Tuesday, February 22, 2005

OSCAR Week/Awards Report #5


Closest Oscar race in years still up for grabs
Looking at how the bellwether awards and noms went, it's clear that Oscar's five top nominees have all been traveling on the same path to glory.

Guessing game: After months of speculation about who would be nominated in this year's widely regarded wide open best picture Oscar race, we now know who made the grade. It's still, however, just a guessing game as to which name will be in that final sealed envelope Feb. 27.

Academy members' eagerly awaited best picture choices turned out to be right in line with nominations and awards from a number of prime Oscar bellwethers, including the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics' Critics Choice Awards, the Producers Guild of America nominees and winner and the Screen Actors Guild ensemble cast nominees.

The results suggest an Oscar race that will be closer than anything since 1999's last minute triumph by "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan."

Looking at how the bellwether awards and noms went, it's clear that Oscar's five top nominees have all been traveling on the same path to glory. Miramax, Warner Bros. and Initial Entertainment Group's "The Aviator" had landed the Golden Globe for best picture-drama, was a Broadcast Film Critics' best picture nominee, won the PGA's best picture award and was a SAG best ensemble cast nominee.

Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Sideways" went home from the Globes with a best picture-musical or comedy win, was the BFCA's best picture winner and received a SAG best ensemble nomination.

Miramax's "Finding Neverland" had nailed down a Globe nod for best picture-drama and was also a BFCA best picture nominee and a SAG best ensemble cast nominee.

Warner Bros. and Lakeshore Entertainment's "Million Dollar Baby" had been honored with a Globe best picture-drama nomination, a BFCA best picture nom and a SAG best ensemble cast nomination.Universal and Bristol Bay Productions' "Ray" was nominated for a best picture-musical or comedy Globe and also received nods from the BFCA for best picture and SAG for best ensemble cast. Considering the consistent track record for all five films in terms of the bellwether contests, it's understandable to see them now competing for Oscar's attention.

They come into the race with certain advantages, but also face some specific problems.

The critically acclaimed "Sideways," for instance, must confront the Academy's historic tendency to not take comedy as seriously as it deserves to be taken. Since 1934 only nine films that can be described as comedies or dark comedies have won the best picture Oscar. The list includes: "American Beauty" (1999), EDITOR'S NOTE: YEAH. A COMEDY. A VERTIBLE LAUGH RIOT. "Shakespeare in Love" (1998), "Forrest Gump" (1994), "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989), "Annie Hall" (1977), "Tom Jones" (1963), "The Apartment" (1960), "You Can't Take It With You" (1938) and "It Happened One Night" (1934). Actually, "Sideways" is a blend of wonderfully funny scenes and equally touching, human, emotional moments. I'm not sure it's really fair to call it a comedy, although it certainly does make you laugh. EDITOR'S NOTE: THE PROBLEM FOR "SIDEWAYS" ISN'T THAT IT'S A COMEDY (OR NOT, AS THE CASE MAY BE), BUT THAT IT ISN'T A SPECTACLE, A GRAND, SCREEN-FILLING, MEGA-EVENT. (HOLLYWOOD ADORES THAT STUFF)!

Aviator" has an advantage in that it's the only epic film in this year's best picture race. Epics, of course, have been one of the Academy's favorite genres over the years. EDITOR'S NOTE: I REST MY CASE.....At the same time, there's speculation that this could be the year the Academy finally acknowledges Scorsese with a best director win. Scorsese's record of having been overlooked by the Academy, by the way, can be documented all the way back to 1974 when "Mean Streets" received no Oscar nominations. George Roy Hill won that year for directing "The Sting," which also won best picture. EDITOR'S NOTE: WHICH IS ONE OF MY ALL-TIME-FAVES, SO I'M COOL WITH THIS. In 1976 Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" was nominated for best picture, but lost to "Rocky." EDITOR'S NOTE: HMM...A BIT LESS COOL... Scorsese wasn't nominated and the best directing Oscar went to John G. Avildsen for "Rocky." In 1980 Scorsese's "Raging Bull" received best picture and director noms, but Scorsese lost to Robert Redford, whose "Ordinary People" also won best picture. In 1988 Scorsese was nominated for directing "The Last Temptation of Christ," but lost to Barry Levinson, whose "Rain Man" also won best picture. In 1990 Scorsese's "Goodfellas" received best picture and director nods. Scorsese lost to Kevin Costner, whose "Dances With Wolves" also won best picture. And in 2003 Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was a best picture and director nominee. Roman Polanski won best director for "The Pianist" and "Chicago" captured best picture.

