WHEN HANDICAPPING the 54th annual Academy Awards presentation, sceduled for live telecast tommorow at 9 p.m. by ABC, it would probably be safest to (1) Equate the ceremony with a clearance sale and (2) Think Old. The likeliest major winners should be nominees percieved as long overdue for the ultimate accolade from their peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Oughts and Sinuses.

For example, Warren Beatty, seven times a nominee but never an Oscar recipient, figures to collect at least two of the four awards he's eligible for as producer, director, leading man and co-writer of "Reds." A similar history should favor Maureen Stapleton as best supporting actress for her performance as Emma Goldman in "Reds"; it's her fourth nomination and high time she won the category.

This theory, while it applies, does not fully explain why the best actor category is conceded to Henry Fonda. He is expected to get the award not for his performance as the academic old coot in "On Golden Pond" but because it's widely assumed to be a valedictory role and last chance for the Academy, considering Fonda's frail health. Curiously enough, this is only the second time Fonda has been nominated (the last occasion was 1940 for "The Grapes of Wrath," when James Stewart won for "The Philadelphia Story"), but it was only last year that the Academy presented him with a special Oscar in recognition of a distinguished career. Under the circumstances, his selection for "On Golden Pond" will seem belated and redundant at the same time.

If one were voting performance, of course, the irresistible choice would be Burt Lancaster as the gallant old mobster in "Atlantic City"--a far more original and appealing portrait of aging masculinity than Fonda's cranky ex-professor. Since Lancaster won an Oscar 20 years ago for "Elmer Gantry," the overdue nominee is obviously Paul Newman, who received his sixth nomination for "Absence of Malice"--a strong performance in a superficial role. Several years ago Newman predicted that he'd probably win this category when he was in his dotage, barely able to toddle up to the podium on rickety limbs.

One doesn't need to look further than Katharine Hepburn, regarded as a sentimental favorite as best actress for her stupefying impersonation of Fonda's devoted spouse in "On Golden Pond," to appreciate how seldom the Academy contrives to coordinate sentiment with achievement. This is Hepburn's 12th nomination. She won for "Morning Glory," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "The Lion in Winter" but not for "Alice Adams," "The Philadelphia Story," "The African Queen," "Summertime," "The Rainmaker" or "Long Day's Journey Into Night," arguably the greatest single dramatic performance ever filmed. She wasn't even nominated for "Adam's Rib."

An unprecedented fourth Oscar may be presented to Hepburn this year--for perhaps the silliest performance of a great career--because the competition is considered trifling. Meryl Streep was regarded as the favorite months ago on the basis of her imposing Time cover story and elusive emoting in "The French Lieutenant's Woman." In recent weeks Diane Keaton has become the touts' favorite on the basis of her Newsweek cover story and splendid performance in 1982's "Shoot the Moon." There's a slight hitch, of course, because she's been nominated for a less impressive outing as the inexplicable Louise Bryant in "Reds." Nevertheless, rumor has it that "Shoot the Moon" may winfor her tomorrow night anyway, since it surpasses the five nominated performances, and who can be sure Academy members won't forget it a year from now? I'm also informed that it's Common Knowledge in Hollywood that the release of "Shoot the Moon" was delayed as a favor to Keaton, who didn't want to compete with herself in "Reds."

Streep and Keaton are previous winners--for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Annie Hall," respectively. The overdue candidate would have to be Marsha Mason, cited for "Only When I Laugh," her fourth nomination.

Again, the most deserving performance seems to belong to "Atlantic City"--Susan Sarandon as the aspiring small-town girl who brings out the frustrated gallantry of Lancaster's petty hood. However, some doubt evidently exists as to whether this is an accomplished performance or just the most suitable role for Sarandon's skittish temperament. At any rate, she's the longshot in the race.

I assume that both age and distinction will make John Gielgud a prohibitive favorite as best supporting actor for his performance as Hobson, Dudley Moore's sarcastic valet in "Arthur." In this case the Academy has an opportunity to get the timing right. A similar chance was badly muffed a few years ago when Robert Morley wasn't even nominated for a peerless comic performance in "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" Jack Nicholson is an upset threat for his dandy Eugene O'Neill in "Reds," but the Overdue Principle should operate again in this category.

The three contenders I'd prefer to see win as best movie of 1981--"Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Atlantic City" and "Chariots of Fire"--will probably play also-rans to either "Reds" or "On Golden Pond." I don't divine a clear preference from the grapevine, but I would guess that the epic framework and self-evidently serious pretensions of "Reds" give it a better chance at the ultimate Oscar. Beatty's recent award from the Directors Guild also justifies a bet on "Reds."

The problem for handicappers is that a strong case can be made for "On Golden Pond." Box-office returns indicate that it's the most popular movie in America right now. Moreover, who can doubt that it's essentially a more popular attraction than "Reds" could ever hope to be, even if "Reds" were really a great epic movie? In fact, all the other nominees are better constituted for popular appeal than "Reds," although "Atlantic City" has played so few places that its box-office performance looks negligible.

If there's a sentimental groundswell for "On Golden Pond," it could sweep the evening. Don't forget, Ellen Goodman has given "On Golden Pond" her blessing, calling particular attention to the "caring" nature of Hepburn's fluttery, platitudinous image of Venerable Motherhood. After two consecutive years of honoring movies in which the mothers were shockingly neglectful--indeed, far less maternal than the fathers--Hollywood may be ready to embrace a synthetic weepie in which Old Mom keeps the family together and gives a disgruntled modern woman (her daughter, conveniently) the scolding she needs to Shape Up.

