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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? THE OSCARS.  
   
   
 

When betting on sports, the intelligent individual puts all personal feelings to the side and tries to evaluate the wager at hand with cold logic and objectivity. This is easier said than done, and it's even more difficult when you're gambling on awards shows. With a Super Bowl

 
  or an NCAA basketball tournament, the outcome is determined by the participants battling it out against one another. With the Oscars, it's screwier: You have to guess how a group of people you've never met will mark their ballots. This does, however, present a certain advantage. To be a good Oscar handicapper, you must forget who you want to win -- instead, you must think like one of the approximately 5,800 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and figure out who they want to win. About a quarter of these voters are actors and, because membership is for life, they tend to be a slightly older bunch. Membership is by invitation only, but getting a nomination helps        
 

your odds of getting in, which encourages certain voting patterns from one generation to the next. So you need to know a little Oscar history, too.

As opposed to last year's snorefest, where everybody knew that The Return of the King would walk away with most everything, the 2005 Academy Awards have the potential to be a pretty suspenseful show. Not since Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love battled it out in 1999 have two films (The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby) been so closely neck-and-neck for the major prizes. But, after crunching the numbers, I've determined that one film will win both Best Picture and Best Director -- there won't be a split as there has been in recent years.

***

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
Natalie Portman, Closer

Who Will Win
With Blanchett or Madsen having the best odds of winning, this could be an early indicator if the Boxer or the Aviator will claim Best Picture. If Blanchett wins, Martin Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein can feel a little better about their chances. Madsen wins, and The Aviator may be in trouble -- and it may set up an opportunity for a real Best Picture stunner. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Blanchett has established her acting credentials with the Academy long ago and has been nominated in the past, while Madsen is enjoying a comeback after suffering through crap like Candyman and then near-career oblivion, where she seemingly disappeared. Her role is the most sympathetic in Sideways -- amidst the infidelity, ennui, and misanthropy, she has the heart of gold. Among the voters, Blanchett is probably considered the better actress, but some may feel that her role in The Aviator as Katharine Hepburn is more gimmick than landmark. Regardless, Hepburn remains one of the most beloved Academy members of all time, and Blanchett's performance captures her spunk and humor -- it's a loving portrayal. That affection won't be forgotten by the Academy. Cate Blanchett wins.

If You're Feeling Lucky
Nobody remembers Kinsey, so Linney is out. Okonedo's nomination feels a little like Shohreh Aghdashloo's last year for House of Sand and Fog -- a chance for the Academy to congratulate itself for picking someone who isn't white, but not actually give them the hardware. If there's gonna be an upset, I think it'll be with Portman. Closer did decent business and had the Mike Nichols prestige factor working for it. Portman has been doing great work since The Professional, back when she was barely a teenager, but this is her first substantial "serious" role in a legitimate Oscar contender. If enough people decide Blanchett's been better elsewhere and Madsen's too much of an outsider -- or if these two actresses split the vote too evenly between them -- a pretty talented 23-year-old will make her way to the podium. (This will also mean I'll have to break down and finally see Closer -- I hated the play, and the idea of suffering through it a second time seems too much to ask.)

Who Should Win
Of the five, Blanchett's the easy pick. In this category, I'm incorporating the same mindset that sportswriters use in selecting MVP awards: Which player is most integral to his team's success? When Blanchett arrives on the scene, The Aviator goes beyond you-are-there biopic conventions. Instead of being a replica of Hepburn, she exudes her pure essence -- smart, slightly irritating, funny as hell, completely lovable. How could Howard Hughes not accept the challenge of wooing her? When she exits the film for good, her void is palpable -- you understand precisely why Hughes was lost without her.

 

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Alda, The Aviator
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Jamie Foxx, Collateral
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
Clive Owen, Closer

Who Will Win
Freeman is the respected elder; Church is the out-of-nowhere surprise. But this one's easy. Enough Academy members will remember that Freeman has never won an Oscar. And they'll decide it's high time he did. Morgan Freeman wins.

If You're Feeling Lucky
Church, if you think the Academy will want to spread the victories around Sideways, Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator. Foxx, if you think the Academy will want to give him two Oscars in one night. Alda, if you think the Academy will find his bad-guy turn a substantial change from his nice-guy persona -- or if you're thinking The Aviator is gonna sweep the evening. Owen, if you're just not looking at your ballot closely enough.

Who Should Win
Frankly, I'd pick Alda. It's a fun role where he gets to imagine what would have happened if Lester, his terrifically scummy TV producer from Crimes and Misdemeanors, got elected to Congress. Beyond just being corrupt, there's an appealingly weasel-ish quality to the performance that makes Alda's character agreeably loathsome. By contrast, Freeman is saddled with the noble-old-guy shtick in Million Dollar Baby, full of wry wisdom and h-e-a-v-y voiceover significance. (If that wasn't enough, his character only has one eye, which was lost for the purposes of melodramatic backstory requirements.) But so that they don't fade into the netherworld without a trace, I'd like to recognize three unheralded performances which were far better. Paul Bettany in Dogville does the neat trick of playing the valiant protector of Nicole Kidman's Grace before turning into a sadistic monster, exposing the selfish hypocrisy of most "well-meaning" idealists. Phil Davis in Vera Drake becomes the audience's emotional guide to his wife's questionable activities -- in many ways, his transformation is more moving than hers. And Mark Wahlberg in I Heart Huckabees continues to demonstrate a rugged sweetness that makes him an interesting actor nobody thinks of when they're listing their favorites.

