Yeah, it's finally here - though by "finally here," I mean that this year the Academy Awards snuck up on us like a feral can silently stalking a wild chunk of abandoned Big Mac meat. Because the world has been stuffed with so much news and flotsam in the early weeks of the year - not to mention the writers' strike that threatened to scuttle the Oscars entirely - the usual buildup to Hollywood's Biggest Night™ has been, if not muted, definitely truncated to within an inch of its vacuous life. Then again, it's only the awards that matter, right? (Well, no. There also are the fashions and the parties. But since rain in the forecast might put a chilling damper on the glamour and half the parties in town have been canceled, we'll just have to rely on the actual dispersal of golden guys. Sorry.)
So, per usual, here are my predictions for who and what will win the major awards on Sunday night. There's the combination of locks and tight races, some of which have become competitive only in the past couple of weeks. And the tightest by far is the first one I'll cover. So let us read along, shall we?
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Over the years, the supporting actress category has been by far the most problematic of the major awards in terms of guessing what the hell is going to happen. It's the place where the likes of Marisa Tomei, Anna Paquin and Juliette Binoche have come from nowhere to add the phrase "Oscar winner" to the front of their names. Even in years where the solid favorites end up winning - say, Jennifer Hudson from last year - their victories often aren't assured until the envelope is opened. And this year? Sheer chaos, that's all. The only one of the five nominees who has pretty much no chance to win is Ronan - even though she could justifiably be called the trigger of Atonement, the catalyst who sets all of the tragic events in motion, she's only 13, and rarely has a young performer overcome that "hurdle" to go all the way. All of the remaining candidates have things going for them. Blanchett is a perennial Academy favorite and has two nominations this year, and more often than not actors who get double nominated end up walking away with one of their two potential Oscars. Plus she had maybe the toughest job of the nominees here - playing a man, and a man based on Bob Dylan to boot. Amy Ryan, the early favorite, gives a powerhouse performance as the world's worst mother, and yet you care about her anyway. Swinton is quite good in Michael Clayton as a lawyer who goes far beyond the limits of her counsel in the service of her clients. And then there's 83-year-old Ruby Dee, a sentimental favorite with a career of almost 70 years behind her, and her first Oscar nomination facing her. She pulls the rare feat of stealing a scene from screen son Denzel Washington in Gangster, but her screen time clocks in at only five minutes. Not only would she be the oldest person ever to win an acting Oscar, but it would be for the shortest performance ever. (Though not by much - Beatrice Straight was on the screen for only a few seconds long when she won for supporting actress for Network in 1976.)
So who will win? I think it's going to Swinton, not only because of her importance to the framework of Clayton, but also because of it's clear the Academy loves this film (seven nominations, after all) and this may be the best chance to honor it with actual hardware. But it could really go any other way. Ryan probably deserves it most, and I wouldn't be surprised or dismayed to see her, Dee or Blanchett walk down the aisle and up the stairs. Though Blanchett may need a little help, as she is is very, very pregnant.
In short, this is the category I expect to cock up, so don't shoot me if I do. OK, maybe just a little.
Will Win: Tilda Swinton
Should Win: Amy Ryan
Upset Special: Ruby Dee
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
From total uncertainty to absolutely none. This is the one total lock of the night - "chalk," as they say when it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament. From the moment Javier Bardem first emerged from the shadows in No Country for Old Man as Anton Chigurh, the unstoppable killer with the air gun and the pageboy haircut, this race was over. It's one of the those years when you feel bad for the other nominees, because any other year, they may have been strong favorites going in. Hoffman's flamboyant turn as a CIA operative in Charlie Wilson's War particularly resonated me with, a hilarious and probative performance that only deepened his range as a character actor. But Bardem has created one of the scariest villains of modern times, a figure of total malevolence. Chigurh stays with you long after the movie is over, and that's the most you can ask for from an actor. Bardem wins - lay bets on how long his speech will be for some suspense.
