A POSTPONEMENT MIGHT be the happiest outcome of tomorrow night's Academy Awards ceremony, the 51st renewal of Hollywood's annual ritual of self-esteem and self-promotion. None of the heavily nominated contenders-"The Deer Hunter," "Heaven Can Wait," "Coming Home" and "Midnight Express"-seems deserving of a night of triumph, and I find myself more interested in Johnny Carson's debut as master of ceremonies than the results of the major awards.*tHere's an unlikely upset scenario that may appeal to those similarly disaffected:

"The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home" split the vote between Academy members who think of them as profound responses to Vietnam;

"Heaven Can Wait" beguiles the votes who prefer a nice movie that also cleaned up at the box-office;

"Midnight Express" rallies the drug-users, surely a significant constituency in the Hollywood of the Seventies;

The Academy Award for best picture of 1978 goes to Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman," the only alternative for voters who think that half a decent, thoughtful contemporary movie is better than none.

Nothing very bad could have happened last year, when the nominees for best film of 1977 were "Annie Hall," "Star Wars," "The Turning Point," "Julia" and "The goodbye Girl" - and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" inexplicably failed to make the finals. "Star Wars" ended up with seven Oscars, more than any other contender. "Annie Hall" won the major Oscars, best picture included.

But the undisputed box-office champion of 1978 was Allan Carr's excruciating "Grease," astutely ignored by the 3,500 Academy voters-and "Grease" enters Oscar night with only a best song nomination.

"Heaven Can Wait," with film rentals in the neighborhood of $80 million and nine nominations, ought to be the 1978 Oscar favorite if money talks-and if the People magazine claim that Hollywood loves Warren Beatty has any validity.

The movie is perfectly pleasant, but is it anyone's idea of a award winner? If his peers are thoroughly infatuated, however, Beatty could win four Oscars tomorrow evening. Competing as producer, actor, co-director and co-writer, he already has more nominations for a single picture than any filmmaker since Orson Welles with "Citizen Kane."

The direction of "Heaven Can Wait," officially shared by Beatty and Buck Henry, happens to be one of the movie's weak spots. The co-writing credit Beatty shares with Elaine May invites skepticism. While Beatty contributes decisively to his roles and projects, the thought of him actually stooping to the drudgery of writing remains far-fetched.

Seeing Beatty accept an award as the producer of "Heaven Can Wait" would seem totally justified, but he has no business winning the best-actor Oscar in competition with either the co-favorites, Jon Voight in "Coming Home" and Robert De Niro in "The Deer Hunter"-or the longshots, Gary Busey in "The Buddy Holly Story" and Laurence Olivier in "The Boys From Brazil."

Even in comedic terms his boyish jock in "Heaven Can Wait" has less distinction than Burt Reynolds' halfback in "Semi-Tough" and stuntman in "Hooper" or the contrasting frat members played by John Belushi and Tim Matheson in "National Lampoon's Animal House" or Christopher Reeve's Superman or Robert Morley's gourmet in "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" or . . . why go on?

Reynolds is still awaiting his first Oscar nomination. Popular as he is, Reynolds takes more chances as an actor than Beatty, particularly when it comes to playing characters his own age. He's also more adept at directing comedy, as the best scenes in "The End" demonstrate. Beatty is threatening to type himself as what one moviegoing friend aptly labeled "a perennial ingenue."

Voight still appears to have the favorite's role. "Coming Home" would have been in a daze without him. De Niro's performance is more creative, but desperately, in the tradition of Brando in "Last Tango in Paris"-one of those cases where the actor must overcompensate for an inadequately written role.

Voight's role as the paraplegic veteran in "Coming Home" is better written than De Niro's ineffable paragon, an idealized hero evidently designed to recall and fuse the virtues of Hawkeye and Beau Geste in settings that stubbornly resist such mythic heroism-a parochial, ethnic milltown and war-torn Vietnam. I don't think either is as evocative as Nick Nolte's impulsive, self-sacrificing soldier-of-fortune in "Who'll Stop the Rain"-Nolte shares honors with Morley as the most distinguished overlooked actor at this year's Oscars-but "Coming Home," a muddled, evasive polemical romance set against a backdrop of war in Vietnam, depends on Voight's sex appeal to stay alive.

en It would make more sense to spread around the major awards this year. For example:

Best film to "Heaven Can Wait"

Best actor to Voight for "Coming Home."