 

Best Actress
Annette Bening, Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Who Will Win
Who's gonna beat Swank? If somehow she loses, The Aviator crowd will start to feel a little cockier. The only element working against her is that she has won already -- and won recently with Boys Don't Cry. Bening was positioned as a possible contender, but I don't think enough people have seen Being Julia to seriously consider her. Hilary Swank wins.

If You're Feeling Lucky
Kate and Catalina don't seem like legitimate threats, but Imelda Staunton just might be. While Vera Drake hasn't had the profile of many of the serious Oscar contenders, Staunton has received the bulk of the attention for her role. If the Academy wants someone new to win -- and if they want to keep Baby from winning too many Oscars -- Staunton could be the gal. Plus, her British pedigree and theater credentials are catnip for older actors in the Academy who like to recognize "serious" thespians.

Who Should Win
Catalina Sandino Moreno's Maria went through an equally difficult journey to the one Staunton braves in Vera Drake. But Maria's road to maturity really floors you in Maria Full of Grace; by contrast, Staunton gets stranded in a third act that relies less on acting and more on outright crying and misery. That slim difference tips the balance toward the newcomer. (Winslet's ability to range from the trying girl of your dreams in Eternal Sunshine to the perfect mom of Finding Neverland deserves special notice.) As for Swank, she is solid in Million Dollar Baby, but I regard her the same way as I do the rest of the movie: I don't see what's particularly inspiring or revelatory. Baby is pulp done with a certain amount of gravity, which causes many people to lose their senses and start ranting "masterpiece!" to whomever will listen. I am not one such ranter. Mostly, I'm just sorry Nicole Kidman has already won an Oscar; her roles in Birth and Dogville were far superior to her dreary turn in The Hours.

 

Best Actor

Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator
Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Jamie Foxx, Ray

Who Will Win
I'm putting Foxx alone in this category since no one thinks anyone else can win. (Some people give Eastwood a decent chance, but I'll address that in a moment.) After seeing Ray back in October, I figured the guy had it locked. There is no more Oscar-worthy performance this year than his -- and I don't mean that in a positive way. Blind, struggling with heroin, rising from the ashes to become a better person -- these are the sorts of triumph-from-adversity requirements necessary for an Oscar win. And Foxx has done nothing since Ray's release to hurt his chances. He's said the right things, kept himself in the limelight without being pushy about it and even performed at the Grammys. The Yankees couldn't choke this big of a lead. Jamie Foxx wins.

If You're Feeling Lucky
With Baby's late charge, some think Eastwood could upset Foxx here. But my guess is that more people will want to give him the directing Oscar. So who's left? Cheadle and Depp seem like distant memories. Which brings us to DiCaprio. If I'm Miramax, I'm extremely worried that no one is talking about Leo's age-spanning, rise-and-fall-and-rise-and-fall performance in a heavily lauded film. If DiCaprio wins, I think The Aviator is home free. If Eastwood gets it, Million Dollar Baby can sit back and relax the rest of the night. I don't think either has much of a chance, though.

Who Should Win
I carefully delineated precisely why Foxx's performance in Ray was so vastly overrated when it first came out, so suffice it to say I won't be happy if he wins. (He's better in Collateral, pure and simple.) DiCaprio, on the other hand, is magnificent. Here's an actor who's been doing phenomenal work for a while now. He survived the mega-celebrity of Titanic to continue delivering terrific roles all over the place. (The Woody Allen obsessive in me compels you to catch his brilliant cameo in Celebrity.) Much like Russell Crowe's win for Gladiator, Leo's victory would prove that a big studio blockbuster cannot succeed without a strong lead anchoring the proceedings. As for Eastwood, he glares magnificently. Swell. The snub for Giamatti didn't particularly offend me; fans of The Sea Inside's Javier Bardem had more reason to complain.

 

Best Director

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Taylor Hackford, Ray
Mike Leigh, Vera Drake
Alexander Payne, Sideways
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator

Who Will Win
When Steven Spielberg heard his name called for Best Director in 1999 for Saving Private Ryan, most everyone assumed that his win guaranteed a victory for his film as well. I still remember that audible gasp from the Academy audience when Harrison Ford instead announced Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture. And with that upset, the years of picture/director sweeps became less certain. 2001 had Steven Soderbergh win Best Director but Gladiator take picture; 2003 had Roman Polanski and Chicago. (Fun Academy Award Trivia: Harrison Ford has presided over the two best Oscar shocks of recent memory. Not only did he give the trophy to Shakespeare in Love, he presented the Best Director Oscar when Polanksi won it in '03. There's something poetic about having one of our most low-key, reserved, out-of-it actors dropping these upset bombshells with barely a trace of emotion on his face.)

