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THE PICTURE OF SUCCESS

Acting is like roller skating. Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting.
-- George Sanders on the art of acting.
It's better than being a pimp.
-- Mogul Harry Cohn on the art of being Harry Cohn.
Don't make the pictures any better. Just keep them the way they are.
-- Louis B. Mayer on the art of being Louis B. Mayer.
Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.
-- Alfred Hitchcock on the art of being Alfred Hitchcock.
This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction.
-- Ken Russell on the art of film-making.

WE HAVE, by now, watched Tom Hanks on TV accepting enough meaningless awards for "Forrest Gump" to make up a network mini-series -- The Golden Globe, American Comedy Award, Screen Actors Guild, People's Choice Award. The problem for Paul Newman -- his biggest competition for an Oscar on Monday night (Ch. 7, 9 p.m.) -- is that Tom Hanks is about as good at getting awards as some of us have ever seen. He is funny, gracious, warm, level-headed and moving, a class act if ever there was one.

What some of us didn't know until recently is that Hanks had approximately $60 million Gump Dollars in his pocket while he accepted all those garish dust-catchers. For that kind of money, F. Lee Bailey and Marcia Clark might well link arms and sing "Ah Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I've Found You" at the nearest Marine Recruiting Station.

That's reportedly Hanks' total take thus far from Gump's monumental box office -- $10 million more than Jack Nicholson initially made from "Batman." While not universally known, Hanks' reported "Gump" take has to be well-enough known to Oscar voters to give them a few seconds' pause before they check off "Hanks" on their ballots ("With all that success and dough, we're supposed to give him an Oscar too? What's Tom Hanks ever done for me?")

Forget the likely "Gump"-slide for a second. This is going to be a great Oscar show. If David Letterman is half as loose as he is nightly, he could well turn out to be the funniest Oscar host ever. If he feels at home and completely able to puncture pomposity at every turn, he could make Billy Crystal's wonderful previous stints look like the unusually clever bar mitzvah speeches they were.

What makes the likely "Gump"-slide so interesting is that the movie itself hasn't changed a bit, it's the cultural world which has orbited around it a few times and looked at it from all sides (including many dark ones). The movie is still the same lovely little fable about innocence in the midst of history, an honorable Hollywood variant of the same idea to be found in Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" and Voltaire's "Candide." It's the "Gump" phenomenon which seems to be toxic to some people: a harbinger of the "Dumb and Dumber" culture teen-agers and angry white voters are giving us.

But then when you gross $312 million in domestic box office, with cable, video and international box office yet to be totaled up, people tend to look at you funny. In America, everybody likes to be liked. The corollary, though, is that everyone secretly loathes those who are too well-liked.

Resentment -- or to use the fancy French version, ressentiment -- is built into American Democracy. It makes us all very neurotic at best and, at worst, poisonously and disgustingly envious. "Forrest Gump" is too good to be us. That's why so many hate him.

This annual Oscar tip sheet is now in its 22nd year of fun and frolic. My usual batting average is slightly better than .500. I've hit .750 a couple times but that seems to be my own personal mathematical ceiling. After that, human variability and the immutable laws of personal mutability take over.

The way this year's Academy Awards dope out:

BEST PICTURE -- "The Shawshank Redemption," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and even "Quiz Show" are all category filler. The race seems to be "Pulp Fiction" vs. "Forrest Gump." If you think of, say, Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters as representing the voters cultural purview, you've got your answer -- "Forrest Gump" by a country mile.

If "Pulp Fiction" wins, it means that a quarter century after it was announced, "The New Hollywood" has finally taken hold. By all means, break out the champagne and pate. Swing from the chandeliers if you've got the energy and acrobatic inclination. The news will be that big. In other words, don't count on it.

If "Quiz Show" somehow wins, even though it made very little money despite skywritten reviews and a ton of promotion (an egregious faux pas in Hollywood's book of etiquette), it means the "Gump" backlash was so large it will have to be studied for years to come. If it starred anyone else besides Tim Robbins, "The Shawshank Redemption" might be an interesting outside possibility. But with Robbins, forget it.

As the ads say, "Gump" happens. Prepare for piles of it.

BEST ACTOR -- Everybody in Hollywood -- and most other places -- loves Tom Hanks. Even though he won last year for "Philadelphia," he's the sort of guy people like being nice to. In a dumb and dumber feelgood era, he is the feelgood Oscar by a long shot. The John Travolta Resurrection was a great news story, and he's awfully good in "Pulp Fiction," but it's not quite Oscar-good. Morgan Freeman is high-caliber category-filler, awardable only in the event of an unfathomable "Gump"-backlash. If Paul Newman didn't already have one, he'd be a lock. Unfortunately, no matter how appealing he is to predominantly older voters, he's definitely the Feelbad Oscar. It's a downer I don't think people will want to take.

All of which brings up the most interesting long shot of the night -- Nigel Hawthorne for "The Madness of King George." Remember: a) Hollywoodians love Brits. It's in the water. b) "King George" consciousness in L.A. is high, as evidenced by Judge Lance Ito's encomiums while getting the movie for the Simpson Jury. And c) Strictly speaking his was the great film performance of 1994. If Hanks' lovability somehow doesn't carry the day (fat chance), look for Hawthorne to come from the far turn in an amazing (but comprehensible) upset.

