ON THE EVE of the 52nd annual Academy Awards, "Kramer vs. Kramer" looms as the safest frontrunner in years.

ABC will broadcast the event live tomorrow night from the Los Angeles Music Center beginning at an earlier hour than usual -- 9 p.m. If you're competing in the Oscar pools, it would be advisable to plot your guesses around a nucleus of five major awards for "Kramer": best motion picture to producer Stanley Jaffe; best direction and best screenplay adapted from another medium to Robert Benton; best actor to Dustin Hoffman and best supporting actress to Meryl Streep. (For a ballot listing the nominees, see today's TV magazine.)

Rumors from The Coast continue to suggest that "Kramer" could be upset by Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," which shares the lead in total nominations with nine. Despite its hateful excesses, "All That Jazz" is a splashy display of innate filmaking talent. It appears to inspire inordinate admiration in the movie community -- partly in response to that talent, but essentially because it flatters the anxieties and vanities of an insecure show business egomaniac, a type more tolerated inside the trade than in the world at large.

It seems unlikely that the 3,600 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will prefer to indulge Fosse's self-indulgence at the expenses of "Kramer." The ideal Oscar-winning movie down through the years has been one that fuses popularity with some undeniable quality and social pertinence. "Kramer" fits that pattern snugly. It's also the overwhelming box-office hit of the five best-film finalists. A relatively frugal $6-7 million production nearing $80 million in gross receipts after four months in release, "Kramer" has almost doubled the take of Francis Coppola's profligate "Apocalypse Now" and far outdistanced the modestly successful "All That Jazz," "Breaking Away" and "Norma Rae."

Those drawn to "All That Jazz" may want to interpret it as a good omen that this year's obligator Oscar production number will feature Donald O'Connor and 32 supporting hoofers in a routine suspiciously titled "Dancin' on the Silver Screen." The prospect of an "All That Jazz" vogue strong enough to take votes away from "Kramer" but not strong enough to win, seems desirable if you share my opinion that the most deserving film is "Breaking Away." A split ballet might allow this remarkably lucid, harmonious American movie to upset the apparent favorites. Indeed, "breaking Away" is unique among the nominees for being fully realized, emotionally and thematically whole.

"All That Jazz" and "Apocalypse Now" are at best grandiose monuments to the overreching aspirations of Bob Fosse and Francis Coppola. Should one lookcharitably on the shortcomings of movies that have "Give Me Greatness of Give Me Death" written all over them?

What's authentically distressing about "All That Jazz" is not the representation of a compulsive Broadway showman flirting with self-destruction, but Fosse's underlying need for self-justification, so demanding that it corrupts his talent. An ostentatiously joyless musical, "All That Jazz" attempts to glorify a deathwish that seems all the more alienating for being smothered in affections.

Setting out to make a powerful epic about American intgervention in Vietnam, Coppola got lost up an allegorical river of no return. Mislying his initial literary guide book, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Coppola clutched at Michael Herr's "Dispatches" as a timely substitute, only to impose bombastic narration on a crippled narrative. This ambitious, fitfully impressive movie calls more attention to the filmaker's ailing psyche than to the conflicts of the characters.

"Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Norma Rae" thrive on vivid starring performances and a provocative exploitation of topical melodrama. Sally Field brings as much convection to the role of Norma Rae, a Southern textile worker attracted to union organizing, as Hoffman does to the struggling single parent Ted Kramer. Still, these pictures need to be forgiven major dramatic oversights of hypocrisies.

For example, "Kramer" pretends to take a balanced view of marital estrangement between an upper middle-class couple, although its emphasis is systematically one-sided, favoring Ted, the abandoned husband who learns to take responsibility for his child. The runaway wife, Joanna, never receives adequate dramatic representation. Her departure and later rationalizations for it are simply indefensible. Meryl Streep will win her Academy Award for trying to fill avoid with her own strong face and suggestive presence.

"Norma Rae" also struggles to have its socially conscious romantic cake while eating it too. Could anything be more quaint in ths day and age than a movie that goes out of its wat to show the heroine and hero getting acquainted while skinnydipping, then goes even further out of its way to insist that this relationship must remain platonic? What form of coyness is this? Perhaps a fresh outgrowth of the new myth that men are obliged to demonstrate virtue by acting more womanly.

