How to Win Your Oscar Pool

  • Share
  • Read Later
You know it’s a weird Oscar year when...

—None of the nominees for Best Picture — Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck — have yet earned as much as $80 million at the North American box office. In fact, one of the finalists for Best Documentary Feature (March of the Penguins) has made more money than any of them.

—Three of the five Best Picture films (Crash, Capote, Good Night) cost less than $10 million to make, and a fourth cost less than $15 million — this in a business where the average big-studio picture costs about $80 million (which was the budget for Munich).

—It’s considered an upset that the big serioso Steven Spielberg film snagged a Best Picture nomination. (His Munich was a relative long shot; Walk the Line had been favored to nab that last slot.)

—Eight of the ten nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress are first-timers, and some of those cited in the leading and supporting categories have names almost no one knew how to pronounce before they were suddenly mentioned every night on Access Hollywood. For the record, say Rachel Vice (for Weisz); a soft G for Jake Gyllenhaal (think Jake and Jill); and, well, something like David StraTHARRRRN.

—The Oscar host on Sunday night will be a man most folks watching will never have laid eyes on. Not that Jon Stewart is fazed. As the anchor of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show told USA Today two weeks ago: "If you’re going to go with films that not a lot of people have seen, you might as well go with a host that not a lot of people have seen. You know what? Let’s turn the whole damn thing into the Independent Spirit Awards."

It practically is. Three of the Academy’s five Best Pics — Brokeback, Capote and Good Night — are also up for the top Spirit award tomorrow. If one of those three wins both, it would be just the second time in history (Platoon, in 1987, is so far the one and only). Most of the prime contenders in big categories have taken oodles of critics’ prizes, yet attracted fewer paying customers than, say, Spielberg’s other movie of 2005, War of the Worlds.

The five major finalists are part of an off-Hollywood, almost an anti-Hollywood, light years removed from the pictures the moguls really wants to make: the moneymakers. Are the box office winners and the Oscar nominees even members of the same family? Yes, both are children of the movie industry; but they’re siblings without much in common. The Narnias and Wedding Crasherses are the son who got rich as a corporate lawyer, and the Capotes and Good Nights are the daughter who quit graduate school to become an inner-city social worker.

All of which means that this Sunday’s ceremony is the Charlie Rose Oscar Night. It also makes this the toughest Oscar ballot in ages.

WHY ‘BROKEBACK’ WILL WIN

True Oscar scholars — and admit it, people, there are millions of you, filling out your office-pool Oscar ballots, summoning your expertise on movies most of you haven’t seen — are as meticulous and obsessive as Talmudists or sabermetricians. You pore over past winners for clues to this year’s. You know that the trick is to find the leading indicators, the stats that transcend the conventional wisdom to become the actual, factual wisdom.

Here’s some of that CW, as it relates to Best Picture:

* The film with the most nominations wins (17 times in the last 20 years). So Brokeback Mountain.

* The winner of the Directors Guild award wins (29 times in the last 35 years). So Brokeback.

* A film set in the past beats a film set in the present (20 times in the last 24 years). So anything but Crash.

* A Best Picture film must have been at least nominated for a Golden Globe Best Drama or Comedy/Musical (every time in the last 22 years). So Crash, which wasn’t, can’t win.

* A film nominated for Best Editing wins (every time in the last 25 years). Brokeback and Capote weren’t nominated there, so they can’t win Best Picture.

* In years divisible by five — and, since Sunday’s award ceremony honors the films of 2005, this is one of them — a first or second film directed by a famous actor wins (three of the last five times, when Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson walked home happy). By that logic, the front-runner is George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck.

By these indicators, or four out of six of them, Brokeback will win Best Picture.

WHY ‘CRASH’ WILL WIN

There are three other theories, unique to this year, and all favor Crash. One is that Brokeback, the front-runner after its critics’ nods in December and its Golden Globe award in January, made the fatal faux pas of peaked too soon. Whereas Crash, which has lately been getting the majority of Hollywood’s favorite four-letter word, buzz, peaked at just the right time.

Another is that Brokeback is one of those movies whose word-of-mouth makes a lot of people reluctant to see it. And not just right-wing commentators. The notion of a couple of cowpokes playing the two-backed beast is too... icky for some folks. Not that the pileup of animosities and implausibilities in Crash is easy to take, but that movie’s excesses got audiences, whether they liked it or hated it, talking far into the night. That gave the film the patina of Importance, another preferred word around Oscar time. Is Crash provocative, reckless, incendiary? So were The Deer Hunter and Platoon, and they both won Best Picture. Brokeback was a film that many revered, many loved. But you couldn’t love it, or vote for it, if you were afraid see it.

The third theory might be called the Home Team Factor. The great majority of Academy voters live in or near Los Angeles, and it’s hard to imagine a more L.A. movie than Crash. Everybody’s in a car: driving one, having sex in one, being lewdly frisked against one. Cars in L.A. are emotional isolation chambers that convince their drivers it’s them against a hostile world. The drivers might as well be U.S. soldiers in a tank in Iraq. (In this sense, Crash is, implicitly, the most political film in contention.) And when they’re not driving, they’re reaming one another over real or imagined slights — shouting like a mogul at a gopher, and then (maybe) feeling a little remorse for lowering the level of civic dignity. The movie may seem nuts to outsiders, but to lots of Angelenos, it’s their prejudice and their conscience in a righteous scream fest. A parable that plays like reality.