In all but the last instance, the best picture and best director Oscars went hand in hand.

This time around, given how tight the race for best picture is, if Scorsese wins best director that might wind up working against the film's best picture prospects. Academy voters could decide they want to spread things around and give top honors to another contender. Or, of course, they could vote for picture and director as a unit the way they have so often in the past. EDITOR'S NOTE: YEP. STATING THE OBVIOUS. THOSE ARE THE OPTIONS. (UNLESS....A SUDDEN INFLUX OF WRITE-IN CANDIDATES? "SPIDERMAN 2" WINS!!!!)

Immediately after the noms were revealed, London odds makers Ladbrokes Limited cited "Aviator" as its favorite to win best picture with odds of 4-5 and Scorsese as the favorite to win best director with odds of 4-6. Ladbrokes was also quoting odds on "Baby" at 2-1, "Sideways" at 5-1, "Ray" at 10-1 and "Neverland" at 20-1. Those odds, of course, can and probably will change as the campaign moves forward.

Generally speaking, it's probably not the best thing to be perceived as the favorite in any race so it could be better for "Aviator" and "Baby" if their odds become slightly less attractive.

Excitement over best actor or actress prospects can also create momentum for a best picture contender. In the case of "Aviator" there's Leonardo DiCaprio in the best actor race. "Baby" has Clint Eastwood. "Neverland" has Johnny Depp. "Ray" has Jamie Foxx, the favorite according to Ladbrokes with odds of 1-4. "Sideways," however, isn't in the best actor race. That slot went to Don Cheadle for MGM and United Artists' "Hotel Rwanda." Paul Giamatti's not being nominated for "Sideways" stands as one of this year's major surprises given the critical acclaim he received throughout the awards season to date. Giamatti is, however, a SAG best lead actor nominee, a list that also includes Cheadle, Depp, DiCaprio and Foxx, but not Eastwood.

On the best actress front, there's only one match-up with the best picture noms and that's Hilary Swank for "Baby." Ladbrokes is quoting 1-1 odds for Swank and 2-1 odds for Annette Bening for Sony Pictures Classics' "Being Julia." Swank won the Globe for best actress-drama and Bening won the best actress-musical or comedy Globe. They were competing head to head in the BFCA's Critics Choice Awards, where Swank was victorious. The last time these two actresses slugged it out was in 2000 when Swank won the best actress Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry" and Bening lost for "American Beauty." There's also a strong best actress candidate in Fine Line Features' "Vera Drake" star Imelda Staunton, with 3-1 odds per Ladbrokes and a strong showing with critics groups all season. There are longer odds for Catalina Sandino Moreno for Fine Line's "Maria Full of Grace" (14-1) and for Kate Winslet for Focus Features and This Is That Productions' "Eternal Sunshine" (also 14-1). Interestingly, all five best actress Oscar nominees are SAG nominees for best lead actress.

There were, of course, other films that might have surfaced in the so-called fifth best picture slot. Some Hollywood handicappers thought Michael Moore had a good chance of scoring with the Academy since so many of its members are said to share his political views. Mathematically Moore may have needed only 600 to 800 first choice Oscar nomination votes to land a best picture nod. The fact that Academy members didn't nominate Lions Gate Films, IFC Films and the Fellowship Adventure Group's "Fahrenheit 9/11" doesn't necessarily mean they don't agree with Moore's politics, but it could be a sign that they didn't want to muddy the Oscar waters with political controversy. By making "Fahrenheit" ineligible for the best documentary feature category Moore made it impossible for Academy members to honor his film with anything less than a best picture nod. His film's election eve telecast, which instantly made it ineligible for Oscar's documentary category, did, however, further Moore's political agenda. That telecast was, he told me in an interview here, more important to him than getting into the documentary race. Nonetheless, a more aggressive campaign by Moore to, in effect, bring out the Academy's political vote might have generated better results than the more subtle approach that was taken on behalf of "Fahrenheit 9/11."

