So will I be right or will I be on? Or both? Only the guys with the envelope know. And, of course, Steven Spielberg, who know everything, right?
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
Until now, for the most part this category in the Oscar precursors has been dominated by Whitaker's towering and terrifying performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He won the Critics Choice, the Golden Globe and SAG Awards, defeating basically the same crop of fellow nominees present for this final round. Whitaker even won the BAFTA in what is basically O'Toole's backyard, a key victory. But the Academy Awards are an entirely different animal, and I can't get out of the back of my head that O'Toole may be the greatest living actor never to have won a competitive Oscar. Hell, a few years ago he even briefly turned down the chance to get a lifetime achievement Oscar on the grounds that he was "still in the game" and wanted the chance to earn a "real" one. Well, here is his chance, most likely the last one for the 74-year-old veteran, and past history tell me that the Academy will defer from the frontrunner in favor of sentiment. At least O'Toole's work as an aging actor who falls for the very, very young relative of a friend has gotten rave reviews on its own, so it won't exactly be a repeat of past "make-up" awards for so-so acting (Al Pacino, anyone?) Still, this is one of those occasions where I wish there could be a tie so everyone could be happy.
Will Win: Peter O'Toole
Should Win: Forest Whitaker
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Dame Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Dame Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children
This has been an era of Oscar "locks" - performances that are so acclaimed that their anointing to Academy glory are done deals months before even the nominations are announced. Julia Roberts got that treatment for Erin Brockovich, as did Charlize Theron for Monster, Jamie Foxx for Ray and, last year, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. But none of them were as dominant as Helen Mirren, whose portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II all but ended the best actress competition before it barely began. (New name for the category: The Helen Mirren Invitational.) The interesting thing is that in a Mirren-less year, any of the other four nominees could have been the favorite going into the ceremony. But even they must know where the crow flies; all four were along for the ride at the SAG Awards, but none of them showed up to see Dame Helen take home another prize; what's more, Judi Dench has chosen knee surgery over appearing at the Kodak Theater this Sunday. Well, at least she'll be able to drink in private!
Will Win: Dame Helen Mirren
Should Win: Dame Helen Mirren
P.S. Mirren gives kick-ass speeches - though not as good as Meryl Streep - so we're expecting some sassy Shakespearean-level stuff from the victorious Dame.
Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
As per usual, the supporting acting category is one of the tougher ones of the evening, and not just in terms of the talent level. There are at least three cool stories among the five nominees. You have Murphy, the former SNL genius who has gone on to an erratically successful film career punctuated mostly by mid-level comedies that involve him playing multiple characters in various degrees of latex, but showed off both his singing and dramatic talents as a burned-out James Brown clone in Dreamgirls. Then there's Arkin, the beloved veteran who went 38 years between nominations but is back again as the foul-mouthed, heroin-sniffing grandfather in Sunshine. And in one of the best Oscar stories in recent history, there's Haley's comeback story from has-been child actor (remember The Bad News Bears?) to resurgent character actor courtesy of his chilling child molester in Little Children. Throw in former Boston bad boy Wahlberg's turn as a true-blue Boston cop in The Departed and Hounsou's desperate fisherman in Blood Diamond, and it's clear that whoever gets the Oscar from Rachel Weisz will have a lot of reasons to be emotional. Murphy has been in the lead for most of the duration, but don't be surprised if Arkin catches him at the end. In fact, he may have a better chance of taking advantage of the "old coot" phenomenon than O'Toole - with the added benefit of actually deserving it as well.
Will Win: Eddie Murphy
Should Win: Alan Arkin
Best Supporting Actress
Adriana Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
No, I'm not splitting hairs here - both of these young ladies deserve to share the Oscar this year. The chances of that happening, of course, are minute. But what is clear is that without either of these two actors' presence in their respective movies, both Dreamgirls and Little Miss Sunshine collapse as viable entertainments. The role of Effie, the talented but discarded diva, was key to the Broadway musical of Dreamgirls, and it's even more important to the film version, so the fact that Hudson, an American Idol reject who had never acted professionally, pulled it off gave the movie its emotional heart, and she knocked it out of the cinema with her rendition of the show's signature tune. Meanwhile, there's the 10-year-old Breslin, whom the producers of Sunshine pegged as their wannabe beauty queen back when she was 6. Her wide-eyed but human optimism was the engine behind the VW bus that could. No other child performer - not even the anointed Dakota Fanning - could have done a better job. The odds still favor Hudson's keeping the Oscar all to herself, but as much as she blew my socks off, I won't mourn if Breslin pulls the upset.
Will Win: Jennifer Hudson
Should Win: Jennifer Hudson and Abigail Breslin
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Paul Greengrass, United 93
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed
Finally it's going to happen. Finally one of the best filmmakers of his generation will get the one honor that has escaped his grasp all these years. Yes, after five nominations, Martin Scorsese is going to get his golden guy. We're pretty sure, that is. We've been here before, and so has he. Most everyone thought Scorsese would win for Raging Bull back in 1980 - but the Oscar went to Robert Redford for Ordinary People instead. Then there was 1990 and Goodfellas. Slam dunk, right? Wrong - thanks to Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves. In 2002 it was Gangs of New York - and Roman Polanski for The Pianist. And in 2004 with The Aviator, Marty came up short again, that time to Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby. Clint is back again, along with difficult work from Paul Greengrass and Alejandro González Iñárritu. But The Departed is not only a return for Scorsese to the fertile, bloody ground of crime and treachery, but also combines deft direction with solid entertainment value. In short, it may be the most accessible film in this category, with the man on top to thank for it. It's not the best film Scorsese has ever made, but it will do. Enjoy the standing ovation, Marty - you earned it.
Will Win: Martin Scorsese
Should Win: Martin Scorsese
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
Even before one of the pegged favorites, Dreamgirls, didn't make the final cut, people knew this would be a tough choice. With no Titanic or Return of the King this year to make things simple, there still is no clear favorite even thought there are only hours before the envelopes will be opened. It's perhaps easier to say what may keep some of these films from winning. The Queen is a hoot thanks to Helen Mirren's performance and Peter Morgan's crackling script, but it also is the one nominee that could have easily been a TV movie. Letters from Iwo Jima is the kind of epic Academy voters usually love, and Clint Eastwood is a favorite of the group as well, but it's also a three-hour war movie that's done in Japanese. Babel may be the most polarizing nominee of them all, a multithreaded, multinational polemic about the need for communication that hits audiences over the head like an anvil. You either love it or hate it. (It's also very similar, in both format and divisive opinion, to last year's winner, Crash - a potential strike against it.) That leaves the violent crime drama The Departed and the caustic but heartwarming family comedy Little Miss Sunshine. The easy choice would be Martin Scorsese's Departed, a heady tale of corruption, the Mob and betrayal that displays the master's talents at their peak. But the better selection may be Sunshine, the low-budget wonder that deftly displays why, through it all - failed business deals, unfulfilled goals, awkward child stripteases - you can always count on your blood to come through at the end.
Will Win: The Departed
Should Win: Little Miss Sunshine