February 10, 2012

STATUETTE STAKES: The Oscar Race That Wasn’t


This year’s Academy Awards have so far engendered the kind of enthusiasm and excitement usually associated with a suburban DMV office on a Tuesday afternoon.  People seem to be sullenly resigned to the inevitability of THE ARTIST‘s victory, even though it would be unlikely to get anything like a majority of the Academy’s estimated 5000 votes–but with the Best Picture vote split 9 ways, it doesn’t need to come anywhere near that (the winning movie could theoretically take the award with only around 556 votes).  In any case, no unified opposition has formed in favor of any particular competing film, and the same apathy exists in almost every other major category.  At this rate, we might as well be talking about presidential politics.  
Are the Oscars really doomed to be this dull?  (ABC certainly hopes not, or this could be the lowest-rated ceremony in history.)  Is there no possibility for any unexpected moments of shock or even mild surprise?  Let’s take a look.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:  As Mitch Metcalf noted in his survey of Oscar wagering odds, this is one category where The Artist is at a disadvantage (odds of 2:1), probably because as a silent movie, its intertitles don’t provide much in the way of sparkling dialogue.  There are many who would like to see Woody Allen get some recognition for his late-career renaissance with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and that’s currently the 2:5 favorite.  The other nominees MARGIN CALL, A SEPARATION and BRIDESMAIDS are all likely of the “be happy you’re nominated” variety, although lovers of longshots might want to consider a wager on Bridesmaids at 23:1–it’s by far the biggest hit of the group, and somewhat trendy after its critics’ awards.  CHOICE:  Margin Call.  PREDICTION:  Midnight In Paris.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:  No one particularly cares about this category this year, but it’s one of the very few to be fairly wide open.  THE DESCENDANTS is the favorite at 2:5 because of its perceived stature in the Best Picture race, and because with its polished dialogue it feels “written,” but strictly as a work of adaptation, MONEYBALL, at 4:1, probably deserves to win, and its script is by the all-star team of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian.  There’s also increasing sentiment pointing to HUGO at 5:1, another tough adaptation from a children’s picture book.  TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, which deserves its place, and THE IDES OF MARCH, which doesn’t (it’s actually weaker than its source material), are probably just along for the ride.  CHOICE AND PREDICTION:  Moneyball.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:  Here’s where things get easy, and thus somewhat tedious.  Octavia Spencer is an overwhelming 1:20 favorite for THE HELP, and no other nominee seems to have a prayer of catching her.  Those who believe the Academy will utterly genuflect to The Artist may want to take a chance on 2d choice Berenice Bejo at 9:1, but 2011 It Girl Jessica Chastain will be back again to win in some future year, and Melissa McCarthy and Janet McTeer, with 2 of the year’s most distinctive performances, will have to be content with their nomination certificates.  CHOICE:  Jessica Chastain.  PREDICTION:  Octavia Spencer.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:  Did the Academy bother to nominate anyone besides Christopher Plummer?  Oh, they did?  At 1:25, Plummer is the biggest favorite in any major category, and since unlike racehorses, actors can’t be disqualified from a race for bumping another nominee or falling down and breaking their leg, he’s pretty much unbeatable.  In another year, he and  Max Von Sydow (at 19:1) might have split the lovable old codger vote, but Plummer’s accumulated industry goodwill just outweighs Von Sydow.’s  That leaves Kenneth Branagh (9:1) out of luck. Nick Nolte, while no longer young, isn’t yet at the old codger stage of his career, and Jonah Hill is just in the promising newcomer stage of his.  CHOICE:  Max Von Sydow.  PREDICTION:  Christopher Plummer.
