March 28, 1994 12:00 PM

by Robert Osborne

Next to sports trivia and maybe TV trivia, is there any trivia more trivial than Oscar trivia? And yet true movie fans can never gel their fill of Oscar facts, like when was the last time a black-and-white movie won Best Picture (1960, The Apartment). For anyone intent on impressing friends with useless Oscarabilia while catching this year’s show, Osborne’s hefty history will come in handy.

Billed as official and loaded with photographs from the Academy’s archives, it features a year-by-year rundown of nominations and winners (through 1992), plus dozens of Oscar memories. Reading it yields nostalgia for nifty old movies and surprise at some quirky Academy picks: Art Carney beating out Nicholson, Pacino, Finney and Hoffman to win the 1974 Best Actor Oscar for Harry and Tonto; John Travolta gelling nominated for Saturday Night Fever, now a camp classic.

What’s missing is any sense of spectacle, as if Oscar night were some stuffy corporate banquet and not a surreal gathering of unpredictable egos. Amazing Oscar moments—a streaker upstaging David Niven, Sally Field’s “you like me” acceptance speech, Rob Lowe’s serenade of Snow White—are dryly recounted, though such silliness is exactly what makes the Oscars so memorable. For the price, this official history should have more prominently featured some of Oscar’s unofficial histrionics. (Abbeville, $59.95)

Hollywood certainly doesn’t crank out 52 must-sees a year. Yet a recent survey states that VCR owners are averaging one movie rental per week—meaning we’re heavily into evergreens, foreign pictures and B flicks. In an age when even mom-and-pop shops stock several thousand titles, a trustworthy guide to older and more obscure videos can be as important a tool as your zapper. Here’s a guide to the guides:

The best of the under-$8 paperbacks is Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide 1994 (Ballantine, $7.99) because it offers a thorough index to performers’ movies and perhaps the most comprehensive listing of low-budget sleepers. No other book in this category, for instance, reviewed 1992’s Interceptor, a snappy stealing-a-Stealth-bomber yarn. Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV and Videocassette (Bantam, $7.50) and Leonard Mailings Movie and Video Guide 1994 (Signet, $7.99) suffer from incomplete actors indexes (Maria Montez is in both, but Helen Mirren is in neither). Schcuer overlooks important titles like Akira, the animated sci-fi feature from Japan, and 1992’s noirish One False Move, while Mallin routinely disses genre pictures like Judy Davis’s four-hankie High Tide, Cheech Marin’s goofy Born in East L.A. and 1987’s rudely violent The Hidden.

Of the large-format paperbacks, the best is The Time Out Film Guide, edited by Tom Milne (Penguin, $20), whose 10,000-plus reviews, culled from the London weekly, are succinct yet trenchant and witty; reading the mini-essay on 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate could prompt a run on the title’s rental. Conversely, the summaries in VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever 1994 (Visible Ink, $17.95), Halliwell’s Film Guide 1994 (Harper, $21) and Tom Wiener’s The Book of Video Lists (Andrews and McMeel, $12.95) are about as helpful as the lame-o plot synopses found in most daily newspapers.

Terseness is not a hallmark of Roger Ebert’s Video Companion (Andrews and McMeel, $14.95), which pontificates on a scant 1,250 titles (and no, Roger, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is not a better movie than The Road Warrior).

If your taste runs to popcorn movies, L.A. Morse’s Video Trash & Treasures and Video Trash & Treasures II (HarperCollins, $5.95 each) can help separate the merely awful from the offal. He pinpoints why, for instance, American Ninja II is funny while AN and AN III are dreck. Too bad Morse is so cavalier about cast lists.

Lastly, we all know that some headliners—Sharon Stone, Mel Gibson, Madonna, Harvey Keilel—aren’t shy about unveiling their whatevers for Panaflex posterity. Craig Hosoda’s The Bare Facts Video Guide (self-published, $15.95) describes show-some-skin scenes by several hundred actors and actresses (in addition to the usual suspects, these include Daniel Day-Lewis, Olympia Dukakis [!], Peter Falk [!?], Helen Hunt, Christian Slater and Emma Thompson) and tells you exactly where to fast-forward on each tape. Sleazy? Sure. Popular? You bet; the book is in its fourth edition.

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