A Home Team corollary: actors comprise the largest Academy contingent. A long-standing grievance of the Screen Actors Guild is "runaway productions": movies shot abroad, especially in Canada, that ship jobs out of the U.S. Thus there may be some protectionist resentment against Brokeback, which is set in Wyoming and Texas but was shot mostly in Alberta. This would tilt the Best Picture vote to Crash, a low-budget, L.A.—made movie that’s so teeming with speaking parts it seems to have employed half the SAG members in Southern California.

The irony here: Paul Haggis, the film’s director and co-writer, is a Canadian.

ACTING!

That’s what Oscar is looking for: not acting but Acting! The Master Thespian strutting his bombastic stuff. By this standard, Heath Ledger, whose boldly subtle turn in Brokeback is so internalized you might need a surgeon to find it, is a less likely winner than Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s much showier (and pretty swell too) as Truman Capote. Similarly, Reese Witherspoon, the world’s darling, may be seen as simply radiating star quality in her turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. (We love her, but, honestly, the movie is Joaquin Phoenix’s show, and he isn’t given a chance to be named Best Actor.)

So though Witherspoon won most of the critics’ prizes, and a Golden Globe (for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical), the Oscar could go to Transamerica’s transsexual, Felicity Huffman (who took the Globe for Best Actress in an Endlessly Grating and Self-Congratulatory Drama — anyway, that’s a fair description of her movie). A woman playing a man who wants to become a woman: it may not be acting, but it sure is Acting!

And don’t ignore the Weinstein Principle. Bob and Harvey W., the old wizards of Miramax, knew how to play the Academy game like a pipe organ. Their savvy and big shoulders won their films dozens of Oscars in the 90s, and they haven’t lost their touch now that they’ve left Miramax and started the Weinstein Company. Of the first four films released under their new banner, two cadged Best Actress nominations: Transamerica and, for Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents. Ferocity over likability could also lift Weisz, in The Constant Gardener, over adorable Amy Adams, in Junebug. The same logic applies to both Actress categories: do you want the driven idealist or the down-home cutie? As for Supporting Actor, Hollywood may want to reward George Clooney, the hunk with a liberal heart; but Gyllenhaal really deserves it.

THANK THE LITTLE PEOPLE

Or, rather, the little categories. Even if all your coworkers pick the acting and directing winners, you can take the pot if you ace the minor categories. But, again, that’s tougher this time. In almost every other year, the favorite is a film with the kind of glossy production values that earn it nominations, and wins, in the frou-frou categories: art direction, costumes and, if the actors run around a bit, editing. No such easy marks this time. Look for Memoirs of a Geisha, a critical and box office disappointment but seemingly run off from the Academy template, to win a couple of these consolation prizes — and for King Kong, the film Hollywood was expecting would dominate the Oscars, to take the Special Effects trophy and maybe one or two others.

But the real expertise comes in categories whose movies are hard to find. (Documentary Feature is usually among these, but March of the Penguins is a prohibitive favorite.) Take them one by one:

Animated short film. Pixar makes shorts too, and usually wins. This year’s Pixar short is One Man Band. But I’d give an outsider’s chance to John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation. The director is a popular animator and historian, and this is his Squid and the Whale: a pained, funny memoir of his demanding father (voiced by Eli Wallach).

Live action short film. The most unpredictable category. The prominent film is Your Time Is Up, about a psychiatrist (Kevin Pollak) who learns he’s dying and decides to tell his patients the unvarnished truth about themselves.

Foreign language film. Paradise Now, an acclaimed study of a Gaza suicide bomber, and the first film to be nominated from Palestine, was an early favorite — before Hamas won the election. That reduces the chance you’ll be hearing this: "And the winner is… from the Terrorist—I mean Palestinian Authority…" So now the race is wide open. Las Vegas bettors favor Tsotsi, a South African fable (by Nobel laureate Athol Fugard) about a vicious thug who adopts an adorable infant. Two fact-based films have good intentions: Joyeux Noel, about the three-nation battlefield truce in World War I, and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, a German film about the World War II activist tried and killed for protesting against Hitler. But the award often goes to the least-known film. That would be Don’t Tell, an Italian drama about a woman’s memory of child abuse.

Documentary short. The synopsis should make you cry. God Sleeps in Rwanda (female survivors of African genocide) is up against The Mushroom Club (the deformed children of the Hiroshima A bomb). The Death of Kevin Carter investigates the life and suicide of a Pulitzer-winning, daredevil South African photographer. A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin is a biography of the writer of 40s inspirational radio scripts.

* * * * * * *

Now you know all you need — and too much more — to win on Sunday night. And as a film professional, and someone who’s played this lottery for a half-century, I will cite one last bit of Hollywood wisdom: William Goldman’s "Nobody knows anything." That should console you, and me, Monday morning.

See you then, on TIME.com.