. Stallone's intentions may be obvious, but they have the virture of emotional clarity and conviction.
There are omens favoring "Rocky." Director John G. Avildsen and editors Richard E. Halsey and Scott Conrad won the annual awards of the Directors Guild and American Cinema Editiors, Oscar categories. Avildsen's award seems specially significant. If Stallone's performance has already disguised the nickel-and-dime level of Avildsen's direction within the Directors Guild, one can imagine the same illusion carrying "Rocky" to the top of the Oscar heap.
Avildsen appeared to face stronger competition for the Guild award, which should have gone to martin Scorsese for "Taxi Driver," assuming sheer, prodigious filmmaking talent counts for something, Absurdly, Scorsese did not make the Oscar finals, although "Taxi Driver" was nominated for best picture and two of its performers, Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster, are among the favorites for best actor and supporting actress.
Bill Conti, himself an Oscar nominee for the "Rocky" theme song "Gonna Fly Now," was appointed music director for this year's show, which is being produced by William Friedkin. It may or may not be significant that Ben Vereen, one of the most impressive members of the cast of "Roots," has agreed to sing Gonna Fly Now."
The success of "Roots" must have made some impression on the Academy, and the implications of its impact may bode ill for "Network." Unassuming as it is, "Rocky" remains the only Oscar contender that has stirred popular audiences as effectively as such recent TV features as "Raid on Entebbe," "Roots" and "Ministrel Man." How inconvenient that in the last few months commercial television has managed to upstage the movies in terms of dramatic impact and human interest! It seems exactly the wrong moment for movie producers in get uppity with their television counterparts by honoring a movie like "Network."
Although "Network" screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky sets ot to attack the corruption of TV news departments by commercial interests, the film becomes remarkably undiscriminating in its condemnations. Ultimately, Chayesfsky seems to be rejecting both the medium and a generation allegedly dehumanized by the medium. Of course, there's a special irony attached to seeing Chayefsky's wrathful "Network" in competition for the Oscars with Stallone's optimistic "Rocky": Chayefsky's own "Marty," a TV heartwarmer that was transformed into an Oscar-winning film in 1955, is one of Stallone's readily acknowledged imspirations, along with "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and "On the Waterfront." If imitation is the sincerest form of flatery, Chayefsky can certainly feel flatered by "Rocky."
Both "Rocky" and "Network" enjoy the potentials for sweeps. The former's 10 nominations include best picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and screenplay. The latter's 10 nominations cover these categories plus supporting actress. My own guess is that "Rocky" will take picture, director and actor while "Network" wins actress and screenplay.
The candidacy of "APM" may be inhibited somewhat by the absence of its stars, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, from the best actor finalists. However, the film's nominees in the supporting play categories - Jason Robards and Jane Alexander - ahve a decent chance to win, and the award for art direction appears a foregone conclusion. The superlative set of The Washington Post newsroom recreated by George Jenkins and George Gaines was virtually a third co-star, and perhaps the most memorable co-star at that.
The most intense human interest should focus on the award for best actor, scheduled to be presented by Liv Ullmann, herself a best actress nominee, who will interrup her local engagement of "Anna Christie" for 24 hours to attend the Oscars. Peter Finch, nominated for his performance, as the demented anchorman in "Network," died a few weeks before the nominatons were announced. Although nine posthumous Oscars have been awarded in the history of the Academy, none has gone to a performer. The previous posthumous nominations in this category - Spencer Tracy for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" in 1967 and James Dean twice, for "East of Eden" in 1955 and "Giant" in 1956 - came long after the actors and died. The immediacy of Finch's death, combined with the fact that his performance seemed assured of a nomination to begin with, may have created a situation that favors an unprecedented posthumous award.
There is only one nominee who can be considered safely out of the running - Giancarlo Giannianl, the Italian star of Lina Wertmuller's "Seven Beauties." Hollywood insiders appear to consider Finch's co-star, Willian Holden, a slight favorite, although he has won beofre ("Stalag 17") and drew the thankless starring role in "Network." De Niro's harrowing performance as the psychotic cabbie in "Taxi Driver" is clearly the class of the category, but he won the award for supporting actor (in "The Godfather, Part II") only two years ago, and the prospect of such a quick double seems unlikely. After all, it took Jack Nicholson five nominations to win, and Al Pacino is still 0-4.
