Richard Attenborough may have been in the grip of an irresistibly high-minded impulse when he turned the life of Gandhi into a Tribute to a Sacred Cow. But it would be a blessing -- and a surprise -- if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refused to prostrate itself in equally pious gratitude at tomorrow night's Oscar ceremony. To select "Gandhi" as the overwhelming Academy Award winner of 1982 would be a stuffy choice_especially in light of the delightful competition.

On the eve of the 55th annual Oscar rite, scheduled for live telecast tomorrow at 9 p.m. by ABC, it's possible to entertain the fond hope of a last-minute victory for the reality principle. What could be more bizarrely self-denying than a "Gandhi" endorsement at the expense of homegrown hits as skillful and resounding as "E.T." and "Tootsie"? Hollywood thrives on the comic and sentimental exuberance of such movies. They reflect the liveliest popular impulses of American filmmakers, when you get right down to it.

My own partiality for "E.T." scarcely needs to be reiterated. A Hollywood brushoff of Steven Spielberg in the wake of this little commercial and imaginative triumph would be outrageously ungrateful. However, a segment of Spielberg supporters holds it would be bad news if Spielberg ever won a directing Oscar, since the award seems to jinx so many winners--witness John Avildsen after "Rocky," Woody Allen after "Annie Hall," Michael Cimino after "The Deer Hunter," Robert Benton after "Kramer vs. Kramer," etc., etc. Better an honorary career Oscar in, say, 2015.

At any rate, the reports in People and Film Comment and other ear-to-the-ground publications suggest an "E.T." backlash among eligible voters, supposedly offended by excessive merchandising at Christmas. At the same time, a rank odor of false piety has been spreading around "Gandhi:" Richard Attenborough, after all, surely deserves an award for inspired feats of promotion rather than inspired film direction.

Despite the frequency with which deserving contenders elude the Academy, the failure to recognize the importance of an inspirational phenom like "E.T." seems to symbolize a reluctance to endorse the future of the film medium itself.

The strangest irony of the 1982 awards is likely to be "Gandhi's" failure to win the one major award it deserves--best actor. Like Meryl Streep's heroic, spellbinding efforts to capture the elusively written heroine of "Sophie's Choice," Ben Kingsley's remarkable impersonation of Gandhi would seem to have a prohibitive claim on Oscar recognition. These are performances that can't be ignored without making the membership look like saps.

Paul Newman, of course, is the best-actor finalist who appears to stand in Kingsley's way. Newman's role as the outrageously inept, mawkish defense attorney of "The Verdict" is arguably the weakest of his career. The prospect of his winning a long overdue Oscar for one of his rare wrongo performances takes a little joy out of the achievement. In fact, there's been a peculiarly dispiriting quality to his candidacy right from the start; the hints that this might be The Last Chance to do right by Newman have been strong enough to cause anxiety, evidently unwarranted, about the state of his health. Several people thought that Newman's Oscar buildup in "The Verdict" echoed last year's campaign for Henry Fonda's farewell appearance in "On Golden Pond."

If Dustin Hoffman hadn't won the Oscar already, his performance in "Tootsie" would probably have upstaged both Kingsley and Newman. Jack Lemmon, a two-time Oscar-winner, seems a distinguished also-ran in the best-actor category for his work in "Missing," and I suppose the same status awaits Peter O'Toole, a seven-time nominee who's never won, for his delightful comic characteriza- See OSCARS, L10, Col. 1 The Oscars OSCARS, From L1 tion in "My Favorite Year." If one were voting sheer pleasure, O'Toole would be unbeatable in this group. OF THE THREE leading contenders, "Gandhi" with 11 nominations appears to be in a far stronger position to dominate the awards than either "Tootsie" with 10 or "E.T." with nine. I'm conceding "Gandhi" the major prizes of best movie and direction and at least four supplementary categories it doesn't deserve either--cinematography, film editing, art direction and makeup. If Kingsley took the acting award and John Briley the screenwriting award (upsetting the "Tootsie" team or Melissa Mathison of "E.T."), the "Gandhi" total could mount to eight.