There also were insiders who thought Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" from Icon Productions and Newmarket Films was a potential wildcard best picture nominee. If so, it would have made a statement that Academy members weren't letting their personal beliefs interfere with their professional judgment. On the other hand, Gibson made a point of not campaigning for Oscar consideration, which may have turned out to be a turn off in the end. Even so, Oscar voters did embrace "Passion" with nominations for cinematography, original score and makeup. EDITOR'S NOTE: NO WRITING NOMS? (WONDER IF GOD WOULD SHOW IF HE/SHE WON?)

The predictability of the best picture Oscar nominations carried through to a large extent in other key categories, too, although as always there were a few surprises.

In the best director race, for instance, Mike Leigh's nomination for "Vera Drake" came straight out of left field since none of the critics groups and other awards organizations had recognized him while they were applauding his film's star Imelda Staunton. The British Academy was an exception to this, having given Leigh a BAFA nod along with Scorsese for "Aviator," Michael Mann for "Collateral," Michel Gondry for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and Marc Forster for "Neverland." In nominating Leigh, Academy members showed they understand the role a director plays in obtaining an awards worthy performance from an actor or actress.
Previously, Leigh was Oscar nominated in 1997 for writing and directing "Secrets & Lies" and in 2000 for writing "Topsy-Turvy," making him a member of the Academy club, so to speak.

There was, on the other hand, no directing nomination for Marc Forster for "Neverland." Although critics groups didn't embrace Forster, he did score key nominations in the Globes, BFCA, Directors Guild of America and British Academy. Because Forster isn't a member of the previous nominees Oscar club, that may have worked against him now. Nevertheless, there are past examples of films that seemingly directed themselves like "Driving Miss Daisy," which won best picture in 1990 although its director, Bruce Beresford, was not a best director Oscar nominee.

The Academy's final ballots went into the mail Feb. 3 and are due back by 5 p.m. Feb. 22. EDITOR'S NOTE: HURRY HURRY!!! In past years it was believed that most voters sent their ballots back very quickly. This year, however, it's quite possible they'll take more time to decide because there's no 800-pound gorilla like a "Lord of the Rings" or "Titanic" in the race. It's going to take time to make choices this time around. All five best picture nominees are strong contenders. They're also high profile pictures that have almost certainly already been seen by the voters. In a race this close, many of those voting may want to take another look at all five movies. The winner is likely to be the film that looks best the second or third time around.

Best suspense Oscar goes to ... the Academy
The days of the prognosticators are upon us.

Five films have been designated -- "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray" and "Sideways" -- and reams of print and hours of TV airtime will be devoted to predicting which will be named best picture when the Oscars are handed out Feb. 27. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND MILES OF EMAIL!

But actually there are only a handful of factors in play.

The Prestige Factor.
Academy voters tend to tak  their voting seriously and the films they vote for even more seriously. That's why movies that make an "important" statement about the human condition tend to prevail in the best picture races, why "Ghandi" beat "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

Academy voters might well have enjoyed the comedic "Sideways," but that doesn't mean they will consider it weighty enough to earn canonization as the year's best picture. "Ray," on the other hand, tackles so many thorny issues -- race, disability, creativity -- that it arguably can stake a claim as the most socially important of this year's nominees. EDITOR'S NOTE: OH PLEASE. NOT TO MENTION PHILANDERING, DRUG USE, AND BAD BUSINESS DEALINGS. THERE ARE SOME SOCIALLY IMPORTANT ISSUES EVER-SO-CLOSE TO HOLLYWOOD'S KIDNEYS.

The Heart Factor.
At the same time,  Academy voters vote with their hearts as much as their heads.

Prognosticators tend to talk of "the Academy" as if it were some mysterious secret organization that carefully deliberates before making any move. In fact, the Academy isn't all that different from -- and, in fact, is composed of many of -- the well-heeled, slightly older moviegoers that can be found in multiplexes throughout the West Side of Los Angeles and the upper blocks of Manhattan.

Anyone who spends enough time in theaters in those neighborhoods can take the Academy's emotional temperature. And this year, the two nominees that have potential Academy voters reaching for their handkerchiefs are "Finding Neverland" EDITOR'S NOTE: OOO...YAY! and "Million Dollar Baby." The emotional impact that a movie has on its audiences can never be discounted.

