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Oscar night, Bob Hope once cracked, is when "wars and politics are forgotten and we find out who we really hate."

Get with it, Bob. Sure, the petty power trips continue. Some stars have to be presenters for the big three awards—or nothing at all. Anything less is as ego-destroying as a project with Otto Preminger or an agent who won't return their call. Yet despite embarrassments like the Begelman affair, Hollywood may possibly have grown up in the 10 years between Hope's last previous stand as solo emcee of the Oscars and his next one for the 50th anniversary show April 3. Shirley MacLaine, 43, one of the pathfinders of the new sensibility as well as a nominee for The Turning Point this year, says, "If you win, you can think you're hot shit, and if you lose you can feel bad. I think everyone in this business should have the right to fail gracefully in public."

The Oscarcast comes on like America's eternal national junior prom, but the very candor, maturity and magnanimity of this year's best actress nominees—and their films—signal hope for the future. "It helps," says another contender, Jane (Julia) Fonda, 40, "when men see fully fleshed women characters who are strong without being off-putting." That certainly is the case with the three other competitors (a term they profess to resent) in the category: Diane (Annie Hall) Keaton, 32, Marsha (Goodbye Girl) Mason, 35, and Anne Bancroft, 46, also from Turning Point.

"It was inevitable," MacLaine exults. "I'm just so pleased that women have returned to the screen with such a bang—you should pardon the expression." That last crack reflects the kind of sexist stereotyping that MacLaine says had her playing hookers in 14 of her first 27 movies. Fonda won her Oscar playing a call girl (in 1971's Klute) and Mason was nominated herself as a whore in 1973's Cinderella Liberty. While prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, it's no longer the only one on screen. "This is a new era," says Fonda, "in which women are treated with more intelligence and depth."

In fairness to all five nominees, their lip service in praise of their rivals rings truer than usual. "Each of us should get one-fifth of the award," says MacLaine, impossible odds notwithstanding. (The category did have a tie in 1969 between Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn.)

The accountant types behind them are not so altruistic. "Just a nomination adds a million dollars to the box office gross," figures an executive of 20th Century-Fox (which scooped up 33 nominations this year). "And a win can mean millions." The result is that even though the Academy forbids "excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes," the first step in any prenomination Oscar campaign is ad blitzes in showbiz trade magazines. This year's flashiest spender is Warners/MGM for Marsha Mason's The Goodbye Girl. The technique, however, can backfire, as in Berry Gordy's overeager 1973 push for Diana Ross and Lady Sings the Blues. It may have cost her an Oscar.

The struggle is for the 3,407 members of 12 voting branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy is open generally to anyone in the industry with recommendations from two members from the same category and the requisite number of credits. The once moribund membership was rid of much of its deadwood by then-Academy President Gregory Peck nearly a decade ago. Oddly, talent agents, who are arguably the pivotal powers in today's industry, are denied suffrage while press agents vote. Still, stars like Woody Allen and John Travolta are not members (Ron Howard is) and rumors persist that at least one voter is blind. While the members in each division nominate only in their categories, everyone nominates the five best picture candidates—making that ballot an important indicator of industry sentiment and prejudice (see pages 43 and 44 for other categories). Everyone votes in the final round.

If pre-Oscar awards foretell anything (and most observers feel they do not), the lady in waiting is Diane Keaton. She's already walked off with a Golden Globe plus New York critics' and British awards for playing, well, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. And while her Looking for Mr. Goodbar wasn't popular in Hollywood, Keaton's dramatic intensity may count as much as Annie Hall's lah-de-dahs. "She can do anything," marvels MacLaine. Her sentiment is shared by brother Warren Beatty, who has lately squired Diane around New York. She has "flawless judgment," he pronounces, referring possibly to her script choices.

Conversely, Keaton is the most confirmed Hollywood outsider of the five nominees and the only one not a member of the Academy. Her reaction to the news of her nomination was a blasé "No kidding." Yet despite mentor Woody Allen's supposed opposition to crass commercialism, Keaton, like the other nominees with the possible exception of Bancroft, plans to fetch up in the black-tie mob on April 3. Diane will be accompanied not by Woody but (if she can get the tickets) by her real-life California family, which happens to bear the surname Hall.

