Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Betting on the Oscars

By David Luhrssen
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This year the uncertainty surrounding the Oscars is greater than the usual guesswork over which film will win Best Picture or who will be crowned Best Actor or Actress. Itís not entirely clear how the Oscars will play out on Feb. 24, given the lingering writers strike and the aversion of other Hollywood union members to cross the picket line.

Looking at the Best Picture nominations, one thing is clear: Big commercial mega-hits are not under consideration. Atonement is aimed at the Masterpiece Theatre crowd while Michael Clayton harkens back to Ď70s socio-political thrillers. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are dark art house films, essentially Westerns transposed to later periods. Juno is a rare birdóa funny, insightful indie comedy.

Most Americans have seen few if any of these movies, which may mean that the dwindling TV audience on Oscar night will continue to evaporate. Predictions? Juno has buzz, especially among younger viewers, but when was the last time a comedy won Best Picture? Michael Clayton, the closest thing to a mainstream movie, seems more admirable for its acting and screenplay than anything else. The superb There Will BeBlood has barely opened in most markets. Atonement has its moments but doesnít seem a strong contender, leaving No Country For Old Men as my early favorite.

The director-picture nominations correspond with one exception: Atonementís Joe Wright was inexplicably snubbed in favor of Julian Schnabel, whose The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a great story but not a great film. Iím hedging my bets between the Coen Brothers (No Country) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Blood). In recent years the Academy has tended to divide the trophies, implying (illogically?) that the Best Director is not the author of the Best Picture. If the trend holds and No Country gains momentum, Anderson may have the edge.

Will the Oscars go on as usual, even if the strike persists? Hereís an inside rumor: the Academy will make a donation to the strike fund and the Writers Guild will grant a waver for the Academy Awards ďin the interests of the movie business and all who work in the field.Ē Stay tuned

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