Will Win: Javier Bardem
Should Win: Javier Bardem
Upset Special: None
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie, Away from Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno
Here's another example of a longtime favorite whose certainty of winning has tightened considerably. Most everyone thought that this was Julie Christie's to lose. Sure, her film wasn't widely seen, but those who had seen the earnest Canadian-made drama couldn't say enough about Christie's performance as an elegant woman dealing with her Alzheimer's diagnosis and how the devastating news affects her life and that of her beloved husband. It had all the earmarks of an Academy win: a popular veteran actor delivering as a character laid low by illness, willing to get "ugly" for the sake of the art - even if that mean adding a few extra wrinkles to the still-beautiful 66-year-old, one of the few times in movie history that a person had to be aged upward to play someone younger than she actually is. And if Christie win, she will set Oscar history for the longest gap between wins for an actor. That would be 42 years, boys or girls - or, as I wrote in an earlier post, a longer time than three of Christie's fellow nominees has been alive. So, as strong as the other women are in this category, it was a done deal - darling Julie Christie was going to win ...
... And I think she still is going to win, but now it's far from a done deal. Momentum has been building behind Cotillard, the petite French actor who so embodied the lifeforce of her fellow countrywoman, Edith Piaf. (Another oddity of the makeup process: Cotillard was made to look about 65 to play the last days of Piaf's life - even though the ravaged chanteuse was only 47 when she passed on. (By the way, La Vie en Rose is nominated for makeup as well.) Cotillard has a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and now a Cesar (that's Oscar in French) to show for her awesome work, and there are those who think she can catch Christie for the final prize. But one problem with that theory is that the film itself isn't that awesome. In fact, it's a bit of nonlinear, sometimes tricky mess. Add to that the fact that very few foreign-language performances win Academy Awards, and Cotillard's chances take another hit.
I think that If anyone upsets Christie, it will be Ellen Page, the 20-year-old face of Juno. There's much love for this quirky comedy, and much of that love is focused on the charming Canuck in the title role. It's likely that Academy voters will look at Page and say, "Soon ... but not this soon." Besides, she hasn't waited as long as Julie Christie.
Will Win: Julie Christie
Should Win: Julie Christie
Upset Special: Ellen Page
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Butcher of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
George Clooney is The Man. He's got the looks, the charm, the personality. He gives a damn about his fellow man, often to his own detriment. He has talent and an Oscar to prove as much. And as the title character in Michael Clayton, a flawed "janitor" (his character's own description) who's called upon to clean up the legal messes no one else can, Clooney for the first time truly melds his movie star image with crakerjack acting in the type of role that Redford or Newman or Ford would have tackled 20 years ago. His work in this legal drama - stoic but vulnerable, steady yet desperate - is a sight to see, true Academy Award material. It's too bad he has (almost) no hope of winning this category.
For that, Clooney can thank Daniel Day-Lewis, who had the gall to return from one his many sabbaticals from moviemaking to make There Will Be Blood. His Daniel Plainview is far different from Clooney's Michael Clayton - far fewer admirable qualities, showy and bombastic where Clayton is subtly forceful. But Day-Lewis has a trait that Clooney, through no fault of his own, may never have - the ability to completely melt into his characters. Five minutes into Blood, you forget you're watching an actor act, and that's one of the highest compliments you can give any actor. Yes, it's a scenery-chewing performance, but no one chews the scenery with less effort than Day-Lewis. And the first person to congratulate him likely will be George Clooney.