While it's no contest under the circumstances, Joanna Krammer is virtually compelled to admit that her husband is a better mother than she is. The platitudinous New York union organizer who recruits and befriends Norma Rae resembles nothing so much as a Jewish mother. If the filmmakers had permitted the heroine to sleep with this nominally masculine yet spiritually maternal mentor, they might have violated one of the larger taboos.

In fact, the more one contemplates the dramatic refuse left strewn around by the competition, the more gratifying an upset by Breaking Away" appears to be. Since the great American film of the year, "The Black Stallion," opened too late to impose itself on the Academy's selections in a significant way (not that it would have anyway), why not the next-best American film of 1979?

Handicaping the event category by category, one begins by assuming that "Kramer" should have a lock on best film, possibly breakable by "All That Jazz" or "Breaking Away." Having won the Directors' Guild award, Robert Benton figures to repeat as best director in the Oscar balloting. The most credible challenges would come from Fosse or Peter Yates of "Breaking Away."

Hoffman is a deserving cinch as best actor. One gathers that he keenly wants to win on this occasion, his fourth nomination. Remember five years ago when co-host Frank Sinatra scolded Hoffman on the Oscar show for belittling the awards?" "Contrary to what Dustin Hoffman says," Sinatra declared, "it is not an obscene evening, it is not garish, it is not embarrassing."

I don't think he mentioned "stupefying," which characterized many highlights of last year's 3-hour, 22-minutes pagent. Sinatra isn't on this year's program, and Hoffman should have little to fear from two worthy competitors, Jack Lemmon for "The China Syndrome" and Roy Scheider for "All That Jazz," and two debatables, Al Pacino as the hysterical lawyer in ". . . And Justice for All" and Peter Sellers as the simpleton in "Being There," an example of deadpan acting that left much to be desired from where I sat. The most impressive overlooked performances in this category: Burt Reynolds in "Starting Over," George Burns in "Going in Style" and Nick Nolte in "North Dallas Forty."

Sally Field should prevail as best actress over Jill Claybrugh in "Starting Over," last year's winner Jane Fonda in "The China Syndrome" (happily denying her a forum of some fresh affection), Marsha Mason in "Chapter Two" and Bette Midler in "The Rose." The failure to nominate Barbara Harris for "The seduction ofJoe Tynan" suprised me. She's been nominated for supporting roles twice before, and this film seemed to use her poignance and eccentricity far more effectively than anything in the past. Romy Schneider, eligilbe for her wonderful performance in "A Simple Story," might also have given Field stronger competition.

Depend on Streep to waltz away with best supporting actress, continuing the Beatrice Straight gambit from "Network" of making the best of an expediently written estranged wife. Streep was more fun in the unnominated "Joe Tyanan." The other nominees are Jane Alexander in "Kramer," Brabara Barrie in "Breaking Away," Candice Bergen in "Starting over" and Mareiel Hemingway in "Manhattan" -- all better written roles than Mrs Kramer and decent performances to boot. Incidentally, do the nominations of Clayburg and Bergen reveal something about how good Reynolds actually was in "Starting Over?"

The only competitive top category appears to be supporting actor, where the membership has four superlative performances to choose from: Micky Roney in "The Black Stallion," Melvyn Douglas in "Being There," Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now" and Frederic Forrest in "The Rose." The fifth nominee is Justrin Henry,the little boy in "Kramer," satisfying the Academy's traditional juvenile quota. My preference is Rooney, more or less equally for his performance, his career and the greater glory of "The Black Stallion." I expect either Douglas or Duvall to win.

In the writing categories, trust "Breaking Away" for best original screenplay and "Kramer" for adapation. The cinematorgraphy branch embarrased itself this year by failing to include such outstanding as Caleb Deschanel's work on either "The Black Stallion" or "Being There" or Andrew Laszlo's scntillating nightscapes for "The Warriors" in its preliminary group of nominees. In a word, inexcusable. Nester Almendros, last year's winner for "Days of Heaven," is in contention again for "Kramer," but I'd lean toward the Italians, Giuseppe Rotunno for "All That Jazz" and Vittoris Storaro for "Apocalypse." The latter would vindicate Deschanel indirectly: He photographed several additional sequences directed in California by Coppola, duplicating Stora's orginal lighting schemes scrupulously.

