About a billion people are expected to watch the March 21 Academy Awards broadcast, anchored by Whoopi Goldberg, with big grins on their faces. Those up for awards will have a bad case of the sweats. And even the 4,755 Academy members eligible to vote in the winners may go through a tough moment or two. Confesses Goldberg's ex-love, Academy member Ted Danson, ''I don't vote. Awards make me nervous maybe they mean too much to me, so I duck the whole thing.''
Ducking questions about the Oscars is considered a sworn duty by most of his colleagues the Academy doesn't even give out the voting members' names. Still, studios manage to find out who belongs, and they barrage the voters with party and screening invitations not to mention Oscar candidates on videocassette. Cool Hand Luke's 1967 Oscar winner George Kennedy got 30 such tapes this year.
The Academy cautions voters not to divulge their choices to anyone. But we just had to ask. When EW reporters recently phoned nearly 300 Academy members, most of them actors, their representatives acted like we were requesting a nude photo session with Michael Ovitz. ''Who do you think you are?'' snapped one outraged publicist. Another forbade us to talk Oscars with his client because ''He's very open, and he tends to get himself in trouble.''
In the most cynical of industries, the Academy Award is one thing that still inspires reverence. ''It's like the Constitution of the United States,'' says Sharon Farrell, a longtime Oscar voter seen in 1971's The Love Machine and the forthcoming A Gift From Heaven. ''It's, like, the only thing in the world that can't be bought.'' It's not that moguls aren't trying, as Farrell can attest. ''You don't know the pressures when people know you're part of the Academy,'' she mourns. ''People try to buy you, threaten you with your job sometimes. It's incredible.''
Most of the stars EW polled obeyed the Oscar gag rule. But not everyone in Hollywood reads carefully, or we wouldn't have had a famous actor tell us he's voting for Diane Keaton (who wasn't nominated) or extol ''Stockyard Channing'' or fax us his praise for ''Philadelphia Story'' as Best Picture. Thoughtfully or recklessly, a few dozen stars gave us a peek behind the Academy's iron curtain.
''The only shoo-in is Holly Hunter,'' says Even Cowgirls Get the Blues star Angie Dickinson, ''and I also think she should win for The Firm.'' Erstwhile Agent 007 Roger Moore concurs on Hunter, and he'll vote for Steven Spielberg as Best Director and Schindler's List as Best Picture. ''The hardest choice I have to make is for Best Actor,'' adds Dickinson and for her it's between Hanks and Neeson. Director/actor Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) voted for Hunter and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?'s Leonardo DiCaprio, whom he found ''breathtaking in a wonderful little movie out of left field, astonishing in one so young. This demands recognition.'' For Bill Erwin (Home Alone, Dennis the Menace), it's Daniel Day-Lewis, Channing, Tommy Lee Jones, Hunter, and In the Name of the Father ''maybe this is because I'm Irish.'' Publicist Dick Delson didn't spill how his clients voted, but as an Academy member (yes, publicity is a motion-picture art, or science, too), his nod went to Hanks and Hunter, Jones and Thompson, and Schindler's.
M*A*S*H vet Jamie Farr, newly starring in Broadway's Guys and Dolls, is awed by John Malkovich and Jones for Best Supporting Actor, but he'll probably go with Schindler's villain Ralph Fiennes: ''You really hated this man,'' says Farr, ''callous, no good, but without twirling a mustache.'' Paul Winfield, upcoming in the CBS miniseries Scarlett, says, ''What's Love Got to Do With It is an exceptional story told honestly by exceptional actors who generally have been overlooked in the Schindler's List hoopla.'' He'll vote for Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) voted for Schindler's but goes along with Winfield: ''What's Love Got to Do With It has the best performances I've ever seen.'' Underdogs shouldn't roll over in despair to any Oscar juggernaut, as George Kennedy well knows: ''A lot of my friends said, 'We love you, but Bonnie and Clyde is going to win everything.' Michael J. Pollard didn't win. I did.''
Stella Stevens, a survivor of The Poseidon Adventure who'll be seen in the upcoming interactive strip-poker video Pandora's Poker Palace, thinks Hanks deserves to win, and shall along with Hunter, Jones, and Schindler's List. Some Oscar voters refused to say how they would vote, instead revealing who should have been in the running: ''Harvey Keitel was sensational,'' says 1984 Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus). ''The Piano was the best performance of his life.'' Still others found it easier to predict the Academy's choices than to divulge their own. ''Bassett is going to win,'' says a studio executive not involved with the film. ''They love the underdog.''
Schindler's List was the favorite of the EW poll's academy-within-the-Academy, an opinion obviously affected by the growing unease over the career-long Oscar snub of Spielberg. In other categories, too, there is always the bigger career picture to keep in view. Says Bartel of Hanks, ''He did rise like a phoenix absolutely unscarred from the ashes of Bonfire. That in itself is worth an Academy Award.'' And it suggests a new category: Most Courageous Performance by a Recently Incinerated Ego.
Despite the predicted sweep for Schindler's List, each member hoped everybody would stubbornly vote from the gut. Not director Henry Jaglom, though. A former anti-Spielberg crusader won over by Schindler's, he's too idealistic to impose his opinion on his own ballot, let alone others'. Instead, he lets his seven-member office staff vote on each category and he sends in the result, which he would no more dream of tampering with than would Price Waterhouse. ''It's a democracy,'' he explains.