BEST ACTRESS -- For a change, a great category. Everyone's no doubt glad an actress as good as Miranda Richardson is in the category, but probably not glad enough to vote for her. The vote for young Hollywood could go to Winona Ryder for "Little Women." Susan Sarandon would be a shoo-in for being criminally passed over previously in "Lorenzo's Oil" except for one thing -- her politics and those of her live-in, Tim Robbins, make them supremely obnoxious to most Hollywoodians. Twenty years from now, Sarandon is a sure thing to get an honorary Oscar for her life work and probably an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award too. She is one of the truly great film actresses of our era. Lovable, though, she's not.

Unless an outside shot pulls in, it's between Jodie Foster for "Nell" and Jessica Lange for "Blue Sky," a film almost no one saw. No matter. The case for Lange is: a) Foster already has two. b) "Blue Sky" was directed by Tony Richardson just before he died of AIDS, and an award to Lange would be a posthumous way to honor Richardson and make an AIDS statement besides. c) The film was the last major film of Orion Pictures, the much-loved studio everyone in Hollywood pulled for until Chapter 11 set in, the studio Hollywood loved to give Oscars to ("Dances with Wolves," "The Silence of the Lambs"). An Oscar to Lange is, in other words, a nice Orion Auld Lange Syne.

The smart money is on Lange. But Jodie Foster is Jodie Foster -- a major force for good in current filmmaking and a superb actress. Giving her an Oscar every other year wouldn't make her sister actresses happy, but it wouldn't displease everyone else.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR -- As always, the best category of the night. Everyone in it deserves it -- Gary Sinise in "Forrest Gump," Paul Scofield in "Quiz Show," Chazz Palminteri for "Bullets Over Broadway" (a definite possibility for being so lovable and for encouragement for Woody Allen besides). It looks to be between Samuel L. Jackson, who was tremendous in "Pulp Fiction," and Martin Landau, who was even better as Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood." As great as Jackson was, the tragic fact is that it will be hard to pass up a performance as good as Landau's or a career that's as long and as interesting (way back when, he was blacklisted). Landau, I think, just slightly edges out Jackson in the Feelgood sweepstakes.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS -- Dianne Wiest was great in "Bullets Over Broadway," but she already has an Oscar, and Jennifer Tilly will help to cancel her out. Rosemary Harris is a grande dame and Helen Mirren, though underused in "The Madness of King George," is still Helen Mirren and, for that reason alone, awardable anytime anyplace. The most logical choice, though, is Uma Thurman. It's the semi-big award everyone wants to give "Pulp Fiction" and the youth vote besides (Thurman is 24).

BEST DIRECTOR -- Robert Zemeckis already won the Director's Guild Award for "Gump" which means that Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Krzszystof Kieslowski can stay home and watch it on TV. If it weren't for the writing category, so could Quentin Tarantino. It is, almost certainly, Robert Zemeckis, a brilliant talent who finally found a way to make a brilliant movie.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY -- The desire to give Quentin Tarantino something for a movie as original as "Pulp Fiction" will be overwhelming. This is it. I don't see how he can lose this.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY -- Everyone who knows admits the real hero of "Forrest Gump" is screenwriter Eric Roth, who took a crude, redneck comic fable of a book by Winston Groom and made something lovely out of it, one of the great silk purse-out-of-sow's-ears of modern times. It's too bad that he's almost a sure thing because it's a great category -- Paul Attanasio for the rich social realism of "Quiz Show," Alan Bennett's semi-Shavian screenplay for "The Madness of King George," Robert Benton's droll adaptation of "Nobody's Fool," and Frank Darabont's irresistible version of "The Shawshank Redemption." Roth probably can't lose, but he's going to have to say something about the field.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY -- Because of the tricks involved, expect Don Burgess for "Forrest Gump". Everyone else in the category is exceptional but much too "inside" for the common realm of Academy voter.

BEST EDITING -- The only category "Hoop Dreams" was nominated in, one of the greatest nominating travesties of the past 20 years -- a travesty so great and so appalling that "Hoop Dreams" may actually win this despite "Gump," "The Shawshank Redemption," "Pulp Fiction," and the deserving winner, "Speed."

BEST ART DIRECTION -- "The Madness of King George" is a great movie that will most likely be under-awarded. This is one logical remedy.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE -- A tough one because no one really deserves it. Alan Silvestri for "Gump" will be the "oh-well-what-the-hell" vote but Hans Zimmer for "The Lion King" is the major likelihood.

BEST SONG -- As always, a disgraceful category. Probably the "Circle of Life" because Elton John will accept the award.

BEST FOREIGN FILM -- That Kieslowski's "Red" wasn't nominated was a travesty its nominations in other categories tried to make up for. It seems to be between "Farinelli" and "Before the Rain" with "Strawberry and Chocolate" a possibility. Anybody's choice. Try "Before the Rain" but don't be surprised by either of the other two.

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