Handicapping the nominees in the major categories

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Will Miramax's "No Country for Old Men" scoop the Oscar? If recent awards are anything to go by, the answer should be a resounding yes. But there's a contrarian theory that has been gathering steam.

The theory goes like this: While "No Country" is definitely the favorite after winning a host of top honors, the indie-minded voters who support it make up only a small part of the Academy's 6,500 members, and they will split their vote between the Coen brothers' film and Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood," leaving neither with enough votes to win.

In this case, the argument goes, Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" would be the most likely beneficiary. The well-made thriller appeals to the Academy's hefty group of studio-leaning members who like star-driven movies with solid production values and who are troubled by the gore factor in both "No Country" and "Blood." "Clayton" has the class, the craft and the anti-corporate creed to push it into the winner's circle.

But there's a contrarian view of this contrarian view, which argues that "Clayton" won't win, because the anti-"No Country" vote will itself be split between "Clayton" and Focus Features' "Atonement," the English period piece that follows in a long line of Oscar-winning British costume dramas.

Of course, others argue that "Atonement" won't get traction either because it didn't earn enough support from the pivotal acting branch of the Academy, which failed to reward it with best actor and actress nominations.

The only thing all insiders agree on is that Fox Searchlight's "Juno" doesn't stand a chance. Unless, of course, "No Country" and "Clayton" and "Blood" and "Atonement" all cancel each other out ...

As the following analysis makes clear, with one notable exception, there are serious reasons not to bet the farm on any of the major candidates this year.

Picture
While "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men" are tied with eight nominations, insiders believe "No Country," which has already won the Producers Guild of America Award as well as more top critics group honors that any other film, is the one to beat. It has drawn rave reviews and has been among the few specialty releases to do well at the boxoffice this season.

But there are signs of uncertainty. For one, the Coen brothers' film lost out to "Atonement" at the Globes, frequently a litmus test for the Oscars. For another, its violent subject matter might alienate the Academy's older members, who made their presence felt in adding the feel-good "Juno" to the lineup rather than Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," as many pundits had predicted.

The four nominations "Juno" has received have given it a huge boost going into the Oscars, but the movie may lack the weighty subject matter and sterling production values that the Academy favors.

"Blood" might prove too off-kilter for the Academy, and many members tended to like the first hour more than the rest.

Chances would appear somewhat slim for "Michael Clayton" given its failure to win the top prizes in other awards and the notable absence of Tony Gilroy from both the writing and directing categories of the Globes. But the picture has been gathering momentum with Academy voters, and several insiders felt it might even win, depending on how long voters held on to their ballots.

Wright's absence from the director lineup at the Oscars bodes badly for "Atonement," though that movie is also liked enough by voters to have a chance. In recent years, only 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy" has won the best picture Oscar without getting a director nomination. Still, the Academy has always loved classy English period pieces, and "Atonement" is nothing if not that.

Winner:
"No Country for Old Men"
Possibility: "Michael Clayton"

Director
If the Coen brothers win for best picture, will they also pick up the Oscar for best director, thereby making history as the first brothers ever to get the directing Oscar?
While insiders believe the Coens have an edge -- especially after their DGA victory -- they might be given a strong run by either critical favorite Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") or possibly Julian Schnabel.

Schnabel won the directing prize at Cannes for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," though his chances here would seem more limited, given the Academy's decision not to nominate his film for best picture.

In recent years, the Academy has occasionally split its