This year, it's between Eastwood and Scorsese.

Eastwood is adored by the Academy, and Million Dollar Baby is the hot film of the five nominees. Every actor he's worked with loves him. The guy's a damn institution. But he has won the prize before.

Scorsese's legacy as a world-class director was cemented long ago, but his recent films have somewhat tarnished his reputation for being a maverick outside the system. The long-gestating Gangs of New York felt as much of a mess as all those news stories suggested it was before its release. Regardless, Weinstein pushed and pushed for Marty to get the Oscar then, putting the renowned director in the awkward position of schmoozing with the likes of Jay Leno. The movie just wasn't that good, and everyone knew it, but Weinstein and Scorsese kept pushing. When Marty lost to Polanski, well, it was a relief. Who wanted Scorsese to win his Oscar for a total jumble of a film -- his dream project, remember? With The Aviator, Scorsese has made a well-liked Oscar-type movie which emphasizes his technical skill and showmanship instead of his antisocial tendencies -- this is not another of his ultraviolent tales of mobsters and degenerates, unless you consider Hollywood moguls and starlets to be of the same ilk. It's an impressive old-school spectacle of a picture with big themes and a broad scope. Academy members would like an opportunity to reward him, and The Aviator provides that chance. I can't see them turning it down. Martin Scorsese wins.

If You're Feeling Lucky
Hackford and Leigh have no chance. I give Payne just slightly better odds. If you're a split-vote freak, Payne's your man. May God be with you, brave soul.

Who Should Win
Dogville's Lars von Trier. Eternal Sunshine's Michel Gondry. Before Sunset's Richard Linklater. Oh well.

 

Best Picture
The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Million Dollar Baby
Ray
Sideways

Who Will Win
Usually by this point of the evening, we know who the winner will be. This time, though, it'll still be up in the air -- unless Aviator or Baby has beaten the other in every category. Baby probably has more fervent fans, but I'm going with The Aviator for one important reason, and it's a reason most any sports gambler will appreciate: my gut tells me so.

Some have suggested that, beyond momentum, Baby will win thanks to the orchestrated protests against the film's ending. Not only has this minor controversy kept the film's profile high, it creates a scenario where the Academy can support its artistic freedom and liberal beliefs.

But I don't think that will be enough. Best Picture winners usually have a certain grandeur, look and feel that tells you they're going to win. They're either huge productions or big biopics, or both, which bodes well for The Aviator. Exceptions exist, but here's my question: What Oscar winner resembles Million Dollar Baby in the last 50 years? Here's the best I could come up with: On the Waterfront (bare-bones social drama), Rocky (boxing picture) and Kramer vs. Kramer (small, emotional character piece). The Aviator, on the other hand, is like Patton and Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi and dozens of others. It tells a big story in a big way. A friend once said that the Academy should change the name of Best Picture to Biggest Picture, and he's probably right. Baby has momentum going into the Oscars, but my gut tells me that enough voters are gonna go with a film they easily recognize and almost always honor. The Aviator wins.

If You're Feeling Lucky
After Ray Charles posthumously demolished the competition at the Grammys, there was speculation that widespread affection for the man might translate into a Ray upset. But Charles was renowned for his music -- it makes sense that his peers would want to honor him. This is the academy for filmmakers, so I don't see it happening at the Oscars. Finding Neverland has even less of a shot. Sideways has the best chance to pull off the shocker. If Aviator and Baby split the Hollywood establishment members, indie voters will have Sideways all to themselves. I'd be more confident in this upset pick if I believed there were enough independent-minded Academy members for this to happen.

Who Should Win
For the first time since '96, none of the five nominees were in my top 10. (Dogville, Before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine -- you should know the drill by now.) Four of the finalists are well-made works that impressed me, if never quite captivated me -- the fifth, Ray, is just terribly mediocre.

While I probably liked Sideways the best, I can't root for it. Alexander Payne is the single best American filmmaker today, but his latest lacks the mastery, subtlety and innovation that made Election an instant classic and About Schmidt a remarkably underrated gem. Sideways is merely this year's Lost in Translation, a slice-of-life "art" film that never really challenges its audience in a meaningful way. Of the two front-runners, I find myself preferring Scorsese's (and especially DiCaprio's) gutsy handling of a famous individual. Unlike Ray, which feels generic and predictable, The Aviator (despite its bloat) eloquently addresses ambition and the demons that drive us to great heights and terrible lows. And its ending is haunting and exactly right. Meanwhile, Million Dollar Baby is a good genre picture with delusions of grandeur. Its voiceover, its heavy handling of Christian guilt and redemption, its will-he-or-won't-he third act: Clint Eastwood can't make a movie where his granite seriousness doesn't evade the proceedings. There is an austerity to his work which too many people mistake for important filmmaking. It's the equivalent of Jamie Foxx's pantomime of Ray Charles -- a trick to convince voters that there's Art going on here.

Baby takes itself so seriously it's hard to enjoy a frame of it. Messy and overlong, The Aviator at least feels alive. But the real question remains: Am I letting my personal preference influence my picks? We'll find out Sunday.

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.