The end of any Oscar season also marks the end of all of that season’s narratives, and when those wrap-ups are unexpected, you retrace your steps and try to figure out which signals you missed. In this case, there’s not a lot of retracing to do, since even the surprises of Oscar night didn’t feel especially surprising. (For those of you who kept score, I went a mediocre 14-for-24 in my predictions — but of the 10 awards I got wrong, eight went to movies I said would be the runners-up in two-way races.) The biggest of the official “upsets” was in Best Actress, where the complicated narrative of Viola Davis and the history of African American Oscar contenders and the opportunities they do and do not receive proved to be no match for the simpler story of Meryl Streep, which was that a 29-year wait for another Oscar was more than long enough.
We’re almost there! Three days until the winners are revealed, after which in no time flat the 2011-12 Oscar season will become an ancient, bitter memory and we can nurse our collective grudges and figure out how everything could have gone so wrong. Or, better still, scratch our heads in delighted surprise. Here’s hoping.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Today, let’s take on the who-the-hell-knows categories — the Oscar contests that are traditionally almost impossible to guess even if you’ve seen the nominees. (Please note: This is probably going to be the final Oscarmetrics column that is completely free of whining about The Artist.)
Best Foreign Language Film
Bullhead (Belgium) Footnote (Israel) In Darkness (Poland) Monsieur Lazhar (Canada) A Separation (Iran)
The Oscars, as I hope we’ve established by now, are not simply a beauty contest. But when it comes to the half-dozen categories that reward visuals, that can be hard to remember. Here’s this year’s rundown:
Best Art Direction
The Artist Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Hugo Midnight in Paris War Horse
It’s been almost six months since I wrote my first column on the 2012 Oscar race, and we’re finally at predictions week. The ballots are in (or will be by tomorrow); the votes are soon to be tabulated; the hopes and dreams of 80 percent of the nominees are currently being ground into a fine powder. And it’s time to put your money where my mouth is. All this week, I’ll be announcing my guesses and doing my best to simulate an actual Oscar telecast, meaning that I will be starting with the stuff you don’t care about, taking immensely long pauses, and making you wait forever for the whole ugly business to end. Join me, won’t you? Imagine that Billy Crystal has already done his shout-outs to Brad and George in the front row, made a Harvey Weinstein reference (cut to reaction shot of Harvey looking amused/anticipatory/terrifying), and made one really funny joke I can’t think of that will end, “ or, as they’re known in Hollywood, The Help!” Hooting! Approving applause!
Voice-over! “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome to the stage two of our brightest stars, Cynthia Nixon and Sean Hayes!” No, wait, that’s the Tonys. “Please welcome to the stage ” Hmmm. Who’s big enough for an Oscar presentation but new enough so that you can stick them with the awards nobody else wants to give? Oh, my God, it’s CHANNING TATUM AND EMMA STONE!
As I hope I’ve made clear by this point in our Oscar journey, I love awards. I cover them, I handicap them, I tweet them, I do useless math about them, I would happily volunteer to accept them if the actual winners could not attend, and I watch them. On Sunday I got really excited about the complicated, layered irony of Bon Iver winning Best New Artist at the Grammys even though I’m about 80 percent sure that I don’t know who he is. So when I propose the elimination of an award, please understand that it’s with a heavy heart. That said, when it comes to the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, my strong feeling is, to quote Padma Lakshmi: Please pack your knives and go.
On February 26, we are, I think, likely to see Viola Davis walk to the stage to accept a Best Actress Oscar for playing a maid. It will have been about 26,000 days — is that a lot or a little? — since Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role as Gone With the Wind’s house slave Mammy and tearfully expressed the hope that she would “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” How far we’ve come. How far we haven’t.
As the Academy continues to discuss an accelerated awards calendar for future Oscars (coming in 2013: Goodbye, paper ballots; hello, electronic voting and endless conspiracy theories about hacking!), there’s one thing I hope the Board of Governors will bear in mind: They need to allow one week for generalized postnomination rage. This wasn’t necessary before the Internet, which tends to reinforce in everyone the need to express, via blog, tweet, or status update, the conviction that anyone who doesn’t share their taste must by definition be dumb or corrupt. This year’s anger seems to have taken two forms:
If I were feeling less generous and more cynical on this holiest of all Oscar-calendar mornings, I might say that to decipher this year’s Academy Awards contest, we need only look for inspiration to the GOP presidential race. The Artist is Mitt Romney — desperate to please, doesn’t stand for anything in particular, not especially popular with the general public, will eventually keep most of its money offshore, and, though dinged up and trash-talked, will probably cross the finish line first by default. The Descendants is Newt Gingrich (emotionally unsteady, hard on wives, doing better than expected, but probably can’t go all the way). Hugo is Rick Santorum (a little slow, doesn’t really like anything that changed in the culture in the last 80 years). And The Tree of Life is Jon Huntsman (believes in evolution, probably a little too classy for this field).
I’d like to thank the Academy for throwing an extra mystery at those of us who treat predicting the Oscars as something between a hobby and a blood sport: This year, we have to figure out not only which movies will be nominated, but how many. After concluding that the appropriate number of Best Picture contenders was five for 65 consecutive years, and then 10 for two consecutive years, what the Academy’s board of governors has now settled on is “from five to ten.” How can we narrow that down? Well, the Academy did offer one clue by revealing that when it experimentally retabulated the ballots from 2001 through 2008, the results yielded, in different years, five, six, seven, eight, and nine nominees — but never ten.
Oscar predictors like to complain that the ludicrous number of movie awards handed out in December and January make the Academy Awards themselves too predictable, but let’s give credit where it’s due: This year, critics helped to create a remarkably diverse field of candidates—eleven different actors have won prizes so far. So there’s really no excuse for Oscar voters to resort to autopilot nominations. But when have Oscar voters ever needed an excuse?
Some years, it’s a stretch to come up with five decent candidates for Best Actress; such are the seemingly permanent inequities of the movie business. So it’s a pleasure to report that, despite a deeply problematic set of films, this year’s field is actually stronger than the roster of Best Actor candidates — the women contending for nominations this year did more with less. (But why should they have to? That’s another story.)
With 1,183 members, the actors branch is the largest single voting bloc of the Academy — and also the most susceptible to sentimentality. I don’t mean on-screen tearjerking (although God knows they go for that); I mean that more than any other branch, actors like to root around for the narrative beneath the nomination — the weary veteran finally getting his moment, the shiny-eyed newcomer who emerged out of nowhere, the funny guy who surprised everyone by being serious, the pretty actress who let herself be ugly. This should make for a grotesque and unfair roster of nominations, and sometimes it does, but happily, there are narratives available for any number of great performances. To wit:
It’s over. No more surges or collapses, no more micro-measurements of momentum, no more fingers to the wind. Voting for the Oscar nominations has closed, and the results will be announced bright and early on Tuesday, January 24, so every day this week I’ll be rolling out my predictions. Take these to the bank! Actually, please don’t. It’s not easy trying to crystal-ball the collective, aggregated taste of Pedro Almodóvar and Ernest Borgnine and Peter Dinklage and Olivia de Havilland and the guy who shot The Wedding Planner and the costume designer of Vanilla Sky. Throw in more than 5,000 other voters and you have, at best, barely educated guesswork. With that in mind ...