It's comforting to know that one of my favorite critics, David Edelstein, doesn't take the Oscars very seriously (in a recent column for Slate, he called the awards "worthless as a measure of artistic merit but fascinating as a measure of how establishment Hollywood hopes to present itself to the world") but has no problem admitting that he relishes the opportunity to play the political pundit for a month or two. Another good critic, Charles Taylor, is considerably less nice, rightfully condemning In Touch-style punditry in one of his Salon pieces before sticking it to Finding Neverland. This is my way of saying that, while the winner predictions below are completely objective, the commentary certainly is not. In short: If I hate the film, you're going to hear about it dammit! On a lighter note, if you read last year's column, you probably remember that we unveiled one prediction every day until a few days before the big night. Since we got a kick out of seeing you grovel for more, we're going to do it again this year!
PICTURE: Yes, The Aviator has the most nominations, but does anyone remember what happened to Bugsy? Yes, The Aviator won the Producer's Guild Award, but so did The Crying Game (the same year Unforgiven won the Oscar). Yes, the The Aviator has made the most money in the category, but didn't the first two Lord of the Rings films make a shitload at the box office? Yes, The Aviator has the Miramax machine behind it, but the studio is now on the brink of collapse (rumor has it the company has completely axed its publicity department—wait, this just in, they're moving to Los Angeles!). Seriously: The consensus seems to be that this is Million Dollar Baby's award to lose (everyone's talking about it and the oddsmakers have placed their bets!), and though it's difficult to say if the passion in the Hollywood community for the film mirrors the public's own (or how much of this consensus can be written off as wishful thinking), I find it difficult to believe that the Academy will pass on a film with as much heart as Million Dollar Baby. As far as I'm concerned, Eastwood had this award in the bag as soon as conservative nuts like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved started ragging on the film, likening Eastwood's evocation of spiritual freedom to a pro-euthanasia rant. Don't count Sideways out, but this one goes to Million Dollar Baby.
Will Win: Million Dollar Baby
Should Win: Million Dollar Baby
ACTOR: It seemed so obvious, and yet everyone thought I was nuts when I predicted Clint Eastwood would score a nomination here over Paul Giamatti. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to say that the acting legend will win this award (not because Jamie Foxx gave a bad performance in Ray, but because Eastwood gave a better one in Million Dollar Baby), it's just that Foxx has been so far ahead of the pack that the only way he's going to lose this award is if he kills a small child or if Ray Charles miraculously comes back to life before ballots are due. Since more people seemed to have been endeared than turned off by the attention-grabbing stunts Foxx has been putting on at every awards show from the SAGs to the Grammys, it's unlikely that all the votes he's been losing to other actors in this category, especially Eastwood, will be enough to translate into a loss. Note to Entertainment Weekly: Should Foxx lose this award, please spare us the racism editorial in the issue following the Oscar telecast. Foxx is nominated (and likely to win) not because he's black but because he gave a great performance in Ray, but should he lose this award it's going to be because another person deserved it more.
Will Win: Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Should Win: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)
ACTRESS: Anyone who's seen my Village Voice Take Six ballot knows that my pick for the best performance of last year was Annette Bening. I repeat this at the risk of my cinephile membership card being revoked, because it's simply not cool in some circles to swoon for a performance like this one. Being Julia is by no means a "hip" film, and if I had to pick the single greatest acting moment of the year it would probably be the scene from Vera Drake in which Imelda Staunton evokes the world falling to its knees in her titular character's eyes, except I can't think of another actor this year who's carried a film as forcefully and compellingly as Bening did hers (no offense to After the Life's Dominique Blanc and Before Sunset's Julie Delpy, both of whom would have been nominated here if this world were remotely fair). From her character's vicious hostility to her earnest compassion, Bening displays a range of emotion in Being Julia that movingly evokes a woman's fear of growing old without the love of those around her and how much that may have to do with the sad yet ingenious way she is able to disguise emotion behind artifice. Bening had the distinction of being the first lock of the Oscar season, but her frontrunner status in this category began to slip soon after Vera Drake and Million Dollar Baby came charging out their respective gates. Academy voters will have an easier time relating to Bening's emotional crisis in Being Julia, but because Million Dollar Baby is infinitely more popular and its subject matter is every bit as "touchy" as Boys Don't Cry's, I'm having a hard time imagining Bening scoring a win here, especially after her chilly acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Make no mistake: Good publicity is half the battle if an actor wants to win an Oscar, and with 60 Minutes and Oprah on her side, Swank has plenty of hype to spare. What with the Bening/Swank rematch largely a media invention, and Vera Drake heading into Oscar night with two more nominations than Being Julia, consider Staunton a likelier upset than Bening. Will it happen? Probably not.
