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Friday, March 03, 2006

Oscar Predix

And so the long campaign is over. The winners of the 78th Annual Academy Awards are announced Sunday night in LA, which means that viewers on this side of the pond will have to stay up until the wee hours to watch the whole orgy of self-congratulation live on Sky Movies.

This awards year has been dominated by Ang Lee's 'Brokeback Mountain', which so far has won 14 Best Film citations, including the Producers Guild, the Golden Globe and the Bafta. It's just one of a series of nominated films this year that tackle topical issues, transforming the mid-Noughties into the most politicised era of film-making since the 1970s.

'Brokeback' is entering the race with the most nominations (8) but, if the ceremony turns out to be as predictable as anticipated, it will win perhaps only 4, possibly 5 of those categories. There is no landslide on the cards for any nominee so it looks as if there will be a more even spread of winners than there has been in recent years.

All of the main categories have had their frontrunners the whole way through the pre-Oscar award blitz and there is little expectation that Sunday's awards will diverge greatly from what's gone before. However, there is the potential for one or two surprises: early favourites may have peaked too soon or, in the case of one category, the favourite has kept changing. Also, you can never underestimate the bizarre tastes and voting patterns of the Academy. They tend to vote with their hearts rather than their heads so with that in mind, I have given my predictions for who I want to win (the 'heart' option) and who I think will win (the 'head' option).

Best Picture:
It has only ever been a two-way race in this category: 'Brokeback' vs 'Crash'. However, the only major pre-Oscar gong that 'Crash' was won was the Ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild. It is an actors movie but might be a bit too edgy for Academy tastes. Having said that, its backers have spent almost twice 'Crash's' original budget in marketing the movie. An intensive Miramax marketing campaign for 'Shakespeare in Love' was enough for it to snag the top award from favourite 'Saving Private Ryan' in 1998. I can't see the same thing happening here though. If 'Crash', which was released last summer, manages this feat, it will count as one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. It'd sure shake things up on the night, that's for sure.

My heart says: 'Brokeback Mountain'
My head says: 'Brokeback Mountain'

Best Director:
There has been some speculation that there might be a Picture/Director split this year. It's a possibility - especially considering that Ang Lee was in this exact position going into the awards with 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' in 2000. That year, Lee had won the Directors Guild, the Golden Globe and the Bafta (like this year) but fell at the last hurdle to Steven Soderbergh for 'Traffic'. However, it is highly unlikely that Lee will be snubbed this year having delivered the years' most acclaimed movie. Also, Soderbergh was a double Directing nominee that year (he was also nominated for 'Erin Brockovich') so he was being justly awarded for directing 2 actors, a screenwriter and an editor to Oscar wins for two different movies on the same night. This is Lee's for the taking.

My heart says: Ang Lee
My head says: Ang Lee

Best Actor:
Unless there is a major 'Brokeback' sweep on the night, this award belongs - and has belonged all year - to 'Capote's' Philip Seymour Hoffman. With the Golden Globe, Bafta and Screen Actors Guild under his belt, in addition to 12 other critics' citations, I will be flabbergasted if he doesn't take home the gold. Besides, he deserves if for a truly astonishing performance.

My heart says: Philip Seymour Hoffman
My head says: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Best Actress:
I'm quite torn here. It's been a miserable year for lead actresses and this has always been a two horse race. Reese Witherspoon is the favourite going into the ceremony - she's won the Golden Globe, Bafta and SAG as well as 8 other prizes for her turn as June Carter in 'Walk the Line'. She is the heart of that movie. Although she doesn't appear until a third of the way in, the movie literally loses its sparkle afterwards when she's not on screen. It's a terrific, multi-layered performance that would certainly not be the worst choice the Academy has made.

