It’s almost time again for the Oscars – that back-slapping, tear-fest that celebrates Hollywood’s finest. It still astounds me that the Academy Awards retain an audience each year – the ceremony is almost sickeningly self-congratulatory and overstays its welcome by a good three hours. Yet, save for last year, I still manage to watch this event each and every year due to a history that stretches back to adolescence.
Since we were in high school, a small group of close friends and I have wagered on the Oscars outcome. We select our winners and have them sent to each other by midnight on the preceding day, the promise of a cash booty haunting our minds as though we ourselves had been nominated for an award. For twenty-odd years we have competed, and for twenty-odd years I have lost. I can recall a singular time when I did take out the honours, nosing out my closest opponent in the Hollywood horse race and taking the cold hard cash prize. But this is a sad indictment on someone who prides himself on his movie knowledge and something I aim to reverse this year…perhaps.
The simple fact is I am bound by the heart. More often than not I will select winners based upon whom I would like to see win, as opposed to whom I think will win. The Oscars are a perpetual tempest, awarding prizes to those who hardly seem worthy and ignoring those who clearly deserve an accolade. Most notably for me was the treatment of the late great Paul Newman. The man won a Lifetime Achievement Award (given by the Academy to those who, late in their career, had been oddly snubbed previously) and the next year a Best Actor little golden man for Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money – hardly his greatest performance. There were countless roles that Newman should have won the major prize for, not the least of which was Sidney Lumet’s classic drama The Verdict. (And the same could be said of Al Pacino…and many other actors and directors.)
The Academy’s choices in many categories often leave people scratching their heads and heaving a cinematic sigh. When Crash won the award for Best Picture, I was stunned. A good film to be sure, but also an obvious film in subject matter and themes and hardly worthy of the title of Best Picture of the Year, in my opinion. For the question must be asked as to what constitutes these awards? On what basis are the winners chosen by the Academy members? Is there a clear guideline, is it political or is it merely a gut-reaction by this mysterious body of unknown judges?
So what am I going to wager my money on this time around? Well, let’s begin with the acting awards. The Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role award (or simply, the Best Actor award) is a tough one to pick this year, with an incredibly strong field of talent – Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) all have a shot at winning. It’s often said that the Golden Globe Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards are definitive pointers along the road to Oscar glory. However, this year the Best Actor award has been split between Mickey Rourke (Globes) and Sean Penn (SAG). Having a soft spot for Frank Langella, I would obviously like to see him clutching the little golden dude come the night of February 22nd. In an attempt to rectify my past performances, I’ll lay my money on big Mickey. I loved Mickey Rourke in his 80s heyday (in films such as Angel Heart, Johnny Handsome and A Prayer For The Dying), before his sincere movie-star looks were pounded into a reconstructive surgeons’ wet dream by amateur boxing.
For Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, the nominees are Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Angelina Jolie (Changeling), Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Meryl Streep (Doubt) and Kate Winslet (The Reader). Interestingly enough, Winslet won at both the Globes and the SAG awards, but for different roles. The Globes saw her take home the Leading Actress (in a Drama) award for the overlooked Sam Mendes film Revolutionary Road, and the SAG’s had her nominated as a Supporting Actress for The Reader, which she of course won. Frankly, I would be a fool to select anyone else.
(And in another Academy mystery…How the hell did the horrendous Anne Hathaway score an Oscar nomination?)
Supporting Actor seems a forgone conclusion – there would be considerable backlash should anyone but Heath Ledger win this category. Supporting Actress is a little tougher to pick, and I somehow think it will be either Amy Adams for Doubt or Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I’ll make a decision by midnight on the 21st.
Also appearing as a sure thing is Slumdog Millionaire, taking out the Best Picture (Drama) at the Globes and Best Director for Danny Boyle. The English director deserves this award for a stellar career that began with the cult favourite’s Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, through the influential 28 Days Later and the recent space odyssey Sunshine. This isn’t to say that the other nominations for Best Picture such as Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon and Gus Van Sant’s Milk do not deserve to be named alongside Boyle and Producer Christian Colson’s minor masterpiece.
The writing field is also particularly strong. Every film starts with a script, and no film can overcome poor writing. No amount of acting talent, direction or even costumes can traverse the swamp of a bad script. For Original Screenplay, the race for me is between three of the nominees – Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky), Martin McDonaugh (In Bruges) and Dustin Lance Black (Milk). McDonagh’s script for In Bruges was one of the finest pieces of film writing in many years. In fact, In Bruges actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are notable exceptions from this year’s acting nominations. McDonagh should win – or is this just another case of my wanting a particular nominee to win? For Adapted Screenplay, Simon Beaufoy’s script for Slumdog Millionaire is the obvious choice, although Peter Morgan’s work on Frost/Nixon (from his own play) is also in the money, as they say.
Many of the categories are usually chosen by my wagering crew simply by what name initially slaps us in the face. Categories such as Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short, Best Documentary and Best Documentary Short Subject more often than not signify the point where the game changes. A win in one of these categories can make or break our wagering chances. This is because we rarely have the opportunity to see these obscure little films before the awards ceremony (and sometimes not even after the ceremony…and we call ourselves movie fans…sheesh!). So here goes…what sounds good? I’ll choose Lavatory – Lovestory (Animated Short), Auf der Strecke (On The Line) (Live Action Short), Encounters at the End of the World (Documentary) and The Conscience of Nhem En (Documentary Short). They all sound like winners…. Best Animated Feature will no doubt go to WALL-E.
Film Editing should be taken out by Chris Dickens for Slumdog Millionaire, but Lee Smith’s fine work on the The Dark Knight would be close on Dickens’ heels. Cinematography is a thin line between Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight), Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). Thinking that Slumdog is going to be the little film that steals the Academy Awards this year, my choice would lie there. Costume Design is never my strong suit, so to speak. For this category, because it also seems appropriate, I’ll lay the cash on Jacqueline West for Benjamin Button.
Art Direction is always a hard nut to crack, with the Academy’s choices exhibiting no clear indication as to a deciding factor. Great Art Direction provides depth and mood and its application in the medium is essential, meaning that every nominee in this category is entirely justified. My pick would be Donald Graham Burt and Victor J. Zolfo for Benjamin Button, as their art and sets for David Fincher’s film was one of the only good things about it. The nominees for Sound Editing include The Dark Knight and Iron Man, and I think the race may be narrowed to these two films. However, the other nominees comprising Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E and Wanted cannot be discounted here. Similar nominations were announced for Sound Mixing, with Benjamin Button substituting Iron Man. I’ll leave making a decision on this one until the last possible minute.
In an age where CGI has transformed what we see on the big screen, it is no longer a matter of what kinds of Visual Effects are breaking new ground, but rather which bunch of artists have succeeded the best in their respective creations. In years past, Visual Effects have been awarded to films such as Jurassic Park for their obvious advances in the use of new technology. But that is no longer a factor, which makes this category particularly difficult to predict. Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight and Iron Man are the nominees, and for my money, the award would have to go to Iron Man, which featured some of the best CGI I have ever seen – used in a manner which totally supported the story instead of leading the story (see Spiderman 1, 2 and 3).