SOME occult intuition tells me that the initials R.R. hold the key to the 1980 Academy Awards, due to be revealed with typical pomp and tedium tomorrow night at Los Angeles Music Center. That's R.R. as in Ronald Reagan and Robert Redford. (Better luck next time, Richard Rush.)
ABC televison will transmit the 53rd annual rite to a modestly diverted planet, beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern time. The ceremony is scheduled to begin with a greeting from President Reagan, who appeared as a presenter or commentator on four earlier Oscar shows while professionaly attached to Hollywood. The first president to participate in an Oscar telecast (FDR addressed the 1941 ceremony over radio), Reagan will speak from the White House and introduce this year's debatable theme, "Film is Forever."
In all likelihood the 1980 presentation will reward Redford handsomely for switching from acting to direction. His directing debut on the upper-middle-class domestic melodrama "Ordinary people" looms as the safest Oscar bet of the evening, and it could propel his film to four other major awards: best movie to producer Ronald L. Schwary; best screenplay (adapted from another medium) to Alvin Sargent; best actress to Mary Tyler Moore; and best supporting actor to 20-year-old newcomer Timothy Hutton. Moore's impersonation of a cold, unloving mother after so many years as an endearing comedy star on television represents the sort of about-face comeback that often proves irresistible to Academy voters. And Hutton gave a stirring performance as her rejected, guilt-ridden son.
Unfortunately, most of the major contenders, Redford's movie included, are such solemn, unmitigated downers that the ceremony may be desperate for a little luster. The morning after the nominations were announced, a colleague thundered, "I'm so turned off that I'm not going to watch the Oscars for the first time in my life. I'll do something else. Maybe go to a movie." Yes, the situation looks that grim. Rumors persist that the site of the ceremony, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, will be renamed Bleak House.At any rate, here are the likely favorites. (A list of nominees for the major Academy Awards appears in today's TV magazine.) BEST PICTURE
Of the five finalists for best movie, only "Coal Miner's Daughter" could be credited with resilient or inspirational tendencies, and those are expressed more tentatively than the story justifies. The spirit of renewal associated with an appealing Oscar contender doesn't exactly flourish in the barren emotional landscapes of the likely winner, "Ordinary People," or in "The Elephant Man," Raging Bull" or "Tess." One might make a case for these movies if they were as devastating and cathartic as the filmakers presumably intended. The problem is that they're not just downers but also downers compromised by triteness and confusion. The ideal uncompromising downer, John Huston's version of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood," was overlooked by the Academy despite extraordinary performances by Brad Dourif, Any Wright and Harry Dean Stanton.
At the moment "Coal Miner's Daughter," with film rentals of $36 million, is the only significant commercial success among the five finalists. It is placed sixth in the Variety compilation of rental leader for 1980, paced by "The Empire Strikes Back," way out of sight at $120 million. "Kramer vs. Kramer," the big hit of Christmas 1979, was in the runner-up spot at $60 million. "Ordinary People" ranked 26th with $13.9 million and "The Elephant Man" 38th with $8.5 million. Although they were released in the fall, several months later than "Coal Miner's Daughter," their modest allure can be measured by the fact that "Private Benjamin," also a fall release, shot into 7th place with $33.5 million.
"Raging Bull" has been strugglig at the box office from Week One. That may not prevent it from taking three Oscars -- almost certainly Robert De Niro for best actor and Thelma Schoonmaker for editing (she won the Editors Guild award last weekend) and possibly best sound, assuming the membership is inclined to follow through on the initial brushoff of "Empire," limited to three subsidiary nominations and one special award for visual effects.
"Tess," released nationally last month, has proved a surprisingly strong attraction. It offers a richer period texture and classier credentials than most recent films. Even its length may be particularly satisfying, allowing moviegoers an opportunity to settle down for a nice leisurely watch. "Tess" may have a lock on the four categories: best cinematography, art direction, costume design and original score. With some stunning luck it could take best movie and even direction. It's the contender to play if you favor longshots. Polanski has been getting some of the best reviews of his career for submerging his erstwhile ominous style, which would seem appropriate for Hardy's novel, in favor of imitating the academic formality of late David Lean. "Tess is sort of "Ryan's other daughter."
