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Hollywood's Academy Awards are a commercial, not artistic, event, a capitalist confrontation, but cloaked in civility and more trappings than the Nobel Prize. In short, they are a sitting target for the irresistible if sometimes tasteless savagery of NBC's Saturday Night Live. So when Gary Busey, up for best actor for The Buddy Holly Story, was guest host, Jane Curtin tore into him, purportedly on behalf of colleague (and non-nominee) John Belushi. Among Belushi's beefs, noted Curtin, were that "practically everybody" saw his Animal House and "practically nobody" caught Busey's vehicle. As for other contenders, Jane (speaking for John) grudgingly approved the Academy's nomination of Lord Olivier, 71, for The Boys from Brazil, "because he's old and they don't want another Peter Finch on their hands." Curtin/Belushi also couldn't quarrel with Jon (Coming Home) Voight and Robert (The Deer Hunter) De Niro—presumably a Blues Brother had to respect pros who had paid their dues. As for the final entry from Heaven Can Wait, Jane leered that, according to Belushi, "Warren Beatty slept with the nominating committee." Responded Busey (eyes widening): "There are 3,500 in the Academy."

There are, in fact, 3,530 eligible voters this year, and if some of the entries in other categories are as political as ever, the best actor choices are the most discerning and distinguished in years. De Niro is the even-money favorite, according to Vegas oddsmakers, closely followed by Beatty and then Voight. That bit of action aside, what's special about the actors' race for the 1979 Oscar is the mutual respect of the nominees and the fact that this year all, including the reclusive De Niro, plan to appear at the Academy showdown April 9. Executive producer Peter Guber of Midnight Express, whose own tiger, Brad Davis, was passed over for nomination, sums up: "Anyone who says they are blasé about awards is filled with paranoia and I bullshit."

Since 'Bonnie and Clyde' it's been 'Warren Can Wait'

Eleven years have passed since his only other best-actor nomination, for Bonnie and Clyde (and his loss to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night). But this year Warren Beatty found he had more in common with Woody Allen than merely Diane Keaton's affections. He repeated Woody's 1978 Annie Hall coup as a multiple threat on Oscar night—with nominations in the actor, film, director and screenplay categories. Actually, only Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles had been up for all four before.

"Hollywood loves him," says one insider, "and I'm sure they would like to reward him with at least one award." That's because Beatty, who turns 42 this week, has the classic Hollywood star aura—a career-long parade of glamorous ladies—and is an auteur without overweening hauteur.

The Academy's traditional preference for films that blend light messages with heavy grosses is another reason Warren is top seed to many. Heaven, a farcical remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, is about a quarterback who dies before his time (and before the Super Bowl) and returns to life on earth in the body of a crabby millionaire. Fluff, yes, but at the box office it's earned some $77 million, or more than the total of Beatty's four rivals combined. Why did he wear so many hats on the project? "When I got close to the gun," he explains, "I decided to do it myself. I'd be a pretty big pain in the ass to work with." That disarming self-effacement aside, Beatty's co-star Dyan Cannon didn't feel the pain: "He has done so well for biting off such a big chunk."

Lately, Beatty has been in London researching his next film, a biopic of John Reed, tentatively titled Red Square. Reed was a radical American journalist who covered the Russian revolution and later wrote Ten Days That Shook the World. Recently Beatty shrewdly stunned the film establishment by hiring away critic Pauline Kael from The New Yorker. (She blasted Heaven as "piffle," but will soon be on the receiving end, as a producer.)

His co-star in Red Square will likely be his leading lady off-screen, Keaton, to whose Manhattan apartment he shuttles from his Mulholland Drive mansion. Though best actress last year, she expects to boycott this year's Oscars, and Warren may well appear with his ex-love and Heaven co-star, Julie Christie. ("My relationship with Julie," he has noted, "lasted longer than most marriages.") How can Beatty fail to score at the Oscars? "If Warren has any weaknesses," says his producer friend Bob Evans, "it's that he spreads himself too thin."

