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3 YEARS

James Franco = Mark Twain + Ashton Kutcher, Danny Boyle = William Castle

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Two pro-Javier Bardem quipster critics nail Franco's and Boyle's Oscar problem, which relates to Natalie Portman and Annette Bening's down-to-the-wire race.

"Why was Franco nominated?" demands Salon honcho Andrew O'Hehir, peeved that Bardem won't win best actor for Biutiful (which really is "like The Sixth Sense as remade partly by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and partly by Roberto Rossellini"). Snipes O'Hehir, "There's something almost 19th century, almost Mark Twain, about Franco's desire to be a writer and a director [or re-director -- Franco's 12-hour movie made from Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho dailies opens Saturday at L.A.'s Gagosian Gallery] and a producer and a whatever else, along with a movie star...he may be less interested in acting than in creating this meta-celebrity figure he's becoming. He's like the upscale, hipster-flavored version of Ashton Kutcher." Perhaps possessed with Kutcher envy, Franco began Twittering, and with 20 minimal tweets got 160,000 followers in six days.

"Mark Twain plus Ashton Kutcher," replies Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. "That's terrifying." The irritable Salon pundits are onto something. Oscar host and nom Franco's a far bigger draw than Colin Firth, who will effortlessly stomp him for the award. But Franco's image is as fragmented as Natalie Portman's crazed mirror in Black Swan, and while that's good for manufacturing celebrity, Oscar campaigning requires focus.

In fact, Portman herself perilously lost ground in the last days of the best actress race, because her public profile receded as her pregnant silhouette expanded, and her image was diluted by a string of mediocre films, while rival Annette Bening came out of hiding and came on strong, for her. Yet Oscar also tends to demand that the role to be honored should have a firm focus, either as some sort of breakthrough or a career capstone. Good as it is, Bening's Kids Are All Right performance looks like an afterthought compared to her prior titanic achievements, and I think she pulled her counterpunch to Portman's campaign. And counterpunched too late, evidently because her heart's just not in it. Her Feb. 7 Music Hall Q&A was more like a fond rembrance of things past than a frenzied grab for Sunday's Oscar spotlight.

The root problem is like Franco's: she simply doesn't seem to want it enough to chase it with singleminded attention. Both have got too much else going on to fret about it overmuch.

O'Hehir also points to an Oscar drawback of 127 Hours itself, which hurts Franco's chances and explains why it's dead last in the pundit polls for best picture. The film hurts too much. It's too good at putting us in Franco's hero's luckless shoes. "Danny Boyle is the William Castle of our time," says O'Hehir. "If there were a way to make us suffer dehydration and exposure and pee in our pants in the movie theater, he would do it." Reminds me of the 1992 Telluride screening of Ric Burns' superb cannibal documentary The Donner Party, screened in a freezing theater five hours after breakfast, so the audience was shivering and about ready to devour each other. If Boyle had directed it, he would've been crestfallen that we didn't.

And that's no way to win an Oscar for your picture or your star.

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