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Saturday, February 24, 2007

It's a wonderful night for Oscar etc etc

Can it really be Oscar night again? It only seems like yesterday that Ang Lee was left reeling in the Kodac Theatre as his stunning Brokeback Mountain fell at the last hurdle to the melting pot drama Crash. Well, if that's how it seems, maybe it's because the awards year has become ever more shortened by the ridiculous number of gongfests that are held prior to the Oscars.

Those early prize-giving ceremonies established the frontrunners for this year's Academy Awards, of which there are many this year. It's shaping up to be a horrendously predictable night, unless Academy voters, kind of like Irish voters, don't see the point in voting (or else register protest votes) because the winners are foregone conclusions. Some of these races are tighter than you might think, so a few complacent or rebel voters could shake things up considerably.

And so here are my predictions for tomorrow night. I have listed those who I think should win (the heart picks) and those who I think will win (the head). Feel free to argue or contest...

Best Supporting Actor:
Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond)
Jackie Earl Haley (Little Children)
Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls)
Mark Wahlberg (The Departed)

Murphy appears to have the edge, having first won the Golden Globe and then cementing the all-important actors’ support by claiming the Screen Actors Guild award. Having said that, Academy voting only closed last Tuesday, so a late boost for Arkin, basking in the publicity of a Bafta win in the category, is still possible.

Despite his success so far, I’m still reluctant to give my full backing to Murphy. On the one hand, Dreamgirls marked an impressive comeback for the comic, but, on the other side, he was never that well-liked within the community to begin with. Haley’s comeback as an unnervingly sympathetic sex offender in the criminally underrepresented Little Children will also have fans, but it’s the two nominees that are considered the underdogs that deserve to win the most.

Hounsou gave a fantastic performance in what was essentially the lead role in Blood Diamond (he shares at least the same amount of screen time as Best Actor nominee Leonardo di Caprio). The movie has attracted a huge deal of attention due to its controversial subject matter (the sourcing of conflict diamonds) which will do him no harm. Elsewhere, Wahlberg’s turn as a foul-mouthed cop completely stole the show from underneath his more heavy hitting co-stars in Scorsese’s The Departed. I’d give the Oscar to Wahlberg, who could shape an impressive career on the back of that kind of industry respect. I suspect that only an unlikely Departed sweep will push it his way though.

My heart says: Mark Wahlberg (The Departed)
My head says: Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls)

Best Supporting Actress:
Adriana Barraza (Babel)
Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal)
Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
Rinko Kikuchi (Babel)

In another extremely strong category, former American Idol-reject Hudson has dominated the pre-Oscar Supporting awards for her powerhouse turn in Dreamgirls. She remains the favourite going into the awards, with her only serious competition coming from 10-year-old Breslin, who as the heart of her little gem of a film, is bound to be carried along by the movie’s success in other categories. The final result could be closer than you think, however. Afterall, the Academy clearly has problems with Dreamgirls because they didn’t nominate it for Best Picture or Director, something that might trip Eddie Murphy up in the Supporting Actor race too.

Babel may be seriously flawed as a whole, but nobody could doubt the talent on screen. Barraza and Kikuchi delivered the finest performances in a strong ensemble. Kikuchi, in particular, drew raves for her intense portrayal of a deaf-mute teen, whereas Barraza was unbearably poignant as the increasingly desperate migrant nanny. Blanchett deserves to be nominated, but not to win – not in the face of this competition.

Hudson should take it, but who isn’t secretly rooting for Breslin? I know I am.

My heart says: Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine)
My head says: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)

Best Actor
Leonardo di Caprio (Blood Diamond)
Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson)
Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness)
Peter O’Toole (Venus)
Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland)

Will Irish legend O’Toole pull off a last minute victory? Or is he destined to go down in history as the most nominated performer (8 nominations) never to win the gong? O’Toole certainly has an uphill struggle to topple Forest Whitaker, who has dominated the award season in this category with his astounding portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last Kingof Scotland.

The 45-year-old gentle giant has clocked up 17 Best Actor awards, and like in the Best Actress race, no other contender has gotten a look in since the Golden Globes, which divides lead performances into Drama and Comedy. DiCaprio has had a great year, but it isn't his time. Will Smith gave a good performance in a mediocre movie, which in any other year would have been enough. It would be great to see the true underdog, Ryan Gosling, snatch it out from under the nose of the favourites, Adrien Brody-style, but I seriously cannot see this happening. This is Whitaker's for the taking, and it's hard to deny him it.

