IT WAS the night of The Peace Oscar. Or the night Oscar went to pieces, depending on one's point of view.

Things were neck-and-neck there for a while--and E.T. had much the longer neck--but in the end, the old-fashioned epic "Gandhi," a pious biography of the famous barefoot political leader who championed independence in his native India, won top honors at the 55th annual Academy Awards last night. "Gandhi" copped eight Oscars including Best Actor (Ben Kingsley in the title role) and Best Picture of the Year.

The golden, and currently soggy, West looked East--and the quixotic Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, perhaps self-destructively, gave its Best Picture trophy to a British film for the second year in a row. Last year's winner was "Chariots of Fire."

Both "Gandhi" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," its chief rival for Oscar honors, were about peaceful and captivating characters--one real, one fictitious--and words like "courage" and "vision" were bandied about liberally by the "Gandhi" accepters.

The Oscars went wild for peace in our time; the winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Short shouted out "Oscar for peace," Kingsley accepted his trophy in the names of "vision, courage and peace," and Richard Attenborough, named Best Director, accepted the Best Picture Oscar with a long-winded sermon that ended with him telling Academy voters that by giving him the Oscar, "you honor Mahatma Gandhi and his plea to all of us to live in peace."

Attenborough also managed to work Martin Luther King Jr. and Lech Walesa into his lengthy remarks, which closed the show its usual half-hour overtime.

Erstwhile high-mindedness overwhelmed and all but embalmed the evening. "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," an exhilarating fantasy that is the highest-grossing movie in world film history, won only four of the nine awards for which it was nominated: Best Score, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, and Sound. "Gandhi," nominated for 11, won eight, including Best Screenplay, Costume Design, Set Decoration, Editing, Cinematography and Best Director, Richard Attenborough.

As widely predicted, Meryl Streep won the Best Actress Oscar, gasping "Oh, boy!" in her teary acceptance remarks. Kingsley was also considered a safe bet for Best Actor, his chief rival being Paul Newman, whose nomination for playing an alcoholic lawyer in "The Verdict" was his seventh. He has never won.

Louis Gossett Jr., the first major winner announced, also became the first black performer in 20 years to win an Oscar. He captured the best supporting actor prize for playing the tough but just Marine drill instructor in "An Officer and a Gentleman," one of the year's runaway romantic smash-hits. Gossett, only the third black in screen history to win (the others were Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with the Wind" in 1939 and Sidney Poitier in "Lilies of the Field" in 1963), became aware of pickets protesting the Oscars as "racist" when he went backstage to speak to the press.

Gossett said, "You shouldn't call anything 'racist' if it's improving," and said the protesters "should lighten up--if you'll pardon the expression." He said roles for blacks were still few but that the number was increasing. "I hope this catches on like measles," he said. (Meanwhile, it was announced that Gossett, who won an Emmy for his role in the 1977 mini-series "Roots," has just signed to play Anwar Sadat in a four-hour TV movie biography about the slain Egyptian leader). Onstage, Gossett had thanked his agent and, brandishing the Oscar, said with a large smile to the actors he had defeated for the prize, "All you other four guys, this is ours."

It was the first big emotional moment of the evening. And one of the few, as it happens.

Jessica Lange, who had been nominated in both Best Actress and Supporting Actress categories, won as predicted for the latter--her role as Dustin Hoffman's very confused girlfriend in the comedy hit "Tootsie." Of eight nominations, this was "Tootsie's" only win.

Among the surprises was the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, given to the controversial film "Missing," about the disappearance of a young American man in a turbulent South American country and the subsequent efforts of the boy's father to find him. Donald Stewart, who cowrote the script with the film's director, Costa-Gavras, described those who had financed the film as "brave" for doing so.

Attenborough certainly took the prize for longest acceptance speech of the evening when, as producer of "Gandhi," he accepted the Best Picture Oscar. He said the hope expressed by "Gandhi" was that "we human beings, searching for our human dignity, could eventually find other ways for solving our problems than blowing the other man's head off."

Earlier, accepting the Best Director's Oscar for the same film (Attenborough received the Director's Guild of America prize last month; "Gandhi" also won him best director and best picture prizes in the British equivalent of the Oscars), Attenborough said, "I am totally bowled over by this" and, of the other directors nominated, "I am honored to be in their company."

