Golden derby

THR's critic assesses the Oscar race

As Oscar races go, the 2007 edition is really throwing Las Vegas oddsmakers for a loop. Up until the morning of Jan. 23, Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" seemed to have "best picture" written all over it, but we all know what happened when the nominations were announced. While there's been no shortage of armchair analysis as to how a film could receive eight nominations but be shut out of the best picture race, its absence makes way for one of the most wide-open contests in Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences history -- and not just in the motion picture category. The usual barometers, such as the Golden Globes in tandem with the various guild awards nominations, have provided very little in the way of a consensus, further clouding the Oscar crystal ball. But the show must go on, as well as those office Oscar pools, so this year's fearless prognosticating goes as follows.

Picture

The fact that Paramount Vantage's "Babel" shares the same intersecting story structure and troubled-society tone that last year's surprise winner, "Crash," had could work in its favor. But the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film seems to have divided audiences more than "Crash" did, and, at the end of the day, probably not enough Oscar voters will champion it. Despite all the violence, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" was certainly adored by many who made it his biggest all-time grossing effort, but that boxoffice factor also could work against the Warner Bros. Pictures film, not to mention the fact that it's a remake of a foreign-language film (the 2002 Hong Kong release "Infernal Affairs"). The foreign-language factor could also affect Warner Bros.' "Letters From Iwo Jima." While subtitled films have been nominated in the best picture category in the past (1998's "Life Is Beautiful" and 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" are two recent examples), they've had to settle for Oscars in the best foreign-language film category, which is where many felt the Clint Eastwood picture should have landed. As for Miramax's "The Queen," Helen Mirren's indelible performance tends to overshadow the (considerable) merits of the production itself. Then there's Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine." While it doesn't pretend to solve the problems of the world, the dysfunctional family satire has been warmly embraced by audiences, and it took home the ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which is the closest thing that guild has to a best picture nod. Last year, the "Crash" ensemble took home the prize, and "Sunshine," like the Paul Haggis film, was released earlier in the year and steadily made a big comeback. Oscar voters like to prove they haven't forgotten the little guys amid the end-of-season barrage of hopefuls. Therefore, "Sunshine" is looking very much like the little movie that could.

Director

It's been said before, but this really does look like Scorsese's year. He's already nabbed a number of trophies, including Golden Globe and DGA honors for "Departed," and the little gold guy looks to be next. He had his acceptance speech all ready to go two years ago when Eastwood, whose "Million Dollar Baby" was a last-minute 2005 Oscar entry, crashed Scorsese's party by being named best director. Warner Bros. repeated the strategy, bumping up the February 2007 release date for "Letters," and while the gambit paid off with another mention for Eastwood, the general consensus is that, after six best director nominations and no wins, it's finally Scorsese's turn: "Departed" marked a welcome return to the mob genre in which he truly excels.

Actor

Having already taken home a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his searing portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland," Forest Whitaker heads into the Kodak Theatre looking to complete the trifecta. Although he's done exceptional work over the years in such films as 1988's "Bird" and 1992's "The Crying Game," this is his very first Oscar nomination, so a win would help compensate for the oversight. The only potential spoiler among the other nominees is Peter O'Toole, who, with his portrayal of Maurice, an elderly actor who falls for a much younger woman in Miramax's "Venus," was handed one of his best roles in years. Given that he's been nominated eight times and has yet to win an acting Oscar, he's certainly long overdue. But some might regard the Honorary Award he received from the Academy in 2003 as having addressed that fact.

Actress


It looks like Penelope Cruz (Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver"), Judi Dench (Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal"), Meryl Streep (Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada") and Kate Winslet (New Line's "Little Children") will have to take comfort in the thought that it's an honor just to be nominated because, as impressive as they all were last year, Mirren's spot-on portrayal of Elizabeth II in "Queen" is as good as a royal lock. Having already nabbed virtually every major award and critics' group nod, there would seem to be nothing standing in the way of Mirren and her first Oscar. The actress was previously nominated for 1994's "The Madness of King George" and 2001's "Gosford Park." Had Mirren not figured into this year's race, Golden Globe winner Streep would have been a likely shoo-in (or would that be shoe-in?) for her brilliantly accessorized portrayal of a deeply intimidating fashion magazine editor in "Devil."

Supporting Actor

Eddie Murphy took a lot of people by surprise with his impressive dramatic and singing range in "Dreamgirls," especially those who only knew him from his 1980s novelty song "Party All the Time." Considering that he's received supporting actor prizes from both the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and SAG, he's definitely looking to be the one to beat on Oscar night. But his moment in the spotlight could be stolen by Alan Arkin, who was outrageously good as Greg Kinnear's foul-mouthed (but lovable) heroin-snorting dad in "Sunshine." It's been nearly 40 years since Arkin's last nomination -- for 1968's "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" -- and an Oscar here would also serve to recognize a lifetime of consistently reliable performances.

Supporting Actress

It's not for nothing that Jennifer Hudson's stunning debut in "Dreamgirls" was greeted with the same breathless enthusiasm reserved for Barbra Streisand in 1968's "Funny Girl" and Bette Midler in 1979's "The Rose." Even more impressive was the fact that the former finalist on Fox's "American Idol" was able to avoid comparisons to that other formidable Jennifer -- Holliday -- and make the screen version of Effie White all her own. She's already gone two-for-two at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, and Oscar is always a softie for a big breakthrough. The only caveat is that this is one category that has yielded its share of upsets over the years, and this time around, one might possibly arise in the form of 10-year-old Abigail Breslin, who charmed a lot of viewers as Olive, the aspiring junior beauty queen in "Sunshine." Some would argue her young age could be a detriment, but that didn't seem to stop 10-year-old Tatum O'Neal in 1974 or 11-year-old Anna Paquin in 1994 from bringing home the gold for "Paper Moon" and "The Piano," respectively.

Adapted Screenplay

The list of Writers Guild of America nominations included such lighter fare as "Devil" and Fox Searchlight's "Thank You for Smoking," but the Academy's lineup takes on a more serious tone, with the notable exception of Fox's "Borat." Considering that it's difficult to determine where the writing ends and the improvisation begins in Sacha Baron Cohen's performance, "Borat" will unlikely make for glorious Oscar. Because of its remake status, "Departed" also might have an uphill battle. It's a tough call between "Little Children," Universal's "Children of Men" and "Notes," but since Todd Field was previously nominated for co-writing 2001's "In the Bedroom," his "Little Children" script with novelist Tom Perrotta could have the edge.

Original Screenplay

All hail "Queen" screenwriter Peter Morgan, whose clean prose gave Mirren and director Stephen Frears some beautifully crisp turns of phrase with which to work. Morgan, who also scripted the well-regarded "Last King of Scotland," has already been crowned by the Golden Globes and many critics groups for his "Queen" screenplay, so an Oscar win would appear imminent.
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