The Size  Factor.
Yes, size does matter. EDITOR'S NOTE: WE BLUSH!

Although the Academy occasionally surprises by honoring a "little" picture like "Marty" or "Ordinary People" or "Annie Hall," it usually opts for the epic, and because the epics are rich in crafts nominations, that usually means it's the year's most-nominated movie that enjoys the edge.

This year that honor goes to "The Aviator," with its 11 nominations -- including a solid three nominations in the acting categories for Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Alan Alda. That suggests a depth of support for the movie that could be hard to beat.

The  Sentimentality Factor.
But then the Academy doesn't view films in a vacuum, either. Its members are intimately aware of the career arcs of the filmmakers involved.Sure, everyone knows that Martin Scorsese, who has now been nominated as best director five times, has never won a best directing award. And while Oscars for either best director or best picture are never voted simply to make up for past omissions,EDITOR'S NOTE: YEAH....RIIIIGHT. ICE SKATING, ANYONE? a sense of setting the record straight can come into play.

Eastwood, by contrast, was awarded both best director and best picture in 1993 for "Unforgiven."

But at the same time, even though he's previously been trophied, Eastwood also can claim the mantle of the lion in winter, the senior filmmaker who has stuck to his creative guns -- and that creates a sentimental tug of its own.

So then which picture wins Feb. 27?

The truth is it's still anyone's guess. For it's one thing to identify the factors in play; it's quite another to weigh each factor in a way that calculates a winner. EDITOR'S NOTE: DUH.

And that's how the Oscar race manages to maintain its suspense. EDITOR'S NOTE: DUH.


The Oscars: A Battle of Heavyweights

Eastwood or Scorsese. Million Dollar Baby or The Aviator. It's a double match-up that pits a scrappy heart-tugger against a figure of much respect.

By Kenneth TuranLos Angeles Times Staff Writer

The "terrible twos" describes more than a minefield for young parents. It also encapsulates the dilemma of considerably older Academy Award voters and the people (no names, please) who try to predict their behavior.

For this year, more than any other in recent memory, it's easy to identify a pair of Oscar front-runners in most key categories but much harder to decide which of the two is likely to win. And in a couple of the main events, best picture and best director, the co-favorites -- Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" -- present the voters with a total contrast between completely different schools of filmmaking, both of which have proved popular with the academy in the past.

"The Aviator," of course, is an epic of the bigger-than-a-breadbox kind, the type of film that used to come complete with ad campaigns boasting casts of thousands. Its 11 nominations are more than any other contender managed, and it's of a piece with other best picture winners including "Ben-Hur" and "Braveheart," "Gladiator" and "Titanic." The academy doesn't like to give its biggest award to small pictures.

Except when it does.

When it's in the mood, the academy enjoys having its heartstrings plucked by plucky little pictures. Think everything from "Rocky" to "Chariots of Fire" to "Shakespeare in Love" and "A Beautiful Mind." EDITOR'S NOTE: "A BEAUTIFUL MIND" WASN'T EXACTLY THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD. IT WAS EVERY BIT AS OVERPRODUCED (IN ITS OWN WAY) AS "TITANIC". Emotion doesn't trump epic every time out of the box, but when there are reasons, it does.

And this year, there appear to be reasons.

Reason No. 1 is the element of surprise. Oscar voters don't like being taken for granted, don't want to be voting for the film everyone said they'd be picking three months earlier. While "The Aviator's" pedigree made it a contender from the moment it was announced, "Million Dollar Baby" has literally come out of nowhere, getting added to 2004's release schedule at the last minute. It's the one film that has not been around long enough to wear out its welcome.

And then there is the Clint Eastwood factor. No one in Hollywood has had anything remotely like his career arc, from action hero to auteur, and he is held in such high emotional esteem that things like the conservative backlash against his film, which might have hurt another picture, actually seems to have worked in its favor. "Aviator's" scale might yet give it a close victory, but all the momentum is pointing in "Million Dollar Baby's" direction.

The pick: "Million Dollar Baby."

In the best director category, it's still a question of Eastwood versus Scorsese, but here things get trickier.