One of those directors was Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood wunderkind who has probably done more than any other filmmaker to revitalize the American movie industry but has yet to be given so much as a thank-you note, much less a statue, from the Academy. Nominated three times, he has yet to win.

Mickey Rooney, who has been in show business for 60 of his 62 years on the planet, was given an honorary Oscar to cover appearances in about 124 films. Nominated four times for acting Oscars, he never won. The award was presented him by comedian Bob Hope, who was host of the Oscars for many years. Hope prefaced the award-giving by saying, "When a man reaches my age--which I intend to do shortly" (Hope will turn 80 next month) and, "This was my most successful year at the box office--they lowered the price for senior citizens."

Hope said of Rooney, "His powers as a performer have never diminished over 60 years." Rooney, who received a standing ovation and was most recently nominated for his appearance in the 1979 film "The Black Stallion," gave a rambling sentimental speech in which he recalled past costars (Judy Garland, Lewis Stone, Spencer Tracy, Wallace Beery) and said he was so pleased, "I'd love to even kiss Louis B. Mayer," longtime tyrannical head of MGM studios where Rooney made the Andy Hardy pictures and a series of successful musicals.

Rooney also recalled, "When I was 19 years old, I was the number one star of the world . . . when I was 40, nobody wanted me; I couldn't get a job."

One of the most expected minor awards of the night went to "If You Love This Planet," a once-obscure antinuclear documentary from the National Film Board of Canada that got a surprise kiss of publicity earlier this year from the U.S. Department of Justice, which decreed that the film, and another Canadian-produced documentary, be labeled as "propaganda" whenever shown. The film, mainly an illustrated lecture by antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott, leaped quickly into the public eye.

Accepting the award, coproducer Terri Nash said to the audience, "Well, you really know how to show a foreign agent a good time" and, also in jubilant sarcasm, "For their tremendous effort in promoting this film, I'd like to thank the U.S. Department of Justice." For his part, coproducer Edward Le Lorrain raised the Oscar into the air and sang out, "Oscar for peace!"

Another of the ceremony's inevitable political moments came when producer Zbigniew Rybczynaki thanked the Academy for the Oscar for Best Animated Short, given his film "Tango," in his native Polish, as translated by a woman interpreter. "I am hoping that someday I will speak longer from this place," said the producer, apparently in conclusion but then, as actor and presenter Matt Dillon all but pushed him from the stage, Rybczynaki continued, and the translator said, "Is not over yet."

Then the producer made a salute to Lech Walesa and the embattled Polish Solidarity movement.

Those who depend on the Oscar show for production snafus as well as political outbursts got their reward early in the proceedings when Charlton Heston, attempting to present the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to longtime producer Walter Mirisch, introduced a film clip of actor Hersholt only to be greeted with precisely nothing. "Here is Jean Hersholt," Heston said. Silence. "I think, here is Jean Hersholt," Heston said. More silence. "We've lost the film," said Heston, while a voice from the wings coaxed, "Cue cards, cue cards!"

Finally Heston salvaged the situation by saying, "Jean Hersholt was a wonderful man. You come up to the house, I'll show you the film." Then he hailed Mirisch as "a gentleman and a very good man." Mirisch had already won the Irving Thalberg Award--another honorary Oscar--in 1977. The Academy's Board of Governors voted not to give the Thalberg award this year.

Mirisch said, "This industry has been exceedingly good to me." The producer's many films include "In the Heat of the Night," for which he won the Best Picture Oscar in 1967.

Other awards given early in the long night included Best Foreign Film, the Spanish production "Volver a Empezar (To Begin Again)," the story of an expatriate writer who returns to his native Spain; Best Live Action Short Subject, "A Shocking Accident," based on a Graham Greene story; Best Adapted Score, "Victor/Victoria," shared by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse; and Best Documentary Feature, "Just Another Missing Kid." The ballad from "An Officer and a Gentleman," called "Up Where We Belong," was named Best Song.

The Oscars were broadcast live on ABC from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. It is estimated the program will eventually be seen by nearly 400 million people in 74 countries. Instead of emcee Johnny Carson, who bowed out of this year's shows for personal reasons, the program had four rotating hosts, Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Richard Pryor and Walter Matthau.