I think the likelier result is a single major award for both "The Verdict" (Newman) and "Sophie's Choice" (Streep); two Oscars for "Tootsie" (original screenplay and Jessica Lange as best supporting actress), "An Officer and a Gentleman" (Lou Gossett as best supporting actor and "Up Where We Belong" as best song) and the magnificent German import "Das Boot" (let's say adapted screenplay as a good compromise award for writer-director Wolfgang Petersen plus the Oscar it obviously deserves for best sound); and a consolation batch of three awards for "E.T." (the John Williams score, visual effects and the new category of sound effects editing).

Justice would be better served if "Das Boot" siphoned off the cinematography and film editing awards, "Blade Runner" the art direction award and "Quest for Fire" the makeup award, but the tangible indications point to a strong overall showing by "Gandhi." It was discouraging enough when Attenborough won the Directors Guild award, which almost always anticipates the eventual Oscar winner, but when "Gandhi" also won the annual award of the film editors' union, the wind appeared to be blowing in the wrong direction with a vengeance. Nothing against John Bloom, the supervising editor, but "Gandhi" might have been improved by additional editing of a ruthless and dynamic sort.

Franco Zeffirelli's production of "La Traviata," which has yet to open, may be worth serious consideration for both costume design and art direction, judging strictly from the sumptuous color stills used to advertise it in the trade press. Handicappers should also beware of my cavalier screenwriting award to "Das Boot's" Petersen, since the Academy membership may prefer a native son, probably David Mamet for the maddening "The Verdict" or Alan J. Pakula for his brave attempt to finesse a coherent continuity out of "Sophie's Choice."

The adaptation category is be missing two superior examples of distillation--"The Chosen" and "The World According to Garp." The list of finalists for original screenplay also seems diminished by the absence of Bo Goldman's "Shoot the Moon," a conspicuously neglected achievement, presumably paying a severe price for failing to click at the box office or failing to open late in 1981 instead of early in 1982. Not even Diane Keaton (who persuaded the producers to delay the release so she wouldn't have to compete with herself in "Reds") or the splendid juvenile actress Dana Hill were honored with nominations they certainly deserved.

The capriciousness of the nominating process may be gauged by the failure of any juvenile performers to be nominated. This was, remember, the year of not only Dana Hill in "Shoot the Moon" but also Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in "E.T." and Griffin O'Neal in "The Escape Artist." Remember when Tatum O'Neal won the Oscar and nominations went to kids like Linda Blair and Justin Henry?

What could Julie Andrews' nomination for "Victor, Victoria" mean? Surely this was a textbook example of miscasting; if there's one overwhelming reason "Victor, Victoria" can't sustain the needed illusion, it's the dignified, ladylike presence of Andrews in a role that cries out for an uninhibited comedian about 25 years younger. And Julie Andrews has won her Oscar, after all.

Although it's a longshot, Jessica Lange could become the first performer to win two Oscars in the same year. Achieving a rare distinction, she became only the fourth nominee in Academy history, and the first in nearly 40 years, to be cited as both a leading and supporting player. As best actress, her work in "Frances" probably faces insurmountable competition from Meryl Streep's Sophie, but Lange is considered the favorite as supporting actress for "Tootsie." Precedent favors her bid in this category. On each occasion when performers have been nominated in both acting categories, they've failed to win as a lead while winning as a supporting player. IN ADDITION to "Shoot the Moon," the year's most neglected award-worthy movies appear to be "Diner" (a single nomination for original screenplay), "The Chosen," "Tex," "Diva," "Personal Best," "Night Shift," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and the Canadian film "Ticket to Heaven," which had an exceptional lead performance by Nick Mancuso. I also was surprised to see Carol Burnett left off the finalists for supporting actress, since it seemed to me that she kept "Annie" from totally nodding off.

