A couple of weeks ago at the Academy Awards nominees' luncheon, George Clooney, who walks into the Kodak Theater on Sunday with three chances to win film's ultimate (non-financial) prize, called these weeks before the actual ceremony "the golden time". He's right - the time between the announcement of the nominations and the moment Jon Stewart first takes the stage on Oscar night probably is the best period of the entire process, the period when all of the lucky finalists can fully bask in the glory of making it this far, before the envelopes are opened and the fun is at least partially ruined for the nominees who don't get to put a new knick-knack on their mantles. (Of course, they still get to go to all of the fancy parties that night for free food and booze - heck, at that point they may need it more than the winners.) The "golden time" is also when prognosticators 'round the world, professional or otherwise, try to prove themselves by attempting to determine who will win on March 5 - as well as, perhaps, who really deserves to win.
Every year for more than a decade, I have been one of them. Even before I became a professional entertainment writer, I have jotted down my picks on paper or e-mail and circulated them to my friends in a misguided attempt at acceptance and love. (No, not really - I just do it because it's just so much damn fun, and on occasion I get stuff right.) This is the first year I have a blog, so now I can share my predictions with the 10 or 12 of you who stop by and read my ramblings. So make way for the power of my film intellect. Not.
Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney, Syriana
Matt Dillon, Crash
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt, A History of Violence
The only person who may not belong in this race is Hurt, and that's only because his brief appearance at the end of Violence may have been too weird for the room. Everyone else here is well deserving of the top award. Gyllenhaal has a legitimate chance if there is a Brokeback sheep, er, sweep. Giamatti is a popular character who many people think got hosed when he wasn't nominated last year for Sideways, so the make-up Oscar definitely is a possibility. For me, though, this is a two-horse race, with Clooney maintaining the slight edge over Dillon, whose nomination qualifies him for comeback-of-the-year honors. His racist cop was chilling and nasty, no doubt. But being that it's likely that Good Night will not score in any of the other categories it was nominated for (save, perhaps, cinematography), and that Clooney made history for being the first person to be nominated for acting in one movie and directing another - and that he's pretty damn good in Syriana, complete with the physical transformation Oscar voters love to acknowledge - I think George had better make sure his tuxedo is pressed properly for his big close-up.
WINNER: George Clooney
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Frances McDormand, North Country
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
Another tough category, which any lover of all things movies and Oscars appreciates. And yet, the winner here seems very clear. Keener and McDormand are well-respected actors who always do yeoman work. Adams turned mucho heads with her performance, though I've known about her since she showed up as the only good thing in the so-bad-it-was-never-aired Cruel Intentions clone Manchester Prep as a very different character from the simple pregnant girl she played in Junebug. And Williams earned her nomination with one very emotional and very well-played scene as the cuckolded wife in Brokeback. But Rachel Weisz seems to have this thing sewed up. She's one of those actors who has been bubbling at the surface for some time now, doing solid work in films not always deserving of her efforts, waiting for her big creative break. This was it, and - again, short of a Brokeback sweep - she will be rewarded. Plus Weisz is very pregnant, and there is a mini-tradition of the Academy giving awards to such women (Eva Marie Saint, Catherine Zeta-Jones), maybe in the hope of some ratings spike if the winner's water breaks right then and there.
WINNER: Rachel Weisz
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Maybe the one absolute lock for the evening, which sucks for Terrence Howard, David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix and especially Heath Ledger, who is the heart and soul of Brokeback, to the extent that a friend of mine who thought the film was overrated still called Ledger's performance a revelation. Any other year, he wins, hands down. But Philip Seymour Hoffman is Truman Capote, just as Jamie Foxx was Ray Charles last year and Charlize Theron became Aileen Wuornos the year before that. It will be considered a major upset if he doesn't prevail, even though I'd have no problem with any of these guys' names being in the envelope.
WINNER: Philip Seymour Hoffman (who apparently made a pact with chums years ago that if he ever won the Oscar, he'd bark out his acceptance speech. That ought to be interesting.)
Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice
Charlize Theron, North Country
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
It's both the good and the bad of having a really competitive Oscar race. Two performances, both top-notch, both by extremely popular and pleasant women. Whom to choose? Reese Witherspoon has been considered the favorite for her work as June Carter in Walk the Line and has won a large parcel of the major awards. But Felicity Huffman kicked ass, to be blunt, as a transgendered woman in Transamercica, a labor of love that stands in broad contrast to her Emmy-winning character on Desperate Housewives. She's also beloved in Hollywood for her talent and her über-cute marriage to William H. Macy, and has been campaigning like a demon for both herself and her small gem of the movie. But Witherspoon also is cute as a bug and did her own singing as June Carter. Eeek! Flip a coin!
WINNER: Perhaps guided more by my heart than my head, Felicity Huffman in a mild upset. But I'm really rooting for a tie, which is fudging, but they're my predictions, so there.
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Paul Haggis, Crash
Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller, Capote
Steven Spielberg, Munich
Now this is easier. All five directors proved their mettle in their respective films, dealing with difficult subject matter with skill and craftmanship while making them as entertaining as they were informative. I was especially taken by what Spielberg and Clooney did in their movies. Spielberg walked a tenuous line in directing Munich, giving equal weight to life-or-death arguments and managing to piss off everyone in the process - which, of course, means he did his job. And Clooney so deftly brought the early '50s, with its black-and-white imagery and cigarette smoke and jazz and style, to life, along with the spirits of Edward Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. But Ang Lee may be the most versatile director working today, a fact proven yet again by Brokeback Mountain, a movie that came from the same man who also did Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk. You can't beat talent like that with a stick - you can only reward it.
WINNER: Ang Lee
Best Original Screenplay
Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco, Crash
George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Good Night, and Good Luck
Woody Allen, Match Point
Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale
Stephen Gaghen, Syriana
Not to get too wordy (get it?), but this is where Crash most likely will be rewarded for its blending of issues, emotions and, yes, humor, because there is a fair amount of humor around all of the deep, often-tragic drama. It's the kind of humor that leads more to knowing nods than laughter, but that's what makes the film, as manipulative as it can be, effective. Sidebar: It's somehow comforting to see Woody Allen, who has been nominated about a thousand times for his screenplays, back in this category after a long absence. We knew you still had it in you, Woody.
WINNER: Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
Best Adapted Screenplay
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain
Dan Futterman, Capote
Jeffrey Caine, The Constant Gardner
Josh Olson, A History of Violence
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich
Brokeback Mountain, by a mile. No other film has captured the consciousness of the culture as thoroughly as this film, both in its controversial subject matter and its capturing of the human spirit. And it's all the more remarkable because of its sparse use of dialogue. Even when there are grand speeches, they seem to consist of so little but say no much.
WINNER: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
Good Night, and Good Luck
It's always good to have years like this when all five nominees in this category of categories are worthy of being named Best Picture. Whenever a so-so film sneaks into the race, there's always a sense of dread that someway, somehow, it could squeak by and win the whole thing. (The English Patient, anybody?) But that won't be the case this time. Of the five films, my favorite is Good Night, a crisply told tale of the importance of the freedom of the press and of speaking up for what one thinks is right, no matter what the consequences. It's a story of the past that's very relevant today. Yet all five movies are relevant, in their own ways, to the present day. That's fine and dandy, even if the overall subject matter is so dreary that you wonder what it will take for a screwball comedy to again make it this far in the future. Right now we're hearing a lot about how the race-relations parable Crash is gaining fast on the prohibitive favorite, Brokeback Mountain. But Brokeback is, to paraphrase its tag line, such a force of nature, I don't think it will be derailed in time for Oscar night. Gay cowboys, er, shepherds, rule!
WINNER: Brokeback Mountain
Some other predictions: Wallace and Gromit will win Best Animated Feature, Good Night, and Good Luck will win for cinematography, Crash will win for editing, Brokeback Mountain for original score. Don't ask me what will win for best song, 'cause they're all haunting in their own ways and that category can be the trickiest of them all. Oh - and I'm going out on a limb here - Robert Altman will win an Oscar time time around.
And Jon Stewart will bring the house down. And never host the Oscars again.