De Niro is shy, but his art is probing a role's psyche

If even Beatty admits his film is "an enjoyable little soufflé," The Deer Hunter, with its devastating, epic view of the Vietnam war, has a legitimate claim as the prestige film of the year. As usual, De Niro, 35, is going the nonexploitation prestige route. Known for an intensity bordering on madness in his Method of entering a character, he prepared for Deer Hunter by capping his teeth with a younger looking set of dentures; hanging out night after night (with notebook) with steelworkers in their beery, smoke-filled haunts around Pittsburgh; and learning to stalk wild deer in the Alleghenies (his New York Little Italy youth prepared him far better for Mean Streets and his supporting actor Oscar role in Godfather II).

"Bob makes it his business to become familiar with as much of the physical life of the people he's portraying as possible," says director Michael Cimino, who took out $5 million of insurance to allow him to pour off slag in fiery mills.

"My joy as an actor," says De Niro, who did not serve in the Army but has played five Vietnam-related roles, "is to live different lives without risking the real-life consequences." A reluctant star ("Fame can be death for a serious actor"), he is no prima donna on the set. Rather, reports co-star Chris Walken (himself nominated for a supporting Oscar), "Bobby helped cast members be as good as they could possibly be. He is a very generous actor."

Without his acclaim and stardom, De Niro says he "would have gone on being an ordinary guy, living a simple life, and nothing would have changed my marriage." Which is a long way of saying he has split from his wife, actress Diahnne Abbott, who lives with their son, Raphael, 2, and her daughter from a previous marriage in his Brentwood home. He stresses it is a "cooling-off period," not a legal separation.

De Niro has been training of late for Raging Bull—the film life of boxing legend Jake La Motta. He has been learning the ropes from Jake himself, running in Central Park, trying to pack extra pounds on his wiry 5'10" 155-pound frame. De Niro now lives in a four-story Manhattan brownstone not far from his mother, who was separated from his artist father, Robert Sr., when he was 2. She'll watch the Oscars in her SoHo loft. "I'm sure he cares that he's nominated," she says, adding with maternal loyalty, "I don't think there's much competition."

Voight's sexy vet may be 'Coming Home' in triumph

There will be at least two patently partial women at the awards show who couldn't disagree more with De Niro's mom. One is Voight's widowed mother; the other is his Coming Home co-star and co-nominee, Jane Fonda. Jon played a paraplegic Vietnam vet who falls in love with Jane after her husband (Bruce Dern) is shipped off to the war zone. "I think he'll win an Oscar," said Fonda when the film wrapped. "I can't imagine any other actor who'll top that performance."

Typically, Voight, 40, sells himself shorter than Vegas, which puts his chances at 7-5. He predicts that his and De Niro's Vietnam pictures "will fight each other" and could make Beatty the winner. But Jon, whose previous nomination was for Midnight Cowboy in 1970, has already won the Cannes Film Festival and Golden Globe prizes and both the New York and L.A. Film Critics' awards for Coming Home. Upon being informed of his nomination, Voight recalls: "I said, Thanks, that's nice,' and went back to bed. I was tired that morning."

It was an odd anticlimax for a man who recalls he "wanted the role so much I could hardly talk." He, in fact, landed it only after Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino said no, and then spent five weeks in a V.A. hospital to research it. Voight believes he lost for Cowboy because of his antiwar sentiments, but isn't holding anything back to insure victory now, including publicity efforts heretofore anathema to him. "There is a time when people ripen, and that's what happened to all of us," he says. "We paid a lot of dues to make that statement."

He'll attend the Oscars with his mother and girlfriend, actress Stacey Peckrin, with whom he shares a Hollywood Hills house. (Voight and his second wife, Marcheline, are divorcing.) Voight himself is set for either victory or defeat: "If I win I can handle it with grace and responsibility." he says. "And I'm philosophically equipped to handle the bruise if I lose."

