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I sincerely wish I could present you with an Oscar free column this week, but really – what else is there to talk about right now? I blame Steve Jobs. With his thoroughly underwhelming "Fun New Products" presentation on Tuesday – in which he unveiled not the iTunes Movie Store, but an overpriced "boom box" – he wrecked the entire week. It was gut-punch, for sure – the kind of extreme, unexpected disappointment that takes the fun out of everything for a while. And now we have the Oscars to "look forward" to? How depressing, especially considering that the only thing that makes the Oscars even remotely compelling this year is the possibility of the exact same kind of underwhelming surprise.

Last week in this space, I talked about how and why the buzz that Crash might surpass Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture has given both bloggers and critics a cause to unite behind. This is still going on, and as the days tick by and it seems more and more as if this Oscar season is never going to end, the possibility that the Academy is really going to screw this one up has now metastasized into an official panic. Matt Zoller Seitz, critic for the New York Press, is the latest to enter the ring. On Monday, he wrote on his blog: "If Haggis' movie wins, it won’t just take home a statuette, it’ll claim a new title: the most indefensible Best Picture winner since 1956’s tax shelter spectacle Around the World in 80 Days."

I guess there's two ways to react to a line like that. You either immediately pull up Oscars.com and start scanning the archives for an example to prove Matt wrong (this one immediately comes to mind), or you take the assertion at face value and take a long, hard look at your office pool ballot. Either way, there's something strange about the idea that Oscar winners are/can/should be "defensible" to begin with. Do you ask a little girl to "defend" her choice of ice cream flavor? Do we have any evidence that the bulk of the Academy employs a more sophisticated selection process? The only difference I can see, is that when lil'  Susie picks Chocolate Chip, Rocky Road doesn't worry about how it's going to make back its marketing budget on foreign DVD.

Believe me, I'd love to be able to entirely dismiss a body that declares Driving Miss Daisy to be qualitatively equal to The Apartment; that has nominated Warren Beatty four times for an award that Charlie Chaplin was considered for not once; and that, perhaps most egregiously, keeps trying to convince us that Billy Crystal is a funny guy. But the fact is, that Oscar logo is still a huge sales driver, both here and abroad, and an actual trophy has a funny/awful way of legitimizing the barely tolerable. What's insane about that is the element of chance involved. You hear a lot of people talk about how one single vote could have pushed Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan; when it comes to Goodfellas' now inexplicable loss to Dances with Wolves, you hear different, angrier people say the same. And that doesn't even begin to take into account Senior Syndrome – when aging stars are blamed for surprise winners, such as when Bette Davis blurted out Paul Newman's name when announcing the Best Actor winners in 1986, or when Jack Palance crowned Marisa Tomei Best Supporting Actress six years later. There's no real evidence that either presenter actually handed the trophy to the wrong star, but there's this common feeling that it would be pretty easy for the trophy to go home with the wrong man, despite the Academy's insistence that they station accountants in the wings (no, seriously) to prevent just such a surprise.

It's no longer surprising when the Academy picks the "wrong" film, but it may never cease to frustrate. After reading my last column, a friend and fellow film writer anticipated Seitz's declaration. "Crash would be the worst choice since Greatest Show on Earth, with Jimmy Stewart as the clown-who-turns-out-to-be-an-escaped-murderer," he wrote in an email. "I’m thinking maybe that category should be eliminated all together." Barring that happening before Sunday night, here are my picks for the night's potential upsets. Throw one of these onto your pool ballot, and send me 10% when you rake in the winnings.

 

Best Actor

Following the accepted wisdom here – that this is Phillip Seymour Hoffman's race to lose – strikes me as so safe as to be dangerous. Two of his four challengers, Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger, have won major awards for their performances, and Terrence Howard might look like an attractive underdoog to all those ardent Crash supporters we keep hearing so much about. The only name that no one seems to have bandied about at all is David Straithairn – which is why the gambler in me wants to push all my chips into his corner. It's just crazy enough to work.

Best Actress

If there's a sure-er thing than Hoffman, it's supposedly Reese Witherspoon, whose win for Walk the Line is considered a lock. But we can't ignore the Rules. When considering a combination of the Academy's demonstrable belief in Rule #47 - Good Makeup = Good Acting (Charlize Theron and  Nicole Kidman owe their wins to this), and the somewhat less trustworthy Rule #68 - Drag is King (it worked for Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, but not Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie), I have a hard time believing that Felicity Huffman is out for the count. She's the one to watch if you *really* want to steal money from your friends.

Best Director

...usually goes hand and hand with Best Picture, and though I've had some fun being facetious, I really don't think Brokeback Mountain has anything to worry about in that race. But it's hardly a director's film – and the actors have grumbled as much, repeatedly. I have a feeling that George Clooney is not going to go home on Sunday night alone (insert bimbo joke here. Rimshot! Good one, dude), and if Matt Dillon pulls out the Best Supporting Actor prize early in the night, we can look for a major upset in the second-biggest race of the night.