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Upset Special: George Clooney
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jason Reitman, Juno
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
The Coen Brothers can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes. I've liked or loved everyone of their movies - even the ones, like The Hudsucker Proxy, that few other did. And for me, No Country is their masterpiece - a searing meld of film noir and a modern Western with dashes of stark philosophy and subversive comedy. And thanks to its acclaim, Joel and Ethan have a chance to go to a place no other filmmaker has - as four-time Oscar winners for the same movie. Welles never did that, nor Allen, nor John Ford, nor Warren Beatty, nor Steven Spielberg. But the Coens wrote, produced, edited and directed this movie and are nominated for all of those jobs. And in fact, the one category that most likely will derail their quest for Academy Awards immortality is for film editing, where the brothers (under their editing non de plume Roderick Jaynes) face stiff competition from There Will Be Blood, the action thriller The Bourne Ultimatum and the artsy biopic The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Here, for directing, the competition is tough as well - good directors taking difficult material and making it work. If anything, I'd give this Oscar to artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel, who may have had the most difficult material of all. How many of you would like to try to make an entertaining and emotional film about a French writer who suffers a stroke and is left totally paralyzed, save for one eyelid - oh, and his perspective is most of the movie's point of view? Not exactly another historical epic or romantic comedy, eh. But this is one of the Coens' many Oscars they'll be getting Sunday night.
Will Win: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Should Win: Julian Schnabel
Upset Special: None
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Every year, around September or so, many a film critic and fan will start bemoaning the fate of the upcoming Academy Awards: "Where are the Oscar-worthy films?" "What are they doing to nominate for best picture? Transformers?" And then the floodgates open and by January we're wondering how they're going to find enough room for all of the Oscar-worthy films that suddenly are in front of us. In this case, there was no room for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or American Gangster or Sweeney Todd or even The Bourne Ultimatum. Though they could have made some room by ejecting the one film that doesn't belong here, Atonement, a solid romantic epic but lacking the emotional attachment that elevates some films over the rest.
Of the other four, they're all strong contenders. But No Country for Old Men ranks above the others. It's the most enriching cinematic experience of the five nominees. It enthralls you, it makes you think, it makes you wonder. Sure, it's terribly dark, extremely violent and has a problematic ending. (Or, actually, no ending at all.) But it's also impeccably crafted, like a fine microbrew. (Yeah, hokey line, but you get the point.) And this town loves the Coens and has been itching to heap the hardware onto them for some time now.
There's been talk about which of the other films could sneak up on No Country in the end, with emphasis on the even darker Blood, which has an even more problematic ending; and on industry favorite Michael Clayton, which successfully harkens back to the legal thrillers of the 1970s. But my darkhorse money is on this movie's entry for The Little Movie That Could, Juno. Usually comedy is poison when it comes to collecting Oscars, but this could be one of those years when having a sense of humor could work, as Juno is easily the only one of the five nominees that has anything close to a happy ending. It's a ray of sunshine (pun intended) in a cinematic sky filled with dark, foreboding clouds. What's more, it finds humor in a topic (teen pregnancy) that usually is seen in Afterschool Specials and Lifetime movies. And still, with all of the laughs and the clever lines, Juno still finds depth and perspective in its characters and its settings. Finally, it's the only best picture nominee that's combine critical and financial success, and that carries a loud of clout. The odds are great that this will be No Country's night, but if it ends up belonging to a smartass 16-year-old pregnant kid with a hamburger phone in one hand and an Oscar in another - well, that wouldn't suck, homeskillet.
Will Win: No Country for Old Men
Should Win: No Country for Old Men
Upset Special: Juno
Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd try my luck at some of the other categories - you know, for kids.
Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody, Juno
Adapted Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Animated Feature: Ratatouille (though the stark but inventive Persepolis could surprise)
Cinematography: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood (I think No Country is slightly better, but Roger Deakins is nominate for both that and The Assassination of Jesse James, so vote-splitting could ensue.)
Documentary Feature: Michael Moore's Sicko is the easy pick, but I think the Oscar will go to Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney's look at the death of an innocent Afghan taxi driver at the hands of U.S. interrogators. When it comes to documentaries, the Iraq war and related topics are the new Holocaust.
Length of the show: 3 hours, 35 minutes.