Will Win: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)
Should Win: Annette Bening (Being Julia)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: With Jamie Foxx's frontrunner status in the Best Actor race diminishing by the second, some have speculated that the Academy might award the actor in this category should voters decide to go for Clint Eastwood's performance in the lead category. This kind of speculation is specious because it assumes that everyone who votes for the Oscars converge in some hypothetical room and vote in tandem before sending off their ballots. Plenty of useless ink has been spilt about Foxx's performance in Collateral being a lead role but not much has been said about Foxx riding the success of Ray to an undeserved nomination here. In short: Foxx may be the big man on campus in the Best Actor race, but he's a small fry here. Also out is Clive Owen. Like his Closer co-star Natalie Portman, Owen was on fire after winning the Golden Globe, but if the actors who vote in this category couldn't muster enough votes to get him nominated for a SAG award, then a victory for him on Oscar night seems very unlikely at this point. For his performance as Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster in The Aviator, Alan Alda nabbed his first Oscar nomination, and though his presence here came as a surprise to many, the veteran actor shouldn't be counted out—if Virginia Madsen stands to benefit from a vote split in the Supporting Actress category, it may very well happen to Alda here. In the end, though, this is really a two-man race between Morgan Freeman and Thomas Haden Church. In a Jay Leno appearance last week, a generous Church joked that he stands no chance against Freeman, and he may be right. Though Church's amusing performance in Sideways was toasted by critics across the country, the actor's character isn't as sympathetic as Freeman's Million Dollar Baby saint. Besides, can you imagine Lowell Mather from Wings winning an Academy Award? If Cate Blanchett is due for an Oscar then Freeman is doubly due: For Million Dollar Baby, the actor scored his fourth nomination in less than 20 years. If anything is working against Freeman it's the subtlety of the performance, which blends so effortlessly into the film's spiritual and emotional patchwork that it scarcely calls attention to itself. Because a vote against Freeman is like kicking a dog when it's down, I can't imagine the actor not taking this one home.
Will Win: Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby)
Should Win: Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: This year's SAG winners were Jamie Foxx, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Cate Blanchett. Because no one wants to read a prediction article that smells like everyone else's, and because anyone who seriously follows the Oscars knows that the chances of the four SAG winners winning the Academy Award are relatively slim, it's wise to predict that at least one of these actors will be very disappointed on February 27th. Last year, I may have overestimated the Academy's liberal guilt when I predicted House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo would defeat Renée Zellweger. I won't make the same mistake again, and as such I'm going to say that Hotel Rwanda's Sophie Okonedo is the long shot in this category. Also out is Laura Linney, who's probably just lucky to be here after Kinsey was unjustly shut out in the Original Screenplay and Best Actor categories. Blanchett may have the SAG but Natalie Portman has the Golden Globe. Though the idea of "Oscar winner Natalie Portman" probably scares me as much as it does a lot of other people, I do think the young actress's pervy performance in Closer will siphon some of Blanchett's votes by virtue of The Aviator and Closer being the two glamatron Hollywood productions in the category. This, I think, may benefit Virginia Madsen, whose sympathetic performance in Sideways has wowed critics, audiences and actors alike. Unlike Zellweger last year, I don't think there's an immediate need to give Blanchett a make-up Oscar for loosing to Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998 (you know, the year Fernanda Montenegro should have won), and though the actress surely benefits from playing the recently deceased Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, how many Oscar voters consider her performance, at best, a really good impersonation? If enough people think this way, it might be enough to swing the odds in Madsen's favor.
Will Win: Virginia Madsen (Sideways)
Should Win: Virginia Madsen (Sideways)