"All That Jazz" won the annual award of the film editors' guild, whose choice is usually echoed by the Academy. Still, a vote for "Kramer" or "Apocalypse" in the editing category might be worth the gamble. Visual effects is wide-open, with five nominees that could credibly rally support: "Alien," "The Black Hole," "Moonraker," "1941" and "Star Trek." I think "Alien" deserves the prize, but it's worth remembering that "The Black Hole," "1941" and "Star Trek" were made in Hollywood, employed a lot of people and should have more voting clout within the industry.

"Alien" also seems the class of the art-direction nominees, but it might be safer to select "All That Jazz" or "Apocalypse." Just for kicks, string along with a "La Cage aux Folles" for costume design, since it's probably destined to win something tomorrow night and this is the most harmless possibility. Shirley Russell's costumes for "Agatha" appear to be the best of the meritorious choices. "Apocalypse" surely has the sound award safely lined up.

The "original" songs present a more or less united front of melodic drippiness. I suppose it's advisable to pick "The Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie," which will be performed by Kermit the Frog on tomorrow's show. I've decided to root for the relentless "Theme from 'The Promise' as a kind of symbolic choice, embracing and transcending the worst tendencies of all the candidates.

"Star Trek looks solid for best original score, especially with superior items like John Williams' score for "Dracula" and Carmine Coppola's score for "the Black Stallion" out of the running. "All That Jazz" should prevail over "The Muppet Movie" for original song score or adaptation.

The foreign language film is often difficult to handicap, since many nominees never graduate to thetrical release. "A Simple Story" is the best of the contenders know here, but I'm told that "the Tin Drum" (due to Washington at the end of the month), has considerable support "The Maids of Wilko" is a recent work by the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda and may be the class of the category.

Ira Wohl's "Best Boy" should be unbeatable as best documentary feature. It's alsoheaded for Washington sometime next month. A Washington production company, Charlie/Papa of Rockville, is responsible for one of the nominees for documentary short subject, "Koryo Cleadon" an informative and elegant art history film about Korean craftsman specializing in an ancient form of ceramics. While wishing the local team well in Hollywood, it would probably be safest to expect a win for "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist."

It sounds as if "Dream Doll" a spoof of "The Red Ballon" perpetrated by Bob Godfrey of Great Britain and Zlatko Grgic of Yugoslavia, is the best of the animated shorts, although watch out for "Every Child," evidently a Year of the Child inspirational exercise from the National Film Board of Canada. The top contenders for live-action short appear to be "Board and Care," which dramatizes the friendship of two young people affliced with Down's syndrome; Saul Bass' "Solar Film" for Robert Redford's company; and a comedy called "Solly's Dinner."

Johnny Carson returns as the solo host. Hoffman is scheduled to present a special career award to Alec Guinness. Kirk Douglas will present the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to producer Ray Stark. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has agreed to handle the posthumous presentation of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to the late United Artists exceutive Robert S. Benjamin. Special awards are also planned for Alan Splet, sound-effects editor on "The Black Stallion" (a consoltion prise in recognition of the gerneral neglect?), and Academy board member Hal Elias.

Bo Derek will be a presenter, along with Kristy McNichol, Ann-Margret, Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Charlston Heston, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Liza Minnelli, Harold Russell, George Hamilton, Joh Voight, Jack Valenti, Lauren Hutton, Tatum O'Neal, Richard Gere, Telly Savalas, Rod Steiger, Christopher Reeve and te admirably plucky Farrah Fawcett and Steven Sielberg. There are some couple acts among the presenters: Micky Rooney with Ann Miller, William Shatner with Persis Khambatta, Ben Vereen with Dolly Parton and Gene Kelly with Olivia Newton-John.

The new starting time is, I gather, inspired by ABC's rating considerations rather and a tender regard for television viewers and morning newspapers in the East. Nevertheless, it's comforting to think that this year's rite can't possibly be prolonged till 1:30 in the morning.