As long as the Academy was disdaining the box office this year, it's a shame more support wasn't thrown to the amiable iffy pictures, like "The Stunt Man" and Melvin and Howard." The latter has the inside track on two awards -- Bo Goldman for original screenplay and Mary Steenburgen for best supporting actress. BEST ACTOR
Although Robert De Niro seems the proable winner, the possibility that Peter O'Toole's flamboyant performance in "The Stunt Man" might upset De Niro is appealing. Prodigious as De Niro may be, his embodiment of Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" is more freakish and exhibitionistic than illuminating. While the star uses La Motta's legend to indulge Method acting to perserve extremes -- including pigging out to impersonate the retired, overweight boxer -- the director is intent on exploting La Motta to work out an identity crisis that eludes clarification amid a turbulent murk of sexual apprehensions, religious obessions and often brutalizating stylistic specialy numbers.
The Jack Lemmon ordeal "Tribute" is more raging bull in a show-biz setting. The candidates for best actor present a curious menagerie: De Niro, Robert Duvall (for "Santini") and Lemmon a trio of raging bulls, with John Hurt as a frail "Elephant Man" and O'Toole as a effete sly fox. w BEST ACTRESS
Mary Tyler Moore could only lose to Sissy Spacek, whose performance as country vocalist Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter" monopolized the year-end critical awards and offered a more representative and appealing image of femininity. Goldie Hawn, who enjoyed a considerable popular success in "Private Benjamin," seems the remote threat. Both Spacek and Hawn lack leading roles as consistently focused and effective as Moore's fastidious maternal monster, a caricature that certainly plays within the film's contrived frame of reference, and is reminiscent of last year's fashionable runaway mom, Mrs. Kramer.
Indeed, "Ordinary People" always looked like a follow-up to "kramer vs. Kramer," the 1979 Oscar champ. While less appealing, "Ordinary People" restated the morale-boosting, sentimental masculine theme of "Kramer" -- father and son bond heroically in response to emotional abandonment by woman of the house -- in a posh WASP setting with the characters 15 years older and a psychoanalytic Jewish mentor thrown in to upholster the joint in comforting platitudes.
The two remaining nominees for best actress, Ellen Burstyn in "Resurrection" and Gena Rowlands in "Gloria," suggest that practical joking can go too far, even among members of the Academy. Meanwhile, the wonderful performances of Judy Davis in "My Brilliant Career" and Dyan Cannon in "Honeysuckle Rose" are out of the competition. BEST DIRECTOR
Redford has already won the annual award of the Directors Guild, becoming the second recipient in history to be honored for a first feature. (Delbert Mann defied the odds in 1955 with "Marty.") If Redford impressed the DGA more than Michael Apted on "Coal Miner's Daughter," David Lynch on "The Elephant Man," Martin Scorsese on "Raging Bull" and Richard Rush on "The Stunt Man," he should have Lynch, Scorsese, Rush and the fugitive Roman Polanski -- nominated for "Tess" -- easily overmatched in the Academy balloting.
Redford has also agreed to make his first appearance ever at an Oscar show. He'll present a special career award to Henry Fonda, yet another example of a distinctive and durable star who has never won an Academy Award. Given the novelty of Redford's participation and the general weakness of the field this year, why waste the chance to capitalize on his glamor? SCREENPLAY
The Writers Guild confers annual awards in four categories -- best comedy and dramatic original, best comedy and dramatic adaptation. The Academy has only two writing categories, with no distinction between comedies or dramas. Sargent's screenplay for "Ordinary People" was named best dramatic adaptation and probably has the edge in the Oscars over "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Stunt Man," "The Elephant Man" and the Australian movie "Brekaer Morant." I'd prefer an upset by "Coal Miner's Daughter" or "The Stunt Man."