His kids, Jamie, 5, and Angie, 3, will stay home with their mother. "I didn't want them to be bothered with the business," says Voight, who is now co-writing The Shore with another anguished talent, Dory Previn. The story? "It's about the male syndrome, my problems as a person," says Jon. "I'm an expert."

Olivier—the Marathon Man of acting—can't lose

An awed Jon Voight says of Lord Olivier: "He can sum up in one gesture the essence of a character." If Olivier's odds are long (6-1), it's because many Academy insiders sum up the essence of Boys from Brazil in one word: embarrassing. But a more accurate measure of Olivier's mighty gifts is that he overcame such a liability to snare his 11th nomination since Wuthering Heights 39 years ago. (He won once, for Hamlet in 1949.) In any case, the reverential Academy will bestow upon Olivier a special life-achievement award.

Since he will not go home empty-handed, sentimentalists among the Academy electorate may feel free to pass him by for the best-actor prize (to be handed out by Diana Ross and, ironically, Beatty's sister, Shirley MacLaine). Votes he does get will honor his physical courage in playing the part of a Jewish Nazi hunter in the post-Holocaust suspense film about young Hitler clones. At 71, he was recovering from prostate cancer, thrombosis and dermatomyositis, a muscle-wasting disease. There were times, recalls director Franklin Schaffner, "when he was hurting so much you could read it in his eyes. Yet he would ride it with an almost animal intensity, finding whatever diversion would take his mind off his pain. I've never known anyone that game."

Olivier hasn't got the strength for the stage now but has finished two movies since Brazil, including Dracula with Frank Langella. Oddly, he recently moved his wife, actress Joan Plowright, 49, and their three children, 12 to 17, to the Chelsea home once owned by Dracula novelist Bram Stoker. Asked why he works so hard, Sir Laurence offers a response that should win him an Oscar for candor: "I am lucky they offer me these parts in movies, which I can do. Films pay far better than the theater, and now I want to do the best I can do for my family."

Gary Busey, Holly's rock & roll disciple, raves on

The brash kid of the contenders, Gary Busey, at 34, is the only one who'll knock the competition. He likens Heaven Can Wait to "an old song rearranged to a new time and place." Yet the rearranged music of old songs—which he brilliantly performed live in his film—became Busey's ticket to the big time in his knowing portrayal of Holly, the rock'n'roll legend. Since then Busey's career has been "like jumpin' on a train going 400 miles an hour. I don't even remember making the Holly Story, that's how gone I was," he says. "I was pretty unconscious and I think that's the secret, just being. I was hypnotized. I do best when I'm desperate and urgent. It is an emotional, taxing way to work."

Now that the film has established him as a star (grossing some $21 million on a comparatively modest budget of $3 million), Busey plans in the coming months to cut his first rock'n'roll album (he has performed live as Teddy Jack Eddy). He also begins shooting another as yet untitled film this spring. He and his wife, Judy, have moved from their humble Canoga Park house to a Malibu place more befitting his new status.

Though he is his category's longshot (12-1), "I've already won," he says with messianic fervor, "by the fact that Buddy Holly has been recognized." Busey says he will attend the Oscars with Judy and pal Richard Dreyfuss, last year's winner. More portentously, he adds he will be representing "Mr. and Mrs. Holly, Maria Elena, Buddy's wife, and all people who play rock'n'roll. I'm a disciple of rock'n'roll." Indeed, his whole experience with fame has made Busey more voluble by the day. "I think earth is an outpost in our galaxy where our souls are sent to test if they will hold up. Einstein was right," he observes. "I think the first words a person says when he dies are, 'Why was I so serious?' Now, I'm trying not to be so serious."

But not with total success. Playing a mythic folk hero like Holly with such startling precision provided Busey with a thoughtful perception of his own art, which could apply to all his Hollywood comrades, nominated or not: "When I looked into the mirror while shooting the film, I couldn't find Gary Busey anymore. That's where an actor's life is: jumping in and out of mirrors without cutting himself."