It was a night for Cinderellas, sentimentality and senior citizens as "On Golden Pond," a popular tearjerker about an elderly grandpa facing life and death, took the top acting prizes at the 54th Annual Academy Awards. But Academy members quixotically voted the British feature "Chariots of Fire," a saga of social outsiders who become Olympic champions, Best Picture of the Year.

The two highly venerable stars of "Golden Pond," 76-year-old Henry Fonda and 72-year-old Katharine Hepburn--neither of whom attended the ceremony at the Los Angeles Music Center--won the Best Actor and Best Actress prizes, beating out such youngsters as Warren "Reds" Beatty, who did win the Oscar for Best Director, and Diane Keaton, also a "Reds" nominee for Best Actress. It was Fonda's second Oscar nomination and his first competitive win; he was given an honorary career award last year.

Hepburn, who plays Fonda's solicitous old spouse in the film, became the first movie star in history to win four acting Oscars. Her previous wins were for "Morning Glory" (1933), "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967) and "The Lion in Winter" (1968), when she tied with Barbra Streisand ("Funny Girl").

Hepburn, currently appearing at the Kennedy Center in the stage play "West Side Waltz"--also written by Ernest Thompson, a winner for best adapted screenplay last night--did not show up, and her Oscar was accepted by actor Jon Voight. Accepting for Fonda was his daughter, Jane, who appeared with Fonda in the film and was herself nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She made the night's gushiest and mushiest acceptance speech.

"Oh Dad, I'm so happy and proud for you," she said into the camera. "My father didn't really believe that this was going to happen," she told the audience. "I'll bet he said, 'Hey, ain't I lucky,' as though luck had anything to do with it . . . I know he feels he never would have won this if it hadn't been for Katharine Hepburn."

Then, clutching the Oscar militantly in her extended fist, Fonda said, "Dad, me and all the grandchildren are comin' over with it right away." Fonda's wife Shirlee was going to accept, but said later she wanted to be with the ailing actor at home.

"The total ages of tonight's winners could set an Oscar record," a press aide to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had said before the show. In addition to Fonda and Hepburn, John Gielgud, 68, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Gielgud, also not present at the ceremony, played the peerlessly imperious butler Hobson in the huge comedy hit "Arthur."

"Reds," which had been nominated for 12 awards--more than any other film this year--won only three: best supporting actress (Maureen Stapleton), best cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and best director, Beatty. "Pond," which garnered 10 nominations, won three. "Raiders of the Lost Ark," by far the year's highest-grossing film, won for best art direction, visual effects, sound and editing.

"Chariots," decidedly the underdog of the evening and described as a "Cinderella film" by its producer, David Puttnam, won, in addition to Best Picture, awards for its original score, costumes, and original screenplay (Colin Welland).

In accepting his award for directing "Reds," Beatty--who has twice been nominated in four different Oscar categories, the first filmmaker to do so since Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" in 1941--addressed part of his speech to "Miss Keaton," his costar and frequent companion; "You make every director that you work with look good." Beatty also gave thanks to "the great capitalistic tower of Gulf & Western" for daring to invest in a movie about "the beginnings of American socialism and American communism" and said this gesture "reflects credit on Hollywood . . . and on the freedom of expression we have in our society." Hollywood talk had suggested a possible clean sweep for Beatty and his film, awards it may need to move past the break-even point at the box office where it now rests. It has been speculated that major Oscars can add $20 million to a film's grosses. "Reds," which weighs in at 3 1/2 hours, cost an estimated $35 million to make.

Former actor and Catholic University drama student Thompson, accepting his award for best adapted screenplay--the script for "On Golden Pond" he refashioned from his hit play--thanked, among others, Richard L. Coe, drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post and an early mentor of Thompson's. Thompson, wearing a silk scarf over his tux, also said, "I wish my father were alive tonight," suggesting the character played in the film by Henry Fonda had a real-life inspiration.

Colin Welland, who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for "Chariots of Fire"--a surprise victory--expressed his gratitude "to British television, where I learned my craft," and concluded by saying, "a word of warning: you may have started something. The British are coming."

The Oscar for best foreign language film went to "Mephisto," a Hungarian film about a German actor who lived through the Third Reich and beyond. Gregory Peck presented the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to comedian and actor Danny Kaye, who said, "If I were any more delighted, I think I'd be in an institution," and spoke out against "disease," "famine" and "neglect."

"I'm thrilled, happy, delighted, sober," said Maureen Stapleton, accepting the Oscar for her portrayal of battling old lefty Emma Goldman in "Reds" and becoming the first recipient of the evening. Stapleton, who beat out Melinda Dillon, Jane Fonda, Joan Hackett and Elizabeth McGovern for the award, thanked "my inspiration, actor Joel McCrea," a number of colleagues and, she said, "everybody that I ever met in my entire life." It was the 56-year-old actress's fourth Oscar nomination, but her first win.

