Going for the Gold: This year’s major Oscar picks

It’s a given that every year Hollywood will roll out its red carpet and pat itself on the back. But don’t expect anyone to come onstage at the Kodak Theatre on Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast covering Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year;” it wasn’t.

Remember 1972, when Francis Ford Coppola redefined cinematic storytelling with the haunting family saga The Godfather, only to face off against one of the great movie musicals in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret? That was a good year. Remember 1993, when Oscar also-ran Steven Spielberg finally took home gold? All he had to do was release the highest-grossing film of all time (Jurassic Park) and the year’s most acclaimed picture (Schindler’s List). That was a good year. 2004 had some high points, but they still left Oscar voters to come up with lots of filler.

And bloat those ballots they did.

But I prefer to dwell on the meat. The first category to be announced will be Best Supporting Actress, which has historically provided the most upsets. This year seems like a safe bet for Cate Blanchett for portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s juggernaut The Aviator. A victory would make for a great factoid: an actress wins an Oscar for playing the biggest Oscar-winner of them all. Blanchett is a major talent, without peer, but I’d prefer to see her honored with a leading statuette for a better-written role. Hepburn, as written by Gladiator hack John Logan, is an amalgam of her early-career roles and public profile. Blanchett, a consummate pro, was able to fill in the blanks and create a compassionate, sometimes insecure woman beneath the movie star who may or may not have loved Howard Hughes, but it’s nowhere near as defined a character as Virginia Madsen’s Maya in Sideways, a lonely waitress who knows her own self-worth and finds love the second time around.

Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda and Laura Linney in Kinsey both play real women and hit notes far more graceful than the ones given to Blanchett, but neither film had as big an audience as The Aviator. I’d like to think new discovery Okonedo could be this year’s upset, but don’t count on it. And don’t count on Natalie Portman to repeat her surprise Golden Globe win for her unfocused work in Closer. It’s hard to believe that such motivation-less work could knock out Meryl Streep’s flawless performance in The Manchurian Candidate.

The Best Supporting Actor race was sewn up the minute Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby threw its hat in the ring. Morgan Freeman, one of the industry’s elder statesmen, will win for his Walter Brennan-role of the loyal second banana in the boxing epic. It’s an underwhelming role, but he’ll win for “lifetime achievement” reasons. This is too bad for Thomas Haden Church in the career-defining role of a second-rate actor in Sideways; here’s hoping such exposure will lead to more strong roles.

Clive Owen, the dashing doctor exploring the many dark sides of relationships in Closer finally found the breakout role he deserved, and Alan Alda, as Senator Owen Brewster in The Aviator, received a long-overdue nod from the Academy, but both should expect to remain seated during this category. So should Jamie Foxx, who ludicrously campaigned as a supporting player for what is unquestionably a leading role in Collateral, and was nominated anyway; his turn will come later in the evening.

The best quartet of the evening is assembled in the Best Actress category. Much has been made of the “rematch” between 1999 competitors Annette Bening (Being Julia) and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), the latter taking home the award that year. It’s a shame, because Kate Winslet’s work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a terrific combination of sensuality, pluck, and insecurity; and Catalina Sandino Moreno is a minor revelation as a Colombian drug mule in Maria Full of Grace. It’s Imelda Staunton, the British 1950s abortionist in Vera Drake, who towers over this crowd, justifying every step her character takes and every intonation of her voice. But the award’s going to either Bening or Swank. Originally, I assumed Bening, Hollywood royalty as Mrs. Warren Beatty, would prevail for her elevated theatrical work, but Swank seems to be riding the wave of Million Dollar Baby love.

Of the two, Swank should win for her fierce, heartbreaking turn as a female prizefighter. But I can’t help wishing that instead of Bening, Laura Dern had been nominated for the overlooked We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

The Best Actor contest is no contest at all: Jamie Foxx could have had his name engraved months ago for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. Like Blanchett’s, his is an impressive impersonation, to be sure, but Taylor Hackford’s sloppily structured film lets him off easy at times. Charles kicks his lifelong drug habit in a fraction of the film’s (overlong) running time. And I could never fully understand how it must feel to walk through the world without the gift of sight. Still, these are flaws of the film, not Foxx’s performance.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a far less believable turn as billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator, especially as Hughes ages into his fifties with little assistance from the makeup department. His nomination is laughable when compared to the subtle depths explored by Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor and Paul Giamatti in Sideways, both of whom were snubbed in favor of Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), and Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby). Cheadle, as always, is terrific, and Depp is competent, though not superlative. But it’s Easwood, in his best work since Unforgiven, to keep your eye on. He doesn’t make a single false move as Swank’s boxing trainer-cum-father figure.

The Best Picture and Best Director categories used to go hand in hand, but votes have been split between two separate movies for three of the last six years, and I think this year the wealth might be divided between The Aviator and Million Dollar BabyThe Aviator could be the first film about Hollywood to actually win, and director Scorsese could finally take home the prize he now so embarrassingly covets. At his peak in the 1970s, he went against the grain to create hypnotic portals into the soul of the individual. The Aviator, despite a few dazzling moments of aeronautic triumph and Old Hollywood glory, is long, unfocused and lacking in identity. It feels less like a Scorsese film than a film Scorsese made to win an Oscar.

Alexander Payne’s Sideways, the smartest film in the bunch, lacks the epic feel it takes to win the big prize. As I stated before, the triumph of Ray is in Foxx’s winning performance. The lack of a directing nomination does not bode well for Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland (as does the lack of a Best Picture nod for Vera Drake helmer Mike Leigh). That leaves Million Dollar Baby and director Eastwood as Scorsese’s sole competition. Eastwood is a Hollywood golden boy, but it is rare that an overarching dark morality play, especially one with a contemporary feel, takes the top prize. Additonally, The Aviator looks to reap many of the technical awards. It would look silly for the movie that sweeps the most trophies not to walk away with one of the big ones. I say Best Director goes to Eastwood, and walk on a tiny little limb and predict Best Picture goes to The Aviator.

Personally, my vote for the best film work of the year would go to Sideways and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both were clever films, alternately heartbreaking and hysterical, that featured top-notch performances and production values and refused to cave to surprise twists, schmaltzy devices or expensive effects. Unfortunately, the only real recognition these films might find is in the screenplay category. If there is any lesson to learn from Oscar this year, apparently it’s that the play is no longer the thing.

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