Writers are whores. We love assembling random letters of the alphabet into words, phrases, sentences, and articles, and will happily do almost anything (except sell our integrity) that allows us to ply our trade. That's how I ended up on a Caribbean cruise last week, happily working away as the waves crashed outside and the sun shone brightly on miles of publicly exposed flesh that, in a better world, would only have been revealed in private to a loved one. Travel tip: to keep from overeating on a cruise, simply stroll by the pool before lunch and take a close look at all the out-of-shape bodies. Yuck! I immediately started exercising ...

Movie choices were slim on board. I brought a few DVDs to watch on my laptop computer, and watched a little TV. (It may be a 500-channel universe, but only a handful are evidently available at sea. And did you know that TCM Latin America shows old TV shows with commercials in addition to classic movies?) Yet the eager, if not quite ready for Vegas, live entertainment shows and, especially, the bars consistently lured me out of my cabin.

It's hard not to feel like an over-privileged colonialist when you see how hard cruise ship personnel work. They sign up for months at a time and have very little "free time," which means, for our purposes, that they fall very far behind current theatrical releases. To my mind, that makes them perfect representations of the world at large which will be tuning in for the Oscar telecast with zero advance knowledge of any of the nominees.



As it happens, all the bartenders I talked to were from the Philippines. Is there something about that nation that makes its citizens ideally suited for mixing drinks? I admit that I never asked -- I was there to order a drink and ask a stranger about the Oscars.

I began at the back of the ship (no, I will not attempt to clumsily use shipping terminology to describe locations) near an adults-only pool, out of which rises a statue of Apollo. The view can be distracting -- not least when the sun glints off the sunglasses of the speedo-clad sunbathers. Oh, did I mention all the Europeans on board?

The first bartender I flagged down, Michael, said he had never heard of any of the nominees I showed him. Of course, I started with the screenplay nominees; the Writers' Strike may be over, but writers are still basically anonymous. Nonetheless, I finally convinced him that he had to pick somebody, or else I'd lose my job and have to join him behind the bar. That was all the motivation he needed. His picks, after much lip-biting deliberation:

Best Screenplay Original: Tony Gilroy -- Michael Clayton
Best Screenplay Adapted: Ronald Harwood -- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The latter choice was clinched when he saw "the diving bell," perhaps relating that to his seafaring life.

I waited a few hours, passing the time eating and looking at senior citizens dressed up in togas. I'd like to say I witnessed a class reunion of the cast and crew of National Lampoon's Animal House, but it was actually just a typical theme night for the Italian cruise line.

I wandered down to the casino, talked to a couple of beautiful tipsy women, and then remembered my real purpose and struck up a conversation with Richard, another Filipino bartender who said he liked movies but hadn't seen any recent ones. But that didn't mean he lacked an opinion. After very carefully studying the list of nominees, he made his selections:

Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson -- Michael Clayton
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan -- Gone Baby Gone

What is it about Michael Clayton? Is it the American-sounding name? I was surprised at the combination: Wilkinson is a dark horse, while Ryan is considered a frontrunner along with Cate Blanchett, but Richard had no second doubts about his choices.

Onward to a lonely bar on the last night of the cruise. Armando and Manuel had no other customers and were cleaning up when I approached past 1:00 a.m. They both like movies and recognized the names of the nominees, though, again, they hadn't seen any of the movies. Armando appeared to be Manual's boss and, in very leader-like fashion, quickly made his prediction:

Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones -- In the Valley of Elah

"Tommy Lee Jones, I like this actor," Armando said. "The Fugitive. Very good. I also like Catherine Zeta Jones." I agreed with him about The Fugitive and was sad to point out that Catherine wasn't nominated this year. It was Manuel's turn to pick. He studied the list very carefully and then, without hesitation, told me his choice:

Best Actress: Laura Linney -- The Savages

Manuel said he really liked Laura Linney, and he looked like someone who knows what he likes. Chalk up two more dark horse candidates. I'm guessing that, as a group, cruise ship bartenders probably pull for the underdog.

As the clock swept past 1:30 a.m., all the bars were officially closed, but with only a few hours left before the ship docked in Fort Lauderdale, I could not be dissuaded from my mission. (Also, I knew that my editors would be very, very, very disappointed if I blew another deadline.) So I took advantage of the good nature of bartenders in general and approached one more.

William told me he LOVES American movies, which made me very happy to ask his opinion about the last three categories. He readily chose one that he'd heard had already won a bunch of awards:

Best Director: Joel & Ethan Coen -- No Country for Old Men

He asked me, "That's supposed to be good, isn't it?" Even though I think it's a terrific picture, I didn't want to influence his prediction, so I didn't say anything. He was more reluctant to express an opinion on another category because he said he'd only seen one documentary before (on 9/11), but I persuaded him to pick one just by title alone, not by subject, and so he picked:

Best Documentary: Taxi to the Dark Side

He wasn't reluctant at all to choose the film that should win the big prize. He immediately pointed to his pick:

Best Picture: There Will Be Blood

I thanked him, he smiled, and I encouraged him to watch the Academy Awards telecast on February 24, which will be broadcast by the ABC affiliate in Puerto Rico to, presumably, all cruise ships that have a broadcast agreement in place, to find out if his picks won.

Looking over the list, I'm impressed: a couple of favorites and a few upsets, and a couple I never would have predicted. I'll be watching to see if random friendly bartenders know more than seasoned Oscar pundits.

For much more on the Oscars, head over to Moviefone's official Oscar page for the skinny on this Sunday's ceremony.