For one thing, Eastwood has already won this award and Scorsese, generally conceded to be one of the most accomplished in the business, has been nominated so many times without a victory he's in danger of turning into the directing version of actress Susan Lucci, who didn't take home a Daytime Emmy until her 19th nomination. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND EVERY BIT AS LOVELY IN A SEQUINNED DRESS, TOO!

The conventional wisdom around town about the top two categories has been that "Baby" and "Aviator" would split them, and much of the smart money still thinks that's the likeliest scenario. But right now sentiment seems to be moving toward a "Baby" sweep. For one thing, though Scorsese is admired and respected, Eastwood is closer to revered, and that makes a difference. For another, actors hold the balance of power in the academy, and they like to see one of their own do well. That's how Kevin Costner beat Scorsese in 1990, and it just might happen again. EDITOR'S NOTE: WAIT. BACK UP A SEC. KEVIN COSTNER IS AN ACTOR?! (WHO KNEW?!)

The pick: Clint Eastwood

When it comes to the best actor category, none of this agonizing is necessary. As his two acting nominations indicate, this is Jamie Foxx's year, and his star turn in "Ray" is one of the surest bets.

Yes, it is always possible that Foxx fatigue will infect the voters, that they might decide to reward the best performance of Don Cheadle's career or the most emotional of Eastwood's, but don't bet on it. If Foxx doesn't win, it'll be the upset of the year, and more people than host Chris Rock will be hot and bothered. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO THEY HAVE TO VOTE FOR FOXX TO SALVE THE GUILT OF VOTING FOR THAT REAGON'ITE EASTWOOD FOR THE FIRST TWO CATEGORIES? (RICH PEOPLE ARE SO CUTE WHEN THEY TRY FOR PRINCIPLES).

The pick: Jamie Foxx

The best actress category is everything best actor is not: rife with candidates and the possibility for surprise. Annette Bening in "Being Julia" squares off against "Million Dollar Baby's" Hilary Swank, the woman who bested her five years ago. Both give terrific performances, and while fairness would seem to mandate that this is Bening's turn, the academy is rarely fair. "Baby" receiving seven nominations and "Being" only Bening's does not bode well for her. EDITOR'S NOTE: BUT SHE TOTALLY ROCKED IN THIS MOVIE. NOT JUST CAUSE SWANK WON LAST TIME ,BUT BECAUSE BENING REALLY REALLY DESERVES IT FOR THIS MOVIE. (IS ANYONE LISTENING OUT THERE IN LALALAND???!!!)

The catch in this category is "Vera Drake's" Imelda Staunton. She does tremendous work in an admired film, and should Bening and Swank split the vote, the academy's admiration for British acting could get her the trophy. It's still a long shot, but it could pay off. EDITOR'S NOTE: MAYBE SOME DAY "VERA DRAKE" WILL BE RELEASED ON DVD AND WE'LL GET TO SEE IT FOR OURSELVES.

The pick: Hilary Swank

The best supporting actor category mirrors the best actor contest, with one actor dominating the scene. That would be Morgan Freeman as Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" sidekick, Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris.

Scrap is Freeman's fourth nomination, with no victory to date, but it is a classic supporting turn complete with the requisite number of great scenes. The only possible competition comes from "Sideways' " Thomas Haden Church, but Freeman is too deserving and too long denied to leave empty-handed this time.

The pick: Morgan Freeman.

Don't look for the best supporting actress category to be this easy to pick, though; as opposed to supporting actor, it has two real contenders. But what contenders they are.

Cate Blanchett is one of the most respected of today's young actresses, and her nervy impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator" has the wind of a Screen Actors Guild victory at its back. How could she lose?

In truth, she may not, but in the opposite corner is the comeback story of the year, Virginia Madsen's transcendent work (after too many forgettable films) as the emotional heart of "Sideways." If the academy can resist this trajectory, it has a hard heart indeed.


The two screenplay categories follow the same pattern as the acting categories: One is difficult, one is not.

Best adapted screenplay looks to be the simpler choice. With five nominations and no major stars, "Sideways" has been the little film that could all year, and its Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor screenplay from Rex Pickett's novel is perceived as its greatest strength. Paul Haggis' exemplary work on "Million Dollar Baby" could sneak in here, but it's a long shot.

The pick: "Sideways."