Moore marched out as the orchestra played the theme from "Arthur," his hit film, but he turned to the band and shouted "Shut up!," then told the audience, "Good evening. My pants are killing me." It was all neither uphill nor downhill from there--just sort of cross-country.

Here is a list of last night's Oscar winners: MOTION PICTURE "Gandhi," Indo-British Films production, Columbia release; Richard Attenborough, producer. ACTOR Ben Kingsley, "Gandhi." ACTRESS Meryl Streep, "Sophie's Choice." SUPPORTING ACTOR Louis Gossett Jr., "An Officer and a Gentleman." SUPPORTING ACTRESS Jessica Lange, "Tootsie." DIRECTION Richard Attenborough, "Gandhi." ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY "Gandhi," John Briley. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY "Missing," Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart. CINEMATOGRAPHY "Gandhi," Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor. FILM EDITING "Gandhi," John Bloom. ORIGINAL SCORE "E.T.," John Williams. ORIGINAL SONG SCORE OR ADAPTED SCORE "Victor/Victoria," Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse. ORIGINAL SONG "Up Where We Belong" from "An Officer and a Gentleman," music by Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie and lyrics by Will Jennings. ART DIRECTION "Gandhi," Stuart Craig and Bob Laing; set decoration by Michael Seirton. COSTUME DESIGN "Gandhi," John Mollo and Bhanu Athaiya. SOUND "E.T.," Buzz Knudson, Robert Glass, Don Digirolamo and Gene Cantamessa. SOUND EFFECTS EDITING "E.T.," Charles L. Campbell and Ben Burtt. VISUAL EFFECTS "E.T.," Carlo Rambaldi, Dennis Murren and Kenneth F. Smith. FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM "To Begin Again," Spain. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE "Just Another Missing Kid," Canadian Broadcasting Corp.; John Zaritsky, producer. DOCUMENTARY SHORT "If You Love This Planet," National Film Board of Canada; Edward Le Lorrain and Terri Nash, coproducers. ANIMATED SHORT "Tango," Zbigniew Rybczynaki for Film Polski. MAKEUP "Quest for Fire," Sarah Monzani and Michele Burke. LIVE-ACTION SHORT "A Shocking Accident," Flamingo Pictures; Christine Oestreicher, producer. PREVIOUSLY ANNOUNCED HONORARY AWARDS Mickey Rooney "in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances." The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to producer Walter Mirisch for "providing leadership and service in community and industry affairs." The Gordon E. Sawyer award to sound engineer John O. Aalberg for "outstanding contributions toward the advancement of the science or technology of the motion picture. TECHNICAL AND SCIENTIFIC AWARDS August Arnold and Erich Kaestner for "the concept and engineering of the first operation 35mm, hand-held, spinning-mirror reflex camera" (statuette). Colin F. Mossman and the Research and Development Group of Rank Film Laboratories for "the engineering and implementation of a 4,000 meter printing system" (Academy plaque). Sante Zelli and Salvatore Zelli for "the continuing engineering, design and development of Elemack Camera Dolly Systems" (plaque). Leonard Chapman for "the engineering design, development and manufacture of the PeeWee Camera Dolly" (plaque). Dr. Mohammad S. Nozari of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing for "the research and development of 3M Photogard protective coating for film" (plaque). Brianne Murphy and Donald Schisler of Mitchell Insert Systems for "the concept, design and manufacture of the MISI Camera Insert Car and Process Trailer" (plaque). Jacobus L. Dimmers for "the engineering and manufacture of Teccon Enterprises' magnetic transducer for sound recording and playback" (plaque). Richard W. Deats for "the design and manufacture of the 'Little Big Crane' " (certificate). Constant Tresfon and Adriaan De Rooy of Egripment and Ed Phillips and Carlos De Mattos of Matthews Studio Equipment for "the design and manufacture of the 'Tulip Crane' " (certificate). Bran Ferren for "the design and development of a computerized lighting effect system" (certificate). Christie Electric Corp. and LaVezzi Machine Works for "the design and manufacture of the Ultramittent film transport for Christie projectors" (certificate).