The Guild winners for original comedy and drama respectively -- "Private Benjamin" and "Melvin and Howard" -- are the major competitors for the single Oscar awarded as best original. The real best original of the year, John Sayles' "The Return of the Secaucus Seven," has been overlooked, along with Alan Ormsby's likable "My Bodyguard." Their absence of such knuckleheaded selections as "Fame" and "Mon Oncle d'Ameriqu absence of such knuckleheaded selections as "Fame" and "Mon Oncle d'Amerique." (the fifth nominee is "Brubaker.") BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Having swept the critical awards, Mary Steenburgen ("Melvin and Howard") would appear to be the favorite. The other young actresses, Diana Scarwid in "Inside Moves" and Cathy Moriarty in "Raging Bull," were also impressive, and the category could have been filled by young actresses left out: Beverly D'Angelo in "Coal Miner's Daughter," Pamela Reed in both "The Long Riders" and "Melvin and Howard," Amy Wright in "Wise Blood." The selection of Eva Le Galienne for "Resurrection" and Eileen Brennan for "Private Benjamin" leaves something to be desired -- like Lee Remick in "The Competition" or Blythe Danner in "Santini." BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The supporting actor category skims the surface of a deep talent pool. For example, the casts of "Brubaker" and "The Long Riders" could have monopolized the category, but there are no selections from either. The exceptional performance in "Resurrection" -- Sam Shepard's -- is missing, along with Sam Wanamaker of "The Competition," Scott Glenn of "Urban Cowboy," Slim Pickens of "Honeysuckle Rose," Levon Helm of "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Bill Duke of "American Gigolo." Timothy Hutton ought to enjoy a decisive edge over Judd Hirsch as his friendly shrink and Michael O'Keefe as the son in "Santini." Although it's difficult to imagine "Ordinary People" amouting to much of anything without Hutton, he could be upset by newcomer Joe Pesci, very good as De Niro's sibling foil, or the remarkable Jason Robards ("Melvin and Howard"), once again doing more with less screen exposure than anyone in the business.
Robards could duplicate Walter Brennan's feat of winning three Oscars for best supporting actor in three consecutive tries. Robards won in 1976 for "All the President's Men" and in 1977 for "Julia." His brief stint as Howard Hughes is brilliant. If Hutton has to lose, I'd prefer to see Robards deny him. BEST SONG
This contest should be a country squeaker between Dolly Parton on "Nine to Five" and Willie Nelson on the "Honeysuckle Rose" theme, "On the Road Again." Both will perform at the ceremonies, and Irene Cara will sing the two nominees from "Fame" -- the title song and "Out Here on My Own" -- nicely positioned to cancel each other out. The fifth candidate is a fleeting lullaby from "The Competition" called "People Alone," which will be sung by Dionne Warwicke with composer Lalo Schifrin at piano. It's disappointing that none of Jeff Barry's witty period numbers for the overlooked "Idolmaker" made this category. Barry, Michael Gore of "Fame" and Neil Diamond must also have been surprised when the music branch declared that the music adaptation/original song score category was being discontinued, for want of worthy entries. OTHER CATEGORIES
The most burning question posed by the 1980 nominees is, Who Is Paul Zastupnevich and Why Does He Keep Getting Nominated for Best Costume Design? Chosen for Irwin Allen's "The Swarm" two years ago, Zastupnevich is back this year for Allen's even more stupefying and unsuccessful "When Time Ran Out . . ." Seriously, what gives? Does this guy have the goods on everybody in the garment business?
In the foreign-language category, the award should be won by either "The Last Metro" or "Kagemusha," with the Hungarian entry, "Confidence," a possible longshot. The documentary and short subject categories should be kept out of Oscar pools. It's the rare moviegoers who's stumbled across one or two nominees. If you insist, give preference to titles that suggest profound social consciousness or cultural respectability. A YEAR FOR HUMILITY
Although "Ordinary People" should emerge the major prizewinner, it suggests a stodgy professional climate. Redford may have a productive directing career ahead of him, but this year's lackluster competition could distort it prematurely by crowning him King of the Off-Year. Even the token challenge of a rousing spectacle like "Empire," Hollywood's only blockbuster of 1980 (and only defense against a drastic slump), has been smoothed out of Redford's way. Scorsese and Rush are dynamic filmmakers, but the field seems diminished when directors as sophisticated as Irvin Kershner, Brian De Palma, Walter Hill and Jonathan Demme have been ignored. Redford is destined to win in a year when at least two unnominated first-time directors revealed more exiciting filmmaking intuitions and skills -- Taylor Hackford in "The Idolmaker" and James Caan in the badly neglected "Hide in Plain Sight."
Happily, humility seems to become Redford, and it's a year to accept accolades in all humility. In its uptight way, "Ordinary People" is a useful touchstone.After hearing a number of friends testify that it reflects their own austere WASP upbringings, I felt strangely privileged to spring from comfortably vulgar WASPs. Movies work in mysterious reassuring ways.