With the best original screenplay nominees, a strong case could be made for and against each. The conventional wisdom favors Charlie Kaufman, the choice of writers and critics alike and denied for the dazzling "Adaptation." He could still win, for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but the animus many older voters have against his unconventional style may hamper him again.

If that is the case, it's possible that the academy, with its weaknesses for being perceived as doing good in the world, may take this opportunity to reward Keir Pearson and Terry George for "Hotel Rwanda."

It's not the expected choice, but Oscar voters have never wanted to make it too easy for prognosticators, and they're not about to start now.

The pick: "Hotel Rwanda."

Associated Press Oscar Predictions

Unlike last year, when it was obvious that the hobbits and elves would rule Oscar night (and they did), this Academy Awards race looks tougher to call.

Associated Press movie writers David Germain and Christy Lemire duke it out — and disagree — over several of the main categories:

Nominees: "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray," "Sideways."

GERMAIN: After seesawing from "The Aviator" to "Million Dollar Baby," I'm back on board with Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hughes. "The Aviator" may lack the emotional punch of "Million Dollar Baby," but it's an enormously admirable epic on a scale rarely seen today. Clint Eastwood's beautiful "Baby" might steal the trophy. The wonderful "Sideways," for all its darker undertones, has too comic a touch for the academy's drama snobs. "Ray" will earn its big prize for Jamie Foxx, while "Finding Neverland" is a worthy also-ran.

LEMIRE: "The Aviator" is gorgeous film — a technical triumph on every level — but it's ultimately hollow. You walk out afterward visually dazzled but no different than you were three hours earlier. "Million Dollar Baby" changes every molecule in your body, EDITOR'S NOTE: AND THE AWARD FOR LARGEST AMOUNT OF BULL-HOCKEY IN ONE SENTENCE GOES TO..... (SHEESH) making you feel as if you've just gone 12 rounds, too. I'd love to see "Sideways" take it — lovely, subtle and poignant, it topped my top 10 list — but it's too small and too talky to win best picture. (Hopefully it will be duly honored in the adapted screenplay category with Oscars for Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.)

Nominees: Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"; Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"; Taylor Hackford, "Ray"; Alexander Payne, "Sideways"; Mike Leigh, "Vera Drake."

LEMIRE: "Million Dollar Baby" wins and Eastwood wins. With his trademark spare style, he delivers a complete moviegoing experience, and it's astounding to see a filmmaker at the top of his game at age 74. Not to detract from Scorsese's achievement — the scope of his film and his obsessive eye for detail are unmatched. But "The Aviator" is simply not his best work. It's a travesty that Scorsese didn't win for "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "GoodFellas," but I have a hard time accepting the theory that he will finally get his Oscar this year as a sort of lifetime achievement award.

GERMAIN: Christy, you may be right on "Million Dollar Baby," but let's assume you're wrong. "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby" might end up splitting the picture and directing prizes, and if so, it's more likely Scorsese will win here while "Baby" takes best film. "The Aviator" has its flaws, but it's a masterfully orchestrated film, a blend of grand old Hollywood style and modern computer-generated trickery. This is a movie that was directed with a capital "D." Certainly, it's not "Raging Bull," but given that this is a two-man, dead-heat race, it may only take a few voters in the career-achievement mind-set to throw the match to Scorsese.

Nominees: Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"; Johnny Depp, "Finding Neverland"; Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Aviator"; Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"; Jamie Foxx, "Ray."

GERMAIN: Not a weakling among this group (though Paul Giamatti of "Sideways" should have nosed out DiCaprio for a nomination). Cheadle's brought his game to a new level, Depp's a marvel of repressed emotion, DiCaprio's a dashing dynamo and Eastwood would be a lock to win if not for Jamie Foxx and his extraordinary emulation of Ray Charles. It's almost supernatural, how Foxx captured the cadences, body language and spirit of the man. Add in the fond sentiment for Charles, who died last year, and there's no way Foxx can lose.

LEMIRE: Yeah, you're right, this one's easy. (And ditto on the Giamatti snub, I'm still drowning my sorrows in pinot over it.) With Foxx, you completely forget you're watching an actor and believe you're watching Ray Charles. He's that good — and lest we forget he's that good, he's had copious opportunities to bust out his Charles impression at awards shows and Hollywood events for months. Cheadle makes a well-deserved name for himself, and Depp will get his due someday. EDITOR'S NOTE: BLAH BLAH BLAH.....