After a one-year hiatus, the frequently mystifying category called "Original Song Score or Adapted Score" has returned with three uninspiring nominees: "Annie," "One From the Heart" and "Victor, Victoria." I suppose the reason for dropping it last year was that a deserving candidate actually existed: "Pennies From Heaven." The music categories were once an Academy trouble spot, but now it appears to be the foreign-language category, which became an embarrassment when the screening committee eliminated "The Night of the Shooting Stars" in the semifinals. The Swedish entry, Jan Troell's "The Flight of the Eagle," could still salvage a bit of dignity for the voters, but the category desperately needs reform.

There's already a large margin for error in the submission of foreign-language movies: one entry to a country chosen by national film bureaucracies. These entries are whittled down to the final five by a foreign-language committee. Then a handful of the eligible membership--usually no more than 300 to 400 out of a total of 3,600--vote in the finals, because it's necessary to prove that you've seen all the finalists, and these screenings are few and far between for working members. As a result, it becomes relatively easy for the category to be dominated by factions. A solid bloc of 100 votes could probably carry the award in any given year.

The Oscars began bewildering me more or less routinely when "The French Connection" dominated the 1971 awards instead of "Fiddler on the Roof" or "The Last Picture Show." Still can't it figure out; in fact, I suspect Price-Waterhouse miscounted. At any rate, if you grew up expecting logical patterns of dominance from the Oscars--with "From Here to Eternity," "On the Waterfront," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Gigi," "Ben-Hur," "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music" and "My Fair Lady" establishing an early lead in the craft categories and sustaining the lead all night long--it's difficult to account for some of the incongruous voting patterns in recent years.

"Patton," "The Sting," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Godfather, Part II" held true to traditional form, but in 1972, "The Godfather," presumably an overwhelming favorite, barely squeaked through with the best movie award on an evening that seemed to belong to "Cabaret." In 1977 "Annie Hall" made a late run on the major awards after "Star Wars" had collected most of the preliminary ones; 1976 was sort of a standoff between "Rocky" and "Network." Ditto for "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home" in 1978. Why "Ordinary People" in 1980 rather than "Coal Miner's Daughter," a much bigger box-office attraction? Probably a combination of director Robert Redford's glamor and a preference for a story set among the upper middle class.

And last year's whimsical results? "Raiders of the Lost Ark" gets four minor awards, and "Reds" and "On Golden Pond" appear to be neck-and-neck for the big prize. So what wins? "Chariots of Fire." A stunning surprise, but as long as the membership felt like encouraging a sleeper, why "Chariots" instead of "Atlantic City?" The class angle again? Nostalgia for Jimmy Carter, who sounded an awful lot like Ian Charleson as the pious Scottish sprinter?

If the Academy is still seeking uplift, it would be hard to improve on Spielberg's diminutive divinity from another galaxy or Dustin Hoffman's working woman. But think of Gandhi as this year's combination of Charleson's preacher and Henry Fonda's lovable old crank. Or taking another philosophical tack, think of the Oscar for "Gandhi" as Hollywood's way of making up for the Nobel folks, who consistently overlooked the Mahatma for their Peace Prize.

Do I also detect a curious anxiety about restoring confidence to male authority figures in the last few Oscar winners? It's probably unwise to get carried away with this speculation, but I do sense a common ground of preoccupation and overcompensation linking "Gandhi" to "On Golden Pond," "Chariots of Fire," "Ordinary People," "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "The Deer Hunter."

Johnny Carson's option was dropped this year. His duties as emcee will be split among Richard Pryor, Walter Matthau, Liza Minnelli and Dudley Moore. The list of presenters will include Christopher Reeve, Luise Rainer, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Nastassia Kinski, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Selleck, Sylvester Stallone, Herman Wouk (for the writing awards), Lisa Eilbacher, David Keith, Cher, Elizabeth McGovern, Susan Sarandon, Matt Dillon, Steve Guttenberg, Michael Keaton, Eddie Murphy, William Shatner and David Wolper. As usual, the show promises to slog on past midnight, cleverly approximating the pace and running time of "Gandhi" itself.

A checklist of the Academy Award nominees appears in today's Washington Post TV Magazine with the exception of the following 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."