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In the Race for the '88 Oscars, Barbra Streisand and Steve Martin Come Up Short By, Well, a Nose

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Oscar may weigh under 9 pounds and stand a mere 13½ inches high, but never forget that the little guy has a sword. On Feb. 17, when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Oscar proved he could use it, puncturing some of Hollywood’s largest and best-tended egos.

Among his victims was Barbra Streisand, who had barely recovered from being snubbed in 1984 for her last picture, Yentl, which she managed to produce, direct and co-write—as well as perform in—without so much as an acknowledgment. This year, for Nuts, in which she played a hooker facing a sanity hearing after killing a John, Streisand launched an expensive Oscar ad campaign in praise of her work as producer, composer and star. So much for the power of money: The yield in nominations was nil. Streisand has blamed Oscar’s male chauvinism: “In Hollywood, a woman can be an actress, a singer, a dancer, but don’t let her be too much more.”

Perhaps the academy simply doesn’t like too much success. Consider the case of writer-director James L. Brooks, who swept the Oscars with his first picture, Terms of Endearment. His second film, Broadcast News, is up for seven major Oscars this year, including Best Picture, but he was ignored as director. “What does that mean?” he asked the movie’s executive producer, Polly Piatt, who says Brooks was “taken aback” by the snub. In fact, only two films in Oscar history, Wings in 1927 and Grand Hotel in 1932, managed to win Oscars without earning their directors nominations. Piatt speculates that Broadcast News “is not show-offy. Some people don’t notice a director’s work unless he’s moving his camera around in a flamboyant way.”

How then to explain Oscar’s continued indifference to Steven Spielberg, whose camera raced around like a shark on speed in Empire of the Sun, his $30 million epic about a child’s view of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai? The night before the nominees were announced, Spielberg collected awards for Best Picture and Best Director from the National Board of Review. “I have a strong feeling I won’t be nominated,” he said. His hunch, no doubt based on his failure to be recognized two years ago for The Color Purple, proved correct. “He does seem to get a raw deal, doesn’t he?” says Adrian Lyne, who is up for a Best Director Oscar for Fatal Attraction. Not everyone thinks so. Director Henry (Always) Jaglom believes Spielberg got exactly what he deserved. “He is an entertainer who should stick to making childish fantasies and stop trying to make serious adult films,” says Jaglom. “I think it’s very rewarding that Spielberg didn’t get nominated. The academy came of age this year by ignoring commercialism.” (To register your own opinion, see PEOPLE Poll, this page.)

Before we let Oscar ride his high horse, let’s hear his reasons for dumping the revered Lillian Gish and Bette Davis from the academy bandwagon. Certainly there was nothing boffo about their co-starring roles in The Whales of August, a modest and moving study of old age. Davis surely dismisses the slight. “It’s always the best fruit the birds pick on,” she once said. But she already has two Oscars. Gish, practically a one-woman history of the movies, has none. After suffering a fall last month in her Manhattan apartment, Gish, at 91, may never be fit enough to make another film. Her other Whales co-star, Ann Sothern, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, was stunned by Gish’s omission. “I am truly shocked about Lillian,” said Sothern. “What happened?”

Fans and family of John Huston, who died last August at 81 might well be asking the same question about Huston’s widely praised The Dead, a post-humous release. Norman Jewison, nominated as Best Director for Moonstruck, is aghast that Huston wasn’t nominated. “The Dead,” says Jewison, “is a profound film.”

There’s the rub. Profound is in scarce supply among this year’s nominees. Three of the Best Picture hopefuls (Moonstruck, Hope and Glory, Broadcast News) are essentially comedies, and nine of the 20 acting nominations are for comic performances. This from a sourpuss Oscar who has previously scorned giggles in favor of big-budget epic seriousness, best represented this year by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

For all his newfound affection for laughs, Oscar still managed to ignore Steve Martin, perhaps the best comic actor now working in film. Martin has already won acclaim and awards this year for Roxanne, an inspired update of Cyrano de Bergerac. But Oscar ignored these honors, just as he had Martin’s triumph in 1984’s All of Me and his bravura turn last year as a sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. “I was sure Steve was a shoo-in to be nominated for those roles,” says Carl Reiner, who directed All of Me and offers Martin some philosophical advice: “There should be no losers when you’re that good.” Sure. But how does it feel to be an Oscar reject? Ask Cher, nominated this year for Best Actress for Moonstruck, but shunned two years ago for Mask. “I was hysterical,” she says. “I cried and cried and cried, and I thought, ‘I can’t live through this.’ ”

—Written by Peter Travers, reported by David Marlow and Richard Natale