Producer Howard W. Koch had elicited a pledge from comedy star Dan Aykroyd before the telecast that Aykroyd, who was to have been teamed as a presenter last night with his fellow "Blues Brother" and "Saturday Night Live" alumnus John Belushi, would not use his time at the podium to eulogize Belushi, who died in Hollywood on March 5. Koch felt that because of the deaths of other celebrated performers within the past year, it would be unfair to dwell on the death of Belushi.

But in presenting the award for best visual effects, Aykroyd said, "My partner would have loved presenting this award with me; he was something of a visual effect himself." He did not mention Belushi by name.

Among the emotional highlights of the evening was the presentation of a Board of Governors' honorary award to veteran actress Barbara Stanwyck, who was four times nominated for acting Oscars but never won. "I tried many times to get it, but I didn't make it, so this is, indeed, very special to me," said Stanwyck, 74, as she gripped the Oscar.

In her remarks, she spoke of the late William Holden, with whom she costarred in "Golden Boy" and who once credited her with inspiring him to become a movie actor. "I loved him very much," said Stanwyck, her voice beginning to crack, "and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar, and so tonight, my golden boy, you've got your wish." It may have been the classiest and most touching acceptance speech of the evening.

Stanwyck began her film acting career in 1927 and has appeared in 80 films, as well as the popular TV series "The Big Valley." Her four nominations were for her roles in "Stella Dallas" (1937), "Ball of Fire" (1941), "Double Indemnity" (1944) and the thriller "Sorry, Wrong Number" (1948).

Flashy production numbers, traditional at the Oscars, included a gaudy James Bondish rendition of the Oscar-nominated song "For Your Eyes Only" sung by Sheena Easton and, more beguilingly by far, a spectacular tribute to the late songwriter Harry Warren, who died last year but is still represented on Broadway in David Merrick's successful production of "42nd Street." His songs were performed by Debbie Allen and Gregory Hines.

During his nothing-if-not-prolific career, Warren was nominated 11 times for Oscars and three times won with his toe-tapping ditties.

Another musical highlight was a virtuoso performance of "The First Time It Happens" by the romantic Hollywood duo who introduced it in "The Great Muppet Caper," Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. Miss Piggy's gown was among the evening's more certifiable eye-poppers, even if visible only from the sow-belly up.

Any hint of spontaneous levity is to be welcomed in such an evening, and it was amply provided by singer Bette Midler, who all but levitated in a low-cut gown that enabled her, she said, "to rise to the occasion." In listing nominees for best original song ("an original song written especially for the movie, not just some piece of junk the producer found in a piano bench"), Midler also proved something of an astute movie critic. She referred to one song as " 'Endless Love,' from the endless movie 'Endless Love,' " and said of "For Your Eyes Only," whose title tune was nominated, that "they were right, because I couldn't watch a frame of it."

It was a rousingly received crowd-pleasing stint and, coming in the show's third weary hour, all but a godsend.

In host Johnny Carson's opening monologue, the comedian joked that "Secretary of the Interior James Watt today approved offshore drilling on Golden Pond" and called the Oscar event "the day Hollywood puts aside its petty jealousies and brings out its major jealousies."

But Carson may have been topped in the nifties department by, of all people, Liberace, who rose from beneath the stage seated at a bejewelled Baldwin, right after the title card from his first and only movie, the 1956 bomb "Sincerely Yours." Said the flamboyant pianist, "Well, I've done my part for motion pictures. I stopped making them." He introduced Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, stars of the sultry but un-nominated film "Body Heat," by asking, "Who better to present the scoring awards?"

The award for best documentary feature went to "Genocide," about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. "Close Harmony," which joined, in song, students and senior citizens in Brooklyn, won the prize for best documentary short. The film chosen best animated short subject was "Crac"--a Canadian-made comedy--and "Violet," an entry from the American Film Institute, was named best live action short.

Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli, who has produced or coproduced the dozen phenomenally successful "James Bond" movies, received the Academy's honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Broccoli, who referred to himself as "a farm boy from Long Island," said, "This is an important moment in my life" and "the highest point in my career."

A Southern California rain outside the Music Center did not deter crowds who came to gape at stars or to protest grievances against the motion picture industry--including contingents of blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Asians who carried placards objecting to the lack of roles for minorities in films, although in his comments Carson said any actor who was working was a member of a minority. Among the stargazers was one Mike Velasquez, who told UPI he had driven 50 miles to sit in the rain and see Brooke Shields in the flesh.

"I'll do anything for Brooke," he said, in the spirit of the true movie fan.

As always, the Oscar ceremony abounded in statistics. About 3,000 people were expected to attend, in 500 chauffeur-driven limousines rented at $350 each for the night. The Tuxedo Center in Hollywood reported that 400 men had rented formal wear there for this year's shebang at 52 bucks a tux.

Sixteen cameras were to capture the festivities for a worldwide television audience estimated in advance at 300 million people, including 42 million American homes and those in 71 foreign countries, including, for the first time, Austria, Norway and Switzerland. Also unveiled for the 54th annual Oscars was a new electronic closed-captioning device that provided continuing printed captions for deaf viewers with special decoders attached to their sets--an estimated 150,000 persons, according to Academy president Fay Kanin.

Marty Pasetta, for the 11th consecutive time, directed the broadcast from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center.