Best actress to Jill Clayburgh for "An Unmarried Woman."

Best supporting actor to John Hurt for "Midnight Express."

Best supporting actress to Dyan Cannon for "Heaven Can Wait" or Maureen Stapleton-the most indisputably deserving of all the acting nominees-for "Interiors."

Since Michael Cimino already has won the Director's Guild award for "The Deer Hunter," it's safe to assume that he'll repeat as best director at the Oscars. If there were a special award for aspiration, for striving after greatness, Cimino would win hands down. In the frivolous context of Hollywood his brooding solemnity is probably a great source of moral and artistic intimidation, likely to carry him as far as Ingmar Bergman or the Woody Allen who got seriousness.

"Heaven Can Wait," "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home" are still positioned for sweeps, so don't be surprised if one dominates the major awards. "The Deer Hunter" must be conceded the directing and editing categories on the basis of annual awards already presented by the directors' and editors unions. If it also wins the screen writing award it has been inexplicably nominated for, look for a "Deer Hunter" massacre.

The exposition of "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" may seem more maddening than edifying, but the filmmakers are given credit for having their hearts in the right place. My hunch is that "Coming Home" is closer to the patronizing, sentimental heart of liberal Hollywood. It's the picture most likely to be overrated as a decent gesture, the morale builder America needs to carry on after Vietnam. If the country reuquired such propping up from Hollywood, it materialized more effectively last year with "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters."

"Coming Home" has been in release for over a year and enjoyed only modest box office success. The film's reputation is much loftier in Hollywood and the press than it seems to be in the country at large. The same thing is probably true of Jane Fonda, an Oscar nominee for her performance as the heroine, a priggish military wife who blossoms erotically by falling in love with Voight, a wheelchair Mellors.

None of the films concerned with the repercussions of the war has caught on. The Academy Award for best picture is supposed to bring a bonus of $5- $10 million at the box-office. Both "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" may need that bonus to cover their production and advertising costs.

Producer Jack Haley Jr. has invited John Wayne to present the best picture award. The idea of Wayne presiding at the ascension of "Coming Home" or "The Deer Hunter" is little disorienting, but the 51st Oscars probably will need all the sentimental bolstering Haley can promote. Olivier will be honored with a special career award presented by Cary Grant. Although Ingrid Bergman will not be attending the ceremony, she is a best actress contender for "Autumn Sonata," and the prospect of her winning an unprecedented fourth Oscar also could give the evening a genuine emotional lift.

Haley had approahed Marlon Brando about presenting the award a Olivier, a mind-blowing prospect until Brando declined. The ceremony needs a witty emcee to prevent the formal, ruitualistic structure from succumbing to rigor mortis, and Johnny Carson may be the one to fill that role as effectively as Bob Hope once did. Haley apparently plans to eliminate production numbers and funny patter for the presenters, welcome comissions that should also make it easier for Carson to take charge of the proceedings.

Sammy Davis Jr. and Steve Lawrence have been engaged for a medley of notable songs that weren't nominated for Oscars in their eligible years. The selections range from "Our Love Is Here to Stay" to "Stavin' Alive." For the first time ever the five best song candidates will be performed by the singers who originated them: Olivia Newton-John on "Hopelessly Devoted to You" from "Grease"; Donna Summer on "Last Dance" from "Thank God It's Friday"; Johnny Mathis and Jane Olivor on "The Last Time I Felt Like This" from "The Same Time, Ext Year"; Barry Manilow on "Ready to Take a Chance Again" from "Foul Play"; and Debby Boone o the mystery tune, "When You're Loved" from "The Magic of Lassie."

The site of the rite is again the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. Channels 7 and 13 will carry the live telecast by ABC starting at 10 p.m. and ending sometime between 12:30 and 1 a.m. The show costs the Academy $850,000 to stage. ABC pays $1.65 million for the rights to televise it. Sponsors paid $290,000 a minute for the chance to reach an audience nearing 70 million. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; Picture, Does Hollywood really love Warren Beatty?