The logical successor to "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Ordinary People" was "Mommie Dearest," but the fickle Academy seems to have changed its mood so radically that Faye Dunaway got no nomination for taking Joan Crawford's maternal flaws to delirious extremes. Evidently, things had Gone Too Far, because "On Golden Pond" represents an overcompensating flip-flop. It's made to order for actors in their dotage. I can see Alan Alda and Carol Burnett touring in it throughout their seventies and eighties. And Rock Hudson and Carol Burnett and Jim Nabors and Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett and . . .

Speaking of Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, "The Four Seasons" heads the annual roster of titles inexplicably missing from the final Oscar competition. Not that I've grown fonder of its triviality upon reflection, but it was a substantial hit (ninth on Variety's list of 1981 box-office champs) and Alda must have expected a screenwriting nomination at the very least.

Big hits like "Superman II" and "Stripes" also struck out with the 3,800 Academy members, along with such serious projects as "Body Heat," "True Confessions," "Cutter's Way" and "Priest of Love." Sustaining a decade-long scandal, voters failed to nominate Gordon Willis for best cinematography, a recognition he deserved on this occasion for "Pennies From Heaven," a film whose craftsmanship was generally overlooked. You'd think that the shame of it all would overwhelm his peer group sooner or later. Willis has shot three of the Academy Award-winning movies of the past 10 years--"The Godfather," "The Godfather, Part II" and "Annie Hall"--plus a fourth best picture nominee--"All the President's Men"--and yet he's still never been nominated.

Other shameful oversights of the 1981 nominations: Bernadette Peters in "Pennies From Heaven," Jerry Orbach in "Prince of the City," Kenneth McMillan in "True Confessions," Lynsey Baxter in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," John Heard in "Cutter's Way," the dazzling make-up creations of young Rob Bottin in "The Howling" (his mentor, Rick Baker, is a cinch to win the award for "An American Werewolf in London"), the production design of Ken Adam on "Pennies From Heaven." The booby-prize nomination may be found in the supporting actress category: Elizabeth McGovern's imbecilic impersonation of Evelyn Nesbit in "Ragtime," a selection that recalls the weird 1978 nomination for Penelope Milford (remember her?) as the little vulgarian who befriended Jane Fonda in "Coming Home."

It's unlikely that one picture will dominate the 1981 awards, although "Reds" and "On Golden Pond" have enough nominations to turn the trick. If they do, the occasion will be absurd enough to cherish, or brood about into the grave. I still can't comprehend the climate of professional opinion that allowed "The French Connection" to outpoll both "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Last Picture Show" in 1971. Looking back, the choices could usually stand improvement. For example: "American Graffiti" instead of "The Sting" in 1973, "Taxi Driver" instead of "Rocky" in 1976, "Nashville" or "Dog Day Afternoon" or "Jaws" instead of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975 ("Cuckoo's Nest" would have been better as the best belated movie of 1968), "Star Wars" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" instead of "Annie Hall" in 1977.

And when you look way back . . . Well, how did it happen that Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind" failed to outpoll Robert Donat in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and Greta Garbo in "Camille" lost to Luise Rainer in "The Good Earth"? The record would certainly look better if "Top Hat" had been the best movie of 1935, rather than "Mutiny on the Bounty," or "Citizen Kane" rather than "How Green Was My Valley" in 1941, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" rather than "Mrs. Miniver" in 1942, "Singin' in the Rain" (not even a nominee) rather than "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1952, or "Bonnie & Clyde" rather than "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967. Which brings us back to Warren Beatty.

I would expect "Reds" to take four major prizes (best film, director, actress and supporting actress) and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" four minor ones (best cinematography, editing, sound and visual effects). "On Golden Pond" ought to be satisfied with the inevitable Oscar for Henry Fonda but could also snatch a screenplay award from the prestigious British competition--Harold Pinter of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and Dennis Potter of "Pennies From Heaven." Figure "Arthur" for best supporting actor and song, "Woman" or "Chariots of Fire" for art direction and costume design, "Chariots" a lock for musical score, "American Werewolf" likewise for make-up and "Atlantic City" with the consolation of best original screenplay, which it certainly was.

"Man of Iron" should take the award for best foreign language film, partly on merit and partly because people at Film Polski seem to have gone out on a limb submitting it as the official Polish entry the day before the crackdown. The category is strong this year, so don't be surprised if either the Italian entry, Francesco Rosi's "Three Brothers," or the Hungarian one, Istvan Szabo's "Mephisto," wins the award. The nominees in the documentary and short-subject categories have had such limited public exposure that it's pointless to include them in any Oscar pool. All you can do is make wild guesses based on the titles. Special awards have already been announced for Barbara Stanwyck, cinematographer Joseph Walker, Danny Kaye (the Hersholt Humanitarian) and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli (the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial for producing the James Bond series). The best song nominees will be warbled by The Muppets, Christopher Cross, Diana Ross, John Schneider and Sheena Easton. Johnny Carson returns as master of ceremonies and introducer of illustrious presenters at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where all will be revealed, for better or worse.