BEST ACTRESS:  There was a time when this looked like a real race between Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, but Davis has plunged ahead like Secretariat at the Belmont.  The current odds of 5:6 for Davis and 1:1 for Streep are misleadingly close, although one can never count out Harvey Weinstein and his none-too-subtle campaign bellowing the 29 years since Streep last won.  Michelle Williams might as well have gone lame down the stretch, Glenn Close picked the wrong year to seek a lifetime achievement award, and Rooney Mara is this category’s Promising Newcomer.  CHOICE:  Michelle Williams.  PREDICTION:  Viola Davis.
BEST ACTOR:  The closest we’re going to come to an exciting result this year.  George Clooney (1:2) is, well, George Clooney, as well-loved as anyone in Hollywood and with a solid stack of critics’ awards to back him up this year.  Jean Dujardin (6:4) is the star of the probable Best Picture winner, and quite a charmer himself, plus he has the added degree of difficulty of performing silently (if there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s degree of difficulty).  The fact that Dujardin shockingly won the SAG award means that either he has this sewn up, or that it was a reality check for Clooney’s supporters, who realized they’d better get their votes in or risk blowing it.  Could Brad Pitt sneak in there at 18:1 for a universally-respected performance in a lower-profile film?  Probably not, but if this were a horserace, you’d want to include him on your exacta tickets.  Gary Oldman is a less likely sleeper at 22:1, especially because Tinker Tailor never really took off at the boxoffice.  Demian Bechir, while no newcomer, gets the Hey, We Just Noticed You slot.  CHOICE:  Brad Pitt.  PREDICTION:  George Clooney.
BEST DIRECTOR:  The smart money at 1:6 says that as Best Picture goes, so does Best Director, and that’s probably right, clearing the way for Michel Hazanavicius to make his triumphant way to the podium.  If Martin Scorsese hadn’t won just 6 years ago, this year would certainly be his, but he did, making his 4:1 odds probably overly optimistic.  Alexander Payne isn’t the kind of showy director likely to win if his movie doesn’t, so 13:1 sounds about right for him.  Terrence Malick, on the other hand, is both adored and disdained by passionate viewers on each side, and THE TREE OF LIFE wasn’t enough of a hit to break him out of his art-house cell.  Those with some spare cash might want to consider Woody Allen, a huge longshot at 35:1 who’s coming off the biggest hit of his career.  CHOICE:  Martin Scorsese.  PREDICTION:  Michel Hazanavicius.
BEST PICTURE:  Well, here we are.  Harvey Weinstein has, as is his wont, run an absolutely brilliant campaign for The Artist, successfully obscuring the fact that audiences in general haven’t been taken by it, and playing up every conceivable voter-friendly angle.  (My favorites:  the ad emphasizing that Artist was the only Best Picture nominee to be shot in Los Angeles, and the screening hosted by producer Thomas Langmann strictly so Langmann could couple the film with The Two Of Us, the 1967 Best Foreign Film winner directed by Langmann’s father Claude Berri, so that The Artist could magically be linked in voter minds with the older film’s storyline of a Jewish boy rescued from the Nazis by an elderly gentile–Jews, children, the Holocaust and a lovable old codger, all in one neat package!)  The movie’s 1:6 odds are well-earned.  Could anything beat it?  The 2d choice is The Descendants at 6:1, a movie that has gathered no head of steam whatsoever, and after that is the huge money-loser Hugo at 14:1 (remember, Scorsese had his victory lap 6 years ago).  Those looking for something, anything, to take the prize should probably concentrate on The Help at 18:1, the only genuine boxoffice hit of the nominees and winner of the SAG ensemble award (but the fact that the picture couldn’t even get nominated for Best Director or Adapted Screenplay shows how tenuous its support probably is).  War Horse, a disappointment in every way, is somewhat puzzlingly next at 26:1.  Then the unlikely Midnight In Paris, Moneyball and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follow at 55-59:1, and at the rear is the aesthete’s dream, The Tree of Life at 73:1.  CHOICE:  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  PREDICTION (reluctantly):  The Artist.
Sigh.  Yawn.  We’ll look in on the Oscar race again as we get closer to the big night… if we can find the energy.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."