However, I'm rooting for Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman for her engaging, brave and moving performance as a pre-operative male-to-female transexual who meets the son she never knew existed in 'TransAmerica'. Witherspoon may be the heart of her movie, but Huffman is her movie. She's in almost every scene and brilliantly captures her characters gaucheness, vulnerabilty and determination. It's an astonishing performance that might bring Huffman to the podium. Hollywood seems to love her survival story ('20 years to achieve overnight success' as she has said herself), they love her husband (William H. Macy) just as much and she's already very familiar to voters thanks to her role in a high-profile TV show from which this movie is a considerable stretch. Plus she's paid her dues more than Reese Whippersnapper. I anticipate this result with bated breath.

My heart says: Felicity Huffman
My head says: Reese Witherspoon

Best Supporting Actor:
The two Supporting categories are arguably the strongest and most competitive ones this year. The Supporting Actor race has been particularly tough to call. I still think that multi-tasker George Clooney is the one to beat for his role in 'Syriana'. Clooney gained an early lead by claiming the Golden Globe but appeared to be losing the actors' sympathy by losing the SAG to 'Cinderella Man's' Paul Giamatti (who has been snubbed for the past two years).

Giamatti definitely has potential to carry this: he is a supporting player more than a leading man. Clooney is the opposite. Plus, it looks as if Clooney will lose the other categories he's competing in (Director and Screenplay) so this will be the chance for the Academy to award him. I also think they will be interested in hearing what he has to say by way of a speech, known as he is for his strong anti-Bush feeling.

Then, there's Matt Dillon, who hasn't won any of the pre-Oscar awards for his revelatory turn as racist cop John Ryan in 'Crash'. Dillon might well harness the obvious good-will that the actors feel towards the movie and become a conduit for those voters who want to reward the fine ensemble work done in the movie.

The one really to watch, however, might well be 25 year old Jake Gyllenhall. Nominated as support for a lead performance, Gyllenhall seemed to be a non-runner - until he won the Bafta 2 weeks ago. That will have raised his profile considerably in the crucial final weeks of balloting. There's also a sense that he's been unduly overlooked whilst Heath Ledger got all the praise. I think he could well seal the deal but Clooney should just about shade it.

My heart says: Jake Gyllenhall
My head says: George Clooney

Best Supporting Actress:
Another extremely hard one to call. Rachel Weisz has dominated until now for a brilliant performance in 'The Constant Gardener'. Like Witherspoon, she is the heart and soul of the movie and makes such an impression, that you look forward to her reappearing on screen.

The movie itself has not been really embraced outside of her fine workthough. This might hurt her chances. Weisz lost the Lead Actress Bafta to Witherspoon, which left that Supporting category free for the non-Oscar nominated Thandie Newton to win for 'Crash'.

Amy Adams made enough of an impact to get nominated out of nowhere for 'Junebug' but I suspect that the nomination is her reward. Ditto Frances McDormand for some great supporting work in the poorly-received 'North Country'.

Catherine Keener is one to watch. She has had a prolific year in which she demonstrated her true versatility - in addition to her subtle nominated work as Harper Lee in 'Capote', she also appeared in 'The Forty Year Old Virgin', 'The Interpreter', and 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose'. Hoffman's landslide victory will also keep her in the spotlight.

My choice is former 'Dawson's Creek' star Michelle Williams for a remarkably expressive and poignant performance as Heath Ledger's devastated wife in 'Brokeback Mountain'. Williams nailed that part and her scenes seared into the memory. A 'Brokeback' sweep could well push it in her direction. Weisz seems the safe pick but this is the one race that I'm going to stick my neck out on.

My heart says: Michelle Williams
My head says: Michelle Williams

Best Original Screenplay:
'Crash' should comfortably take this one home. Clooney could upset if the Academy put their support behind him here, rather than in the acting race.

My heart and head says: 'Crash'

Best Adapted Screenplay:
'Brokeback' will win and it thoroughly deserves it too.

My heart and head says: 'Brokeback Mountain'

All in all, I predict that 'Brokeback' will win 5 Oscars and 'Crash' will win 3. Remaining Best Picture nominees 'Capote' will win 1 whilst both 'Munich' and 'Good Night, and Good Luck' will be lucky to snag single victories.

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