Keaton's antithesis in the race is Fonda, a prominent Hollywood stateswoman seen at this month's American Film Institute tribute to her dad. To the Academy's credit, Fonda is a living argument that Hollywood doesn't hold grudges. She, after all, won her only Oscar in Klute at the peak of her "Hanoi Hannah" period. Today even Johnny Carson recants publicly, "When we were wrong, she was right."

Mason, too, is an outsider turned insider from New York. The grateful outpouring of affection at the March tribute in Long Beach to her husband presumably will not hurt Marsha's Oscar chances. The Simons have long since settled into Bel Air society. More important, perhaps, is that Goodbye Girl is Marsha's biggest commercial success to date and the biggest-grossing film ($45 million) of any of the actresses. Oscar day is Mason's 36th birthday.

The category's old pros are The Turning Point's past-their-prima ballerinas, MacLaine and Bancroft, who over the years have amassed eight nominations between them. Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker in 1962. She counted on winning for The Graduate and lost. By that contrary-opinion theory, this must be the year for Bancroft, who insists, "I honestly don't think I'm going to win." Maybe that's why the Vegas odds suddenly jumped her from dead last to the betting choice on the tote board.

As for the conventional wisdom that two nominees from the same movie cancel each other out, forget it: Just last year, the late Peter Finch won despite the competition from Network co-star William Holden. "I would've been mortified if Annie hadn't been nominated," says MacLaine graciously. As a three-time loser already, MacLaine would be a stronger sentimental choice were it not for her outspoken politics dating back to the Vietnam era. Yet MacLaine is serious about the Oscar—"I'm not Mrs. George C. Scott," she cracks, referring to the gent whose 1970 statuette for Patton is moldering in an Academy closet. Vegas rated her the early-line favorite before Bancroft's surge. "I don't know a thing about odds," Shirley insists. "The croupiers always hiss at me when I walk through the lobby." She'll attend the ceremony with Turning Point scriptwriter-nominee Arthur Laurents. "Winning isn't my scene," she notes, perhaps ingenuously.

Before The Turning Point was made, according to Bancroft, she had the choice of the role she ultimately played or Shirley MacLaine's. Her decision, as much as anything, speaks for her cohorts. "I identified with both women," Bancroft explains. "But Emma had a stronger message for the women I want to speak to now—women who work. I wanted to tell them that choosing to work doesn't make them oddballs and isn't antisocial."

More important to MacLaine is the message across the lines of the war of the sexes. "Men are learning more these days from films," Shirley figures, "than from their real lives." If so, that development rates the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award of this and every other year.

The other categories: Burton courts his Oscar, Vanessa imperils hers and Woody gets a jump

Acton Richard cleans up his act
The Academy electorate is not above sentimental choice, especially in cases where the performer has built a strong body of work over the years (viz., last year's posthumous award to Peter Finch). So this could be Richard Burton's turn, less perhaps for his estimable performance as the tormented shrink in Equus than for the fact of his seven nominations without victory (a record) and his touching desire to win. He's been tirelessly making the talk show circuit, apologizing poignantly for his past overindulgence in good whiskey and bad movies. Richard (The Goodbye Girl) Dreyfuss stands the best chance of unhorsing Burton and will pick up a spillover vote from Close Encounters. This is the wrong category for Woody Allen, despite his Annie Hall grand slam of nominations (actor, director, writer), the first since Orson Welles did it with Citizen Kane in 1941. John (Saturday Night Fever) Travolta is a first-timer and the Academy's voters likely want more dues paid than the $100 membership fee. As for Marcello Mastroianni, he's up against a rumor (false) that his voice was dubbed in A Special Day. Vegas odds-makers consider this race the only sure thing, with Burton a 5-to-7 shoo-in.

Picture: Dames versus Droids
"A year like this of women's films has made it all worthwhile," says Shirley MacLaine. Indeed, the Union Plaza horse parlor in Vegas that is the arbiter of Oscar odds favors two thoroughbred mares—Julia and Turning Point. The only possible hangup is that both are "artistic" rather than strictly commercial like that old-fashioned "women's film" The Goodbye Girl. Then again, how will those movies stack up against the more daringly idiosyncratic Annie Hall? The New York critics gave it their kiss of death, but the English Oscars, held pre-Academy Awards for the first time this year, were swept by Annie. Keep in mind, though, that the L.A. critics voted for Star Wars, and a more candid name for the Academy might be Motion Picture Arts, Sciences and Bottom Line. On its way to setting an all-time box office record, Star Wars has become a children's classic on the scale of 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Of course, The Wizard did not win a single major Oscar.