The most agreeable actor-actress tandem would be Stallone in "Rocky" and Sissy Spacek in "Carrie." The Academy has never chosen two young performers in their breakthrough roles in the same year. Nevertheless, Stallone is not a cinch, and it seems remarkable that Spacek was nominated, given the general assumption that even brilliant acting is tarnished when it comes in the context of a genre movie. I think she gave the year's most creative and affecting movie performance, male or female.
If "Rocky" sweeps the awards, Talia Shire, who played Rocky's girlfriend Adrian, could take the Oscar for best actress, even though she probably belongs in the supporting actress category. Faye Dunaway and Liv Ullmann are considered co-favorites for their performances in "Network" and "Face to Face," respectively. There's a dispirting choice between good actresses. I can't think of any reason for rejoincing at the roles they were asked to impersonate and interpret: two of the most abstract woman ever fabricated by know-it-all male filmmakers with polencial axes to grind. Chayesky uses Dunaway's shallow TV executive as an excuse for scolding the younger generation while Bergman uses Ullmann's disturbed psychiatrist to work off his resentments against shrinks, no doubt an impuluse shared by many people in Hollywood.
Shelley Winters, a two-time winner as best supporting actress, is the greatest oversight among 1976 performers. Her richly deserving work as the manic Jewish mother in "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" did not receive a nomination, proveing that your peers may not notice when you finally do an archetype right. There would be no reason to squawk if any of the following nominees won - Jane Alexander as the informant in "APM," Jodie Foster as the child prostitute in "Taxi Driver" or Piper Laurie as the demented mother in "Carrie."
Robards is given the edge as best supporting actor for his spiffy impersonation of Ben Bradlee. The competition consists of Laurence Oilvier, nominated for "Marathon Man," a vehicle I would prefer not to remember him by; Ned Beatty, like supporting actress nominee Beatrice Straight a Big Speech beneficiary from "Newtork" and Burgess Meredith and Burt Young from "Rocky," both satisfactory alternatives.
Avildsen's competitors for direction are Sidney Lunct of "Network," Alan J. Pekula of "APM," Ingmar Bergman ("Face to Face") and Wertmuller, the first woman ever nominated in this category, Much as I dislike "Seven Beauties," it reveals it mor distinctive and ambitious directorial personality than the other contenders.Three of the year's most vividly directed - and commercially successful - American movies, "Taxi Driver," "Carrie" and "The Bad News Bears," failed to reach the finals.
In the music awards, the late Bernard Herrmann is competing with himself posthumously for "Taxi Driver" and "Obsession," Barbra Streisand would appear to have the inside track for best song - "Evergreen," the love ballad from "A Star is Born" she composed with Paul Williams - although Jon Peters has intimated that she might not turn up to sing it in person after all, owing to a fever and inner ear infection contracted while on tour in the Orient.
The Academy previously announced special achievement awards to "Logan's Run" and "King Kong" for special visual effects. One member of the special effects committee resigned in protest against the "King Kong" citation, complaining that the automated ape "simply failed to work." His apparent satisfaction with "Logan's Run" makes it difficult to think of him as a staunch defender of movie magic, which was better represented in "The Omen," "Carrie" and "Bound for Glory." Last year the special effects committee ignored a rather significant automated beast that did work - the shark in "Jaws" - while recommeding "The Hindenburg."
Friedkin has recruited Norman Maller to present the writing awards, which seem destined for Chayefsky and William Goldman, who did the forshortening of "All the President's Men." It would be far more appropriate if the award for best adaptation went ot Nicholas Meyer for the movie version of his own novel, "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," which added some nice suprises while adorityly transposing material from one medium to another. Incidentally, "Solution" appears to be the most accomplished and enjoyable movie of 1976 with the fewest Oscar nominations.
Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn and Richard Pryor will share the duties of master of ceremonies. Ann-Margret, who created a sensation gyrating at the Socar show 15 years ago, will headline both opening and closing production numbers. Red Skelton will introduce a segment devoted to movie comedy. The roster of presenters includes Pearl Bailey, James Cann, Chevy Chase, Louise Fletcher, Lillian Hellman, Jeanne Moreau (who recently married Freidkin), Jack Nicholson, Tatum O'Neal, Cicely Tyson and nominees Holden and Stallone. ABC's new warm'up special is an hour with Perry Como called "Music from Hollywood."
Tonight at 10 NBC is telecasting a speical called "Hollywood Out-Takes" in which syndicated columnist Marilyn Beck interviews several nominees and screens out-takes from the best film contenders. The old-fashioned may even prefer to sample the whole movies atvarious area theaters.