My heart says: Forest Whitaker
My head says: ForestWhitaker

Best Actress
Penelope Cruz (Volver)
Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal)
Helen Mirren (The Queen)
Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada)
Kate Winslet (Little Children)

These five ladies must be sick of the sight of one another, seeing as their names have consistently dominated lead actress award lists all year. There has been, and only is, one real winner though, and that's Helen Mirren. She's bagged an amazing 23 pre-Oscar prizes for her witty, poignant and textured portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, including Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, a Golden Globe, Bafta and Screen Actors Guild. There has been no contest - quite fittingly, it has been a coronation all year for Mirren. It was a shock last year when Crash won Best Picture over the heavy favourite Brokeback Mountain. If Mirren doesn't win tomorrow night, it will surely count as one of the top 5 biggest Oscar shocks ever.

Is it even worth making a case for the other four? Not really, which is sad because this race has been the strongest Best Actress list in over a decade. What's more, it's great to see Hollywood's elder ladies dominating for a change. If/when Mirren wins tomorrow night, it will be the first time since Susan Sarandon won in 1996 that an actress over the age of 50 has won the Best Actress award. And just for the sake of it, I think Mirren is fantastic, but Dench deserves to actually win the award for her astonishing turn in Notes on a Scandal, which is surely the performance of her screen career so far.

My heart says: Judi Dench
My head says: Helen Mirren

Best Director
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel)
Martin Scorsese (The Departed)
Clint Eastwood (Letters from Iwo Jima)
Stephen Frears (The Queen)
Paul Greengrass (United 93)

Oh Marty, will you finally get your dues and walk home with the Directing trophy? It looks better for him this year than it ever has. There's certainly a general consensus that this madness has gone on long enough and that the legendary monobrowed one will go the whole way to the podium. He thoroughly deserves to win and who could argue otherwise?

Well, I could. The Departed is a good movie, and Scorsese does a fantastic directing job on it. But it's not his best work. That doesn't matter at the Oscars I guess, and in any other year, I'd just let it go. But I'm rooting for British director Paul Greengrass, who did what I think is the best directing job I've seen this decade so far, on his absolutely devastating recreation of the events on board the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11, United 93. Greengrass was the surprise winner of the Bafta, and I'm hoping it will have given him a crucial last minute surge in the Academy's votes, however difficult it was for American members to sit through his unbearably intense movie.

My heart says: Paul Greengrass
My head says: Martin Scorsese

Best Picture


The Departed

Letters from Iwo Jima

Little Miss Sunshine

The Queen

The one category in this year's race where a surprise is genuinely possible, if not inevitable. There is no frontrunner per se. Babel won the Golden Globe, but I don't think it has the support to cross the finishing line here, nor does it deserve it to. Tom O'Neill at the Gold Derby has detected a thirteenth hour swing behind the multi-cultural drama, but I'm not convinced. If Babel does win, it will be the weakest Best Picture winner since, well, last year, when Crash won.

The spectre of Crash haunts this category actually. Its shock win over Brokeback last year was either a sign of how shockingly conservative and homophobic the Academy really is, or else a demonstration of voters' love for actor-driven vehicles. The Crash contender here is Little Miss Sunshine, the breakout Sundance hit which is the only film of the five that I suspect the Academy actually likes. The Academy votes with their hearts, not their heads: it's always a case of what film they genuinely like. For that reason, I don't think The Departed will win, despite what many are predicting. It's just not an explicitely enjoyable or likeable film. The Queen and Clint Eastwood's profound and moving Letters from Iwo Jima are both fine films, but ones that will command respect, more than love.

No, I'm sticking my neck out and going for Sunshine, which won the Producers Guild and the Ensemble gong at the Screen Actors Guild. It might not be the most sophisticated movie in the race, but it certainly inspires the most passion, and has, at its heart, a beautiful, timely and subversive message that winning isn't everything. Which would make its victory here all the sweeter.

My heart says: Little Miss Sunshine
My head says: Little Miss Sunshine

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