Supporting actress: Tuesday?
Vanessa Redgrave's performance is widely recognized as the best, her politics the worst. Though cast in Julia as an intellectual risking her life to save Jews from Nazism, Redgrave's pro-PLO sympathies have angered the militant Jewish Defense League. The JDL tried to force 20th Century-Fox to blacklist the 41-year-old English actress. The demand had little support in Hollywood's disproportionately Jewish community until the PLO terrorist raid in Israel just days before Oscar ballots were mailed. The chief beneficiary of a Redgrave backlash will be Tuesday Weld, 34, who as Diane Keaton's older sister in Looking for Mr. Goodbar gave Hollywood further evidence that, however flaky, she's a formidable actress. Kids can win this category, but Quinn (The Goodbye Girl) Cummings, 10, is, for better or worse, not yet another Tatum O'Neal. In the confusion Leslie Browne, 20, enchanting dancer turned actress for The Turning Point, has a better shot than she might in a more typical year. The sleeper, though, is Melinda Dillon, 38, the distraught mother of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the only actor nominee in perhaps the year's most slighted movie.

Supporting actor: Robards again?
This is the race—except that the rules forbid it—without an obvious winner. The field includes two eminent foreign actors doing their usual masterly work in roles overpowered by the rest of the cast. Sir Alec Guinness was upstaged by assorted droids and effects in Star Wars, Maximilian Schell by the actresses in Julia. As for belated recognition for past accomplishment, the Academy will feel no guilt here—both have been nominated before for best actor and won (Guinness for River Kwai, Schell for Judgment at Nuremberg). Similarly, Jason (Julia) Robards won last year. That encourages two newcomers who wouldn't normally have a chance: dancer Mikhail (Turning Point) Baryshnikov, though he only has a smidgen of dialogue, and Peter Firth, superb as the disturbed youth in Equus. If it's really tight, Max Schell has a unique advantage: As the only Academy member of the five, he can vote for himself.

Director: Woody pulls an Orson
Here's the automatic category that everyone guesses right, because for 27 of the past 29 years the winner of the Directors Guild Award went on to cop the Oscar. But at this year's DGA ceremony Hollywood legend William (Ben Hur) Wyler opened the envelope and in an inadvertent howler announced "Monty Hall." Clearly, winner Woody Allen—whose nominee Annie Hall gently satirizes Hollywood and who is himself openly hostile to its Establishment—could be overtaken by an L.A. favorite son. This year it's Herbert Ross, who astonishingly directed seven nominees: the pictures Turning Point and Goodbye Girl; actresses Bancroft, MacLaine, Mason and Cummings; and actor Dreyfuss. He is himself up for Turning Point, as much his film as Goodbye Girl is Neil Simon's. Steven Spielberg, who missed earlier with Jaws, looks like a loser because the Academy bypassed his Close Encounters in best picture nominations. Indeed, when in doubt the voters have often gone for their favorite film or for the money (Rocky's director won last year). Which means that two others cannot be written off, namely George (Star Wars) Lucas and two-time winner Fred (Julia) Zinnemann.

Song: A 'Saturday Night' shutout
It figures that the Academy's antediluvian music members are the only ones allowed to bypass the usual Academy procedures and phone in their preliminary nominations. The insider-controlled branch survived the late-'60s purge and is dominated by what a frustrated Bee Gees official calls "retired violinists who probably still play 78s on their Victrolas." That's why the most unfathomable omission from this year's nominees are the Bee Gees' songs from the super-selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Instead, nods went to two Disney ditties, Helen Reddy's Candle on the Wafer from Pete's Dragon and Someone's Waiting for You from The Rescuers, and the title track from a third kid corn flick, David Frost's The Slipper and the Rose. Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me may be the best of the bunch. But no one can stop the biggest-selling single of the past 20 years—composer Joe Brooks' You Light Up My Life, with Debby Boone singing it herself Oscar night.