Nominees: Annette Bening, "Being Julia"; Catalina Sandino Moreno, "Maria Full of Grace"; Imelda Staunton, "Vera Drake"; Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"; Kate Winslet, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

LEMIRE: This one's easy, too. In the rematch between Swank and Bening, which Swank won five years ago with her startling performance in "Boys Don't Cry," Swank wins again. As a feisty female boxer, her character has higher highs and lower lows; it's a more complex role. Bening is glorious to watch as an aging London stage diva, and it's the kind of showy role Oscar voters love, but without her there's not much more to say about "Being Julia." EDITOR'S NOTE: WRONG WRONG WRONG. I'M BETTING THIS WOMAN IS YOUNG. OR DUMB. OR BOTH. Winslet is delightful and Staunton is gracefully understated and Moreno ... well, it's her first film, and look at the splash she's made. She'll have a long career ahead of her.

GERMAIN: You've been stealing my thoughts again.EDITOR'S NOTE: DON'T NEED A BIG BAG TO CARRY THEM IN,EITHER! Swank clearly has the edge with a role far suppler even than that of "Boys Don't Cry." The only thing that could spoil her prospects is that some academy voters may hesitate over handing a second Oscar to an actress who doesn't have much of a body of work beyond "Boys" and "Baby" (a nice supporting turn in "Insomnia" is her only other film role that really stands out). I'll stick with Swank, but the aging-actress theme may resonate on Bening's behalf; who knows when and if her colleagues will have another chance to give her an Oscar? EDITOR'S NOTE: YEAH. CAUSE SHE'S OVER 40 SO SHE MIGHT BE DEAD SOON. (?!)

Nominees: Alan Alda, "The Aviator"; Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"; Jamie Foxx, "Collateral"; Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"; Clive Owen, "Closer."

GERMAIN: Morgan Freeman has managed to make bad movies watchable with his mix of quiet grace, world-weary wisdom and impish humor. He radiates all those ingredients and more in "Million Dollar Baby," deftly switching from sage-like sidekick to tragic figure to all-seeing narrator. His peers have been looking for a reason to hand him an Oscar; this is it. The nomination alone was a sweet late-career nod for Alda. Church and Owen were excellent but haven't a prayer against Freeman. And Foxx will get his for "Ray."

LEMIRE: I love it, we get to disagree again! I literally sat awake at 6 a.m. thinking about this category (how's THAT for dedication?) and I've come up with Clive Owen. EDITOR'S NOTE: EVEN IF SHE'S RIGHT (AND SHE'S NOT), SHE'S AN IDIOT. Here's why: Freeman is lovely and graceful in a way we've come to rely on throughout his lengthy career. He is a rock in "Million Dollar Baby." And because of that, it might be easy for voters to take his performance for granted and overlook him. Owen, showing unexpected range, has the most complicated role in a complicated movie. He's the most innocent of the devious dating foursome, and yet he also causes some of the worst damage. It's a huge surprise, and an unforgettable one.

Nominees: Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"; Laura Linney, "Kinsey"; Virginia Madsen, "Sideways"; Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda"; Natalie Portman, "Closer."

LEMIRE: Madsen provides the earthy, quiet soul of "Sideways." I'd love to see her win it — and considering that she's a former B-movie actress, this is the kind of comeback that Hollywood loves. But Blanchett completely embodies the big, showy, potentially daunting role of Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." It's not a dead-on impression, and it shouldn't be, but it captures Hepburn's spirit and will appeal to the old-Hollywood ranks among the Oscar voters. Linney is versatile and makes everything look easy, but there's not much love out there for "Kinsey" (she's the film's sole nominee). Okonedo and Portman offer more than solid supporting work, but as they say, it's an honor just to be nominated.

GERMAIN: Since we wholeheartedly agree on Blanchett, I have room for a smug retort on supporting actor. Clive Owen over Morgan Freeman? To quote Frasier Crane from "Cheers," what color is the sky in your world? But you are sane enough to side with Blanchett, who has the difficult task of playing a woman whose idiosyncrasies practically made Hepburn a caricature of herself. Yet Blanchett manages to resurrect the soul of Hepburn without a trace of caricature. As for Madsen, in any other year, her wine-as-metaphor-for-life speech alone might have earned her the Oscar.



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