''Excellence in filmmaking is the only factor we consider in casting our Academy Award votes,'' insists the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in an introduction to its rule book, 29 pages of regulations that rival the U.S. Tax Code in complexity.
Yet try as it might to bring logic and order to what is inevitably a subjective exercise part popularity contest, part horse race, part crapshoot the Academy can't seem
to pull off an Oscar show without stumbling through a mine field of oversights, controversies, and scandals. But then, Oscar's missteps are all part of our fascination with the Academy Awards. And if this year's scandale is next year's bit of intriguing Oscar trivia, then the current race is bound to be remembered for its bumper crop of embarrassments.
THE CASE OF THE MISSING DIRECTOR
It's almost an Oscar tradition: Since 1982, at least one of the directors whose film gets a Best Picture slot fails to be nominated as Best Director. This year it's Rob Reiner, whose A Few Good Men has four nominations. Reiner lost his place to Robert Altman whose movie The Player scored three nominations but not Best Picture. If Reiner was smarting, Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton was chagrined especially since such previous Columbia Best Picture nominees as Awakenings and The Prince of Tides failed to win nods for directors Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand. ''This is unfortunately the third year in a row that Columbia has had a film nominated for Best Picture that seemingly directed itself,'' Canton has said.
When Spike Lee's Malcolm X opened in November, it had all the earmarks of a Gandhi-esque Oscar juggernaut. An epic account of a towering historical figure, it drew reams of prerelease publicity and more-than-respectful reviews, ending up in many critics' year-end top 10. But when it received only two nominations Best Actor for Denzel Washington and Best Costume Design the poor showing didn't spark an outburst from the normally combative Lee.
What happened? Lee lost the expectations game. Though it made a respectable $48 million at the box office, Malcolm X failed to do the kind of blockbuster business that would have put Lee on a new level. And after years of taunting the Hollywood establishment, Lee hardly had a reservoir of goodwill to fall back on. Ironically, Malcolm X is his most conventional movie, leading some Academy observers to theorize that, had it been directed by Norman Jewison as originally planned, it wouldn't have looked much different but it surely would have earned more nominations.
THE LADIES VANISH
Back when the Academy first announced that the theme of this year's show would be ''Oscar Celebrates Women and the Movies,'' it seemed to dovetail nicely with ''The Year of the Woman,'' the unofficial theme of the '92 elections. But by the time Academy members got their ballots, it became clear that the celebration couldn't have been more badly timed. Only one Best Picture nominee (Howards End) has a strong female lead. ''It may be called the Year of the Woman,'' laments Diane Ladd, one of last year's nominees (Rambling Rose). ''But what kind of women? What kind of pictures are we being pushed to do? Most of them are crap.''
The painful ironies won't go unnoted. Some of the 4,400 members of the Women's Action Coalition plan a variety of protests at this year's awards ceremony, setting the tone by plastering the town with posters of ''Oscarella'' a female version of the Academy's gold eunuch. WAC members also plan to camp in the Oscar fan bleachers and wage peaceful but attention-getting disruptions as celebrities arrive.
Inside the hall, WAC members plan on a ''mass distribution'' of leaflets voicing their concerns. WAC has also designed a ''Reel Roles for Real Women'' lapel pin a hybrid of the women's sign and a film canister and asked several stars (including Geena Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins) to wear the pin. Other presenters allegedly have been asked to ''say something about the plight of women in film'' before they rattle off their list of nominees.
One source says WAC may also try to disrupt the Oscar telecast with other high-visibility actions. A spokeswoman would say only that the group plans on taking some sort of ''guerrilla'' action, as a WAC fax distributed last week seemed to hint: ''Women have been silenced in film for too long,'' it stated. ''We won't be quiet any longer.''