It is the most exclusive of all clubs, though its annual black-tie meeting is broadcast around the world to an audience of nearly a billion people. It has no official membership requirements, but the informal necessities include consummate talent, an impressive body of work, good manners and the respect of your peers. Some would say it also helps if you're British, can do accents, suffer tragically and are willing to attend a lot of banquets and talk shows.

Welcome to Hollywood's most prestigious fraternity: Call it the Oscar Club.

Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino are old-guard members, as are Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange. Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hanks and Ralph Fiennes are in; Sean Penn, Steve Martin, Barbra Streisand and Eddie Murphy are out.

When you're in, you're really in--Emma Thompson has five nominations (and two wins). Supporting players like Judi Dench, Kathy Bates and Brenda Blethyn (six nominations total) are Motion Picture Academy favorites while big-salaried stars like Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford (one nomination total) are still on the outside, looking in.

With ballots in the mail this week for the 72nd Academy Awards ceremony, which will be held March 26, it may be time to usher some new names into the club. Possible nominees include Julianne Moore and Matt Damon, who are early favorites to pick up best actor nominations again this year, Moore for her role in "The End of the Affair," Damon for "The Talented Mr. Ripley." In fact, Moore and Damon, who already have three nominations and one win between them, are model club initiates, gifted actors with a squeaky-clean reputation for grace and professionalism.

"The academy respects talent and a willingness to take chances," says veteran producer David Foster, who has made movies with longtime Oscar Club members Streep and Hopkins. "But remember, the voting members of the academy are working stiffs, so they also value people who bring a touch of class to the profession. If someone is a troublemaker or a pain . . . on the set, people don't forget that when it comes time to vote."

Actors are the ultimate arbiters of membership in the Oscar Club. The 1,300-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' acting branch choose the five nominees for all four acting categories. The academy's entire voting membership of 5,500 selects the winners. But the acting branch, which is three times as large as any other branch and makes up nearly 25 percent of all academy voters, clearly has the biggest say in the final outcome.

The academy doesn't keep demographic information about its members--or make available a list of member names. But in many ways it's Hollywood's answer to the House of Lords--an elite body of elected-for-life peers whose inscrutable choices are often shrouded in a fog of tradition.

"I'm convinced that the average age of the academy [membership] is 111," says manager Marty Bauer, who joined the academy as an agent. "You're talking about a very gentrified ruling class of very old voters. I mean, if King Vidor was still alive, he'd still be voting."

Like other members, actors are invited into the academy after receiving a nomination. Otherwise, most members have to be proposed to the academy by two peers, either after having been in the industry for six to eight years or having worked on three "quality" films. Once you're in, you're in for life; hence the preponderance of older voters. "I got in at a relatively tender age," recalls one prominent industry publicist. "And at the first few screenings I went to, they kept trying to kick me out because I looked too young."

"The academy likes serious, distinguished professionalism" when it comes to awarding the Oscars, says critic David Thomson, author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film." "They want men to have dignity and women to have decency. Tom Hanks gets nominated all the time, even though he's not that profound an actor. And Meryl Streep--you'd have to see a profoundly disturbing story about her being a child abuser before anyone could undermine her credibility and appeal with the academy."

The academy's acting branch has consistently rewarded conservative, prestigious films populated with British actors. Two years ago, the Best Actress category featured four Brits--Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Christie, Dench and Kate Winslet--and one token Yank, Helen Hunt (who won). In 1992, the Best Supporting Actress category had an almost all-Brit cast of Joan Plowright, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson; the lone American was Marisa Tomei, who won for "My Cousin Vinny."

"We may have been independent for 200-plus years, but we still bow to the British at Oscar time," says People film critic Leah Rozen. "The British are masters at stealing scenes and doing character turns, where they dazzle you and--voila--they get a supporting-actor nomination. Look at Judi Dench. She was on-screen for all of about 12 minutes in 'Shakespeare in Love' and she walked away with an Oscar."

Actors who do accents are also heavily rewarded, whether it's Streep in innumerable parts, including "Sophie's Choice" and "The Bridges of Madison County," or Moore in "The End of the Affair." It's no surprise that many of this year's leading acting contenders are Brits and Aussies playing Americans, most notably Russell Crowe in "The Insider," Jude Law in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Janet McTeer in "Tumbleweeds" and Michael Caine in "Cider House Rules."

"McTeer obviously gives a tremendous performance," says producer Mark Johnson. "But if that was an American actress, she wouldn't get half the attention that Janet got because she's an English actress doing a Southern accent."

With the academy favoring serious, showy performances, the Oscar Club is crowded with actor's actors willing to tackle difficult, emotional roles. "You really get recognized if you have what's called the telephone scene, a big emotional scene that everybody remembers," says Lions Gate Films Co-President Mark Urman, referring to a legendary Luise Rainer scene in the 1936 film "The Great Ziegfeld" that won her an Oscar.

"I'd bet on Jim Carrey getting a nomination for playing Andy Kaufman. Playing a comedian tortured by demons is a perfect recipe to strut your stuff. Look at Dustin Hoffman in 'Lenny' or Lawrence Olivier in 'The Entertainer.' "

Less is not more with Oscar roles. The more suffering, boozing, weeping and dying the better. "Tom Hanks really secured his place in the club by dying of AIDS in 'Philadelphia,' " says entertainment writer David Poland, who writes the "Hot Button" column for "If Tom Cruise gets nominated for 'Magnolia,' it's because he was willing to cry and have a big breakdown. You have to really be daring and let go. It's a big part of getting a nomination."

Few comic actors make the Club. Martin was ignored for his bravura performances in "All of Me" and "Roxanne." Expect the same thing to happen to Murphy this year, despite raves for his twin roles in "Bowfinger."

Sometimes the best way to make it into the Club is by sticking around long enough to go from maverick to elder statesman. Nicholson, once a young rebel, is now an 11-times-nominated Club perennial. Robert Duvall and Vanessa Redgrave have six nominations each. This year's sentimental favorites include Richard Farnsworth ("The Straight Story"), Caine ("The Cider House Rules"), Jason Robards ("Magnolia") and Christopher Plummer ("The Insider").

"Michael Caine was a movie star for years, but only now that he's a great character actor is the academy really judging him by the totality of his career," Urman says. (Caine won once, as Best Supporting Actor for the 1986 film "Hannah and Her Sisters.") "That's when you know someone is really in the Club: when everyone says, 'Jeez, he's been terrific for 30 years. Maybe we've been taking him for granted.' "

CAPTION: Academy President Robert Remme watches as Jill Cassidy prepares Oscar ballots for mailing.