And yet, even I try to sound sagacious while providing sound bites or quick quotes to fellow journalists on tight deadlines, or tips to friends placing bets in their office Oscar pools, I can't help feeling slightly foolish, if not downright hypocritical. Because, truth to tell, I've never understood why so many people devote so much time, effort and emotional intensity to handicapping the annual horserace hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Sure, the Academy always gets the final word in defining Oscar-worthiness. But you must remember this: The Academy is nothing more (or less) than a trade organization. The Academy of Tile Cleaners might vote EZ Duz-It as Best Mildew Remover of 2007, and that title might carry some prestige because, hey, the award was voted by experts in the field. But that doesn't mean I must accept that judgment call. I might prefer to buy Takes-It-Off mildew remover instead, especially if my neighborhood Grocery Megaplex store is running a triple-coupon special. Likewise, if you think Knocked Up or Superbad is infinitely better than the five finalists for Best Picture honors, well, are you going to change your mind because a few thousand Hollywood insiders say you're wrong?
Try as I might, however, I rarely manage to persuade editors with this kind of logic. Several years ago, back when I toiled for the now-defunct Houston Post, I foolishly suggested to the entertainment editor: "Look, let's not bother with Oscar predictions this year." Instead of agreeing, the editor -- sounding a great deal like one of the village elders in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" -- replied: "We must have Oscar predictions. We have always had Oscar predictions. We always will have Oscar predictions. Readers want Oscar predictions…"
OK, OK, I get the message.
So, here we go again. The envelopes won't be opened until Sunday, but I'm already ready to soothsay. As usual, I'm offering my personal choices as well as my predictions, along with honorable mentions of the non-nominated. In two categories, my picks and their picks are perfect matches. Which only goes to show you that, just as a stopped clock can be correct twice a day, even the Academy can get it right once in a while.
NOMINEES: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood.
OVERVIEW: There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men appear to be the early favorites. But both films may be too darkly despairing for the delicate tastes of many Academy members. And, more to the point, they could split the vote in the final tabulation. Juno is a long shot – comedies rarely claim the Best Picture award – and Michael Clayton may be viewed (wrongly) as lacking sufficient gravitas. All of which means Atonement, the sort of glossy Brit period piece that often gets the grand prize, could – repeat, could -- slip into the winner’s circle. But would Academy voters really make such a… well, such an idiosyncratic choice? To be brutally honest: I haven’t a clue which horse to bet on in this race, so I’ll cop out and pick a frontrunner.
WILL WIN: No Country for Old Men.
SHOULD WIN: Michael Clayton.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER: Knocked Up.
NOMINEES: George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah), Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises).
OVERVIEW: Looks like a showdown between over-the-top (Day-Lewis, Depp) and close-to-the-vest (Clooney, Jones, Mortensen). And in this category, traditionally, flamboyance trumps understatement.
WILL WIN: Daniel Day-Lewis.
SHOULD WIN: Tommy Lee Jones.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER: Adam Sandler as the emotionally devastated dentist in Reign Over Me.
NOMINEES: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Julie Christie (Away from Her), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), Laura Linney (The Savages), Ellen Page (Juno).
OVERVIEW: Christie would seem the prohibitive favorite here, for reasons both sentimental (she’s a much-admired actress who hasn’t received an award since 1965’s Darling) and cynical (she plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and Oscar voters love to reward people who essay afflicted characters). Cotillard could conceivably score an upset with her acclaimed portrayal of French singer Edith Piaf – but, unfortunately, leads in foreign films seldom bring home the top prizes. (Do Academy members hate to read subtitles, or what?)
WILL WIN: Julie Christie.
SHOULD WIN: Ellen Page.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER: Christina Ricci as the sexpot who gets a shot at redemption in Black Snake Moan.
NOMINEES: Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton).
OVERVIEW: This award is Bardem’s to lose. He won’t.
WILL WIN: Javier Bardem.
SHOULD WIN: Tom Wilkinson.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER: Jeff Daniels as the sardonic blind buddy in The Lookout.
NOMINEES: Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There), Ruby Dee (American Gangster), Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton).
OVERVIEW: Back in 1983, Linda Hunt earned a Supporting Actress award for playing a male character in The Year of Living Dangerously. This year, history could repeat itself, and Blanchett might grab the golden statuette for her attention-grabbing turn as Bob Dylan. But Ryan’s breakout performance as a slatternly, substance-abusing Bostonian will be hard to beat.
WILL WIN: Amy Ryan.
SHOULD WIN: Amy Ryan.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER: Bae Doo-na as the straight-arrow heroine in the Korean-produced monster mash The Host.
NOMINEES: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Jason Reitman (Juno), Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
OVERVIEW: It’s hard to believe, but Ethan and Joel Coen have been around long enough to qualify as grizzled veterans. And we all know how Oscar voters like to honor grizzled veterans, right? Think of this as a kinda-sorta Lifetime Achievement Award for the siblings whose joint resume also includes Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
WILL WIN: Ethan and Joel Coen.
SHOULD WIN: Ethan and Joel Coen.
SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER: Julie Taymor for the lovely, lyrical and phantasmagorical Across the Universe.