THE FIRST Academy Award-winning movie was "Wiggs," a rousing spectacle about World War I combat pilots that wowed movie audiences in 1927. At the 50th Academy Awards ceremony tomorrow night in Los Angeles, the thriving inheritors of that first-generation movie industry could demonstrate an amusing sense of history - and astute sense of self-interest - by voting the best picture Oscar to "Star Wars," George Lucas' science-fiction rouser about intergalactic combat pilots.
Surely "Star Wars" is the "Wings" of the present and foreseeable future. The picture has revived the kind of mass audience excitement and support pioneered by prototypes like "Wings" Commercially and socially, "Star Wars" was the movie of the year, a phenomenal landmark in popular entertainment. One might argue about its artistic merits, but one would also feel foolish trying to pretend that the year's "serious" movies were more impressive or even more artful.
At one time the overwhelming popular success of "Star Wars" might have assured domination of the Oscars. With domestic film rentals in excess of $140 million and no end in sight, "Star Wars" enjoys at least a $100 million lead over the other contenders for best picture, none of them flops: "Annie Hall," "The Goodbye Girl," "Julia" and "The Turning Point."
However, the very magnitude of the film's success may prove a drawback when it comes to winning the major Oscars. One exchange reported in an Esquire profile of Alan Ladd Jr., the president of 20th Century-Fox Pictures - distributor of "Star Wars" is about to pass "Jaws" as the domestic box-office champion. Should the company celebrate by taking out ads in the trade papers?
"No," Ladd replies. "We and 'Star Wars' should keep a low profile. 'Jaws' flaunted it so much it hurt at the Academy."
If "Star Wars" ends up an Oscar also ran, company presidents may be compelled to conclude that (1) gigantic grosses can produce an Academy Awards backlash or (2) it's impossible to get a line on the increasingly unpredictable tastes and inclinations of the 3,424 active Academy voters.
Fox dominates the nominations: "Turning Point" and "Julia" led all contenders with 11, followed closely by "Star Wars" with 10 and Columbia's rival science-fiction spectacle, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," with 8. If financial success and executive foresight mean anything, Fox should also dominate the prizes. Ladd's company was in the vanguard with the two significant trends in popular American films of the past year: science-fiction and melodramas centering on friendships or conflicts among women.
Nevertheless, Woody Allen's popular modulation from uninhibited farce to reflective romantic comedy in "Annie Hall" appears to have an excellent chance of upsetting the Fox applecart. If it does, and the Hollywood grapevine has been favoring Allen's film, anti-Hollywood jokes and all, United Artists, which distributed "Rocky" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," will have a three-year string to work on. Ironically, the executive leadership at UA, probably the most respected in the business, Left following a dispute with parent corporation Transamerica and has since set up shop at Warner Bros.
The mere appearance of "The Goodbye Girl" among the finalists for best picture, ahead of a more imaginative candidate like Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters," would seem to indicate that it has upset potential. It has done faster business than all the contenders for the top award except "Star War." To the extent that this success enhances the best actor candidacy of Richard Dreyfuss, the indispensable element in the film's appeal, one can feel grateful. He was overdue for a nomination, and the favorite in this category, Richard Burton for the dismal "Equus," is perhaps the sorriest excuse for a "sentimental choice" in Academy history.
Despite the failure of "Equus" to rally a movie public, Burton is regarded as a prohibitive betting favorite because he has been nominated six times before without winning and appears to have returned punchy but still game from losing bouts with marriage, drink and poor scripts. An Oscar for "Equus" would really test the theory that the award means instant millions at the box-office.
The best actress race is the main event. The nominees - Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine as the combative old friends in "The Turning Point," Jane Fonda as the aspiring, insecure young Lillian Hellman in "Julia," Diane Keaton as the sweetly dithering title character of "Annie Hall" and Marsha Mason as the two-time romantic loser in "The Goodbye Girl" - comprise the strongest field since 1972, when Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret" out-polled Cicely Tyson in "Sounder," Diana Ross in "Lady Sings the Blues" and Liv Ullmann in "The Emigrants."
Mason appears to be the long-shot in the 1977 finals. She certainly has the weakest role. Neil Simon makes her character slower to respond to Dreyfuss than the audience or Quinn Cummings, who plays her daughter. Simon can't seem to protect Mason as shrewdly as Allen protects Keaton. Mason's emotions are so close to the surface and manifest themselves so quickly that she tends to expose herself to hostility or suspicion as a "whiner."
Keaton, on the other hand, is a consummate evader. Annie Hall is not a complex character or demanding role. It's an ingratiating refinement of Keaton's personality, and it seems to have crystalized her appeal with many people in a decisive way. She inspires protective instincts, like Marilyn Monroe in her prime or Elaine May in "A New Leaf." Keaton's flustered act is designed to make sentimental virtues of such practical handicaps as nervousness and indecision. She's supposed to be so apologetic that she becomes sublimely disarming and endearing.
For some reason, perhaps a domestic life dominated by two small females and one grown female who don't know how to beat around the emotional bush. Anni Hall never evolved into my idea of an irresistible love object. In fact, the prospects of Oscars for Diane Keaton or Woody Allen no longer seem as joyous as they would have a year ago. Allen's determination to avoid the show accounts for part of the disillusion. The Academy has undercut Allen's assertion that he'd never be nominated by nominating him as actor, director and writer. It's some nerve on someone's part. By deliberately staying away from what could be a night of triumph. Allen is denying himself, his peers and his public an historic moment of pleasure. Is it all part of his master plan to evolve into a "serious" filmmaker and deny himself comedy too?
"Star Wars" or "The Turning Point" seem more appropriate symbolic choices for best film of 1977 and Shirley MacLaine or Jane Fonda more deserving alternatives as best actress. Their performances have an emotional coherence and affinity I simply don't detect in Keaton's. MacLaine, a four-time nominee who has yet to win the Oscar, is the kind of sentimental choice you don't have to opologize about. Despite its platitudinous air of nobility, "Julia" was complicated by the suggestions of tension and self-doubt Fonda brought to her depiction of Lillian Hellman.
"Julia," the prestige-movie equivalent of a high school valedictorian's address, could emerge from this golden anniversary ceremony with more Oscar glitter than it deserves. Hellman herself was welcomed like a conquering culture heroine at last year's awards.
Vanessa Redgrave, in the title role of "Julia," should take the award for best-supporting actress. The Jewish Defense League, allegedly outraged at her sponsorship of a propaganda film for the PLO, demanded that Fox boycott her. The studio refused, issuing a statement worthy of "Julia" itself. The JDL plans to picket the Oscars,and the PLO will counterpicket, with 500 policemen in between.Redgrave, also overdue for an award, is easily the most accomplished actress in the category. She might not have been if Sandy Dennis had received any support for "Nasty Habits" and Marcia Rodd had been seen by enough people in "Citizens Band." A surprise award for Leslie Browne, th eyoung ballerina of "The Turning Point," wouldn't be hard to take.
The supporting-actor category is almost an embarrassment of omissions. The favorite among the nominees appears to be Jason Robards, who won last year as Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men" and could repeat as Dashiell Hammett in "Julia." The competition is Maximilian Schell in "Julia," Alec Guinness in "Star Wars," Peter Firth in "Equus" and Mikhail Baryshnikov in "The Turning Point." A stronger field could be created from actors who weren't nominated: Tom Skerritt in "The Turning Point," Edward Fox in "A Bridge Too Far," Ed Flanders in "MacArthur," Joseph Carberry in "Short Eyes," G. D. Spradlin in "One on ONe" and John Glover in "Julia" (a one-scene part but a beaut).
The wide-open nature of the supporting-actor field could favor a glamorous newcomer like Baryshnikov, although he should probably share his award with director Herbert Ross if he wins. The effectiveness of Baryshnikov's dramatic debut on the screen derives from a large measure of artful concealment and consideration on the part of the director, who never asks for skills a non-actor can't supply.
Best actor might have been more fun to contemplate with certain veteran stars in the finals: Paul Newman for "Slap Shot," George C. Scott for "Islands in the Stream," Gregory Peck for "MacArthur." None were triumphant movies or flawless performances, but they loom large in a field supposedly paced by Burton in "Equus." The year's strongest dramatic performance - Bruce Davidson in "Short Eyes" - was also passed by.
A surprise winner of the Directors Guild award, Woody Allen becomes the favorite for the directing Oscar. Ross, nominated for "Turning Point" and the director behind seven acting nominees in that film and "The Goodbye Girl," should not be counted out. Ditto for two-time winner Fred Zinnemann, whose "Julia" cast placed four performances in the Oscar finals.
The transporting young directors, Lucas of "Star Wars" and Spielberg of "Close Encounters," will probably have to wait until their credits mount up or they direct a prosaic hit like "Rocky" before achieving the ultimate blessing of the Academy. Their significance transcends the awards: They have merely succeeded in attracting and enhanting an entire new generation of moviegoing kids for the industry. Things are improving: Spielberg wasn't even nominated in 1975 for "Jaws" and Martin Scorsese wasn't nominated last year for "Taxi Driver."
It is unthinkable that anyone but John Williams should win the award for original score, ideally for his stirring work on "Star Wars," which profits from the greatest romantic adventure score since the heyday of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The main title and end little bands on the soundtrack recording are exceptional musical pick-me-ups. Williams, also nominated for "Close Encounters," is his own toughest competition.
Bob Hope returns for his 16th stint as solo emcee following an absence of nine years. Here's hoping the evening passes without a punning joke to the effect that the Oscars are Hollywood's original version of "Star Wars."
The most irresistible anniversary promise is a glimpse of a 50-foot inflatable Oscar that is being mounted on the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. If only an animator could turn it into an imitator of King Kong, maybe slashing out at passing helicopters! Or if Irwin Allen could ignite it like the Towering Inferno! Perhaps a big wind from the desert will sever its nylon tethers. Anyway, it's less dignity and more 50-foot inflatable Oscars that they show obviously needs.
The list of awards presenters includes Olivia De Havilland, Bette Davis, Walter Matthau, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire, Janet Gaynor, Mark Hamill accompanied by R2D2 and C3PO, Paddy Chayefsky, Goldie Hawn, Natalie Wood, Jacqueline Bisset, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, King Vidor, Julie Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden, Billy Dee Williams, Raquel Welch, Oscar nominee John Travolta, Greer Garson, Sylvester Stallone, Henry Winkler and Kirk Douglas. ABC will televise the annual rite, expected to last about three hours, to a live audience estimated at 70 million beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern time.