Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar predictions: Ledger, Cruz, Langella, Winslet, 'Slumdog'

By Hap Erstein

Probably the most important thing to keep in mind when handicapping the Academy Awards tonight (8 p.m., ABC) is that quality -- in films, performances and other skills -- is usually a secondary consideration in the voting.

Oscar victories have a lot more to do with rectifying past snubs, nominees’ personal comeback stories, voters’ opinions of the people up for the awards and, in rare instances like this year, whether a nominee died between the time he made the movie and the Oscar balloting.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Which brings us to our first category, Best Supporting Actor. If you want to bet the mortgage, bet it on Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. It is a wonderfully maniacal performance that motors the whole movie, deserving of a statuette even if he is in the sort of pure commercial product that usually gets relegated to wins in the technical awards. But Ledger’s death adds a palpable poignancy that makes him a shoo-in.

In a different year, it might have gone to Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder) for his remarkable career and personal comeback, but Oscar voters are wary of comic performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific as the accused priest in Doubt, but voters expect him to be terrific, just like his co-star, Meryl Streep.

Michael Shannon is a worthy nominee for his brief, flashy role as a mentally unstable suburbanite in Revolutionary Road, but for him and Josh Brolin, just be be nominated is honor enough, as they (cynically) say.

Who should win: Heath Ledger
Who will win: Heath Ledger

Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Much harder to call is the Best Supporting Actress category, with stunning work from Taraji P. Henson (Benjamin Button) and Viola Davis (Doubt), both much younger than the their roles, as their appearances on the awards circuit has shown.

I think Davis’s one-scene work as the possibly molested boy’s mother steals the entire movie from some heavyweight co-stars, and the role walked off with the Tony Award on Broadway. But she is up against Amy Adams, also from Doubt, and that is bound to split off some votes from Davis.

I’m still reeling from Marisa Tomei’s win in 1993 for My Cousin Vinnie, a dreadful choice, and I’m underwhelmed by her work in The Wrestler. I would have been more pleased if the Academy had nominated Penelope Cruz for Elegy, where she gives a very impressive dramatic performance and contracts a disease and dies, always great Oscar bait.

But she was tapped for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, playing a tempestuous Spanish artist, and Woody Allen has uncanny luck winning supporting actress Oscars for women in his movies.

Who should win: Viola Davis
Who will win: Penelope Cruz

Frank Langella as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon.

This year’s comeback kid is surely Mickey Rourke, who is good in The Wrestler in a role that eerily parallels his career ups and downs. The Academy loves background stories like this, and he did pick up a Golden Globe, but I just don’t believe he’s going to win the big one. Brad Pitt is good in the title role of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the film is really a triumph of special effects and make-up.

Richard Jenkins is brilliant, but perhaps too subtle in The Visitor. Still, he has probably worked with and become friends with most of the Academy members in his years in the business, so don’t rule him out.

I think it comes down to a two-man race between Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Sean Penn (Milk), two first-rate performances as real-life politicos. I would give the edge to Penn, but he won for Mystic River and Langella has never won an Oscar, and the Academy likes to spread the wealth.

Who should win: Sean Penn
Who will win: Frank Langella

Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader.

Between Mamma Mia!, Doubt and last year’s The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep is finally big box office and she is very good as the suspicious Sister Aloysius in Doubt, but that is par for her. Melissa Leo is astonishing as a mother who will do anything to provide for her children in Frozen River, but I suspect few voters saw her movie.

Anne Hathaway’s crafty performance in Rachel Getting Married made Hollywood look at her in a new way, but they also figure that there’s plenty of time for her to win an Oscar, so not this year. And I don’t know that there is any buzz for Angelina Jolie in Changeling, a good performance but not good enough.

This looks like Kate Winslet’s year. I have long said that she is the best actress working today who has not won an Oscar yet, and between The Reader and Revolutionary Road, she gives a great one-two punch in the acting department. I completely agree with the Academy that her role as the former Nazi guard in The Reader is the better work and it is certainly no supporting performance, even though that is the category she won in the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards.

And if she gets all misty-eyed again when she wins, then we’ll know she is a good actress.

Who should win: Kate Winslet
Who will win: Kate Winslet

Dev Patel as Jamal Malik and Anil Kapoor as Prem Kumar in Slumdog Millionaire.

This may not be a great year at the movies, but there are five films nominated for Best Picture and all of them are top-drawer films. Where is the head-scratcher “What-could-they-have-been-thinking” pick?

If I had a vote, it would go to Milk, a superb biography that also works as a history of the gay rights movement, with several impressive performances. And there was reason to think parallels between the initiative battle that San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk fought and last year’s California battle skirmish would put the film over the top as a message vote.

But there is such a groundswell for the swell Slumdog Millionaire -- Golden Globe, Producers Guild Award, SAG Ensemble Award (the closest that guild comes to a best picture category) and the Directors Guild -- that the small, low-budget movie looks unstoppable.

Benjamin Button
has the most nominations with 13, but I don’t see it having a very good night tonight. It would appear to be a Slumdog sweep (well, wins for director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, too).

What should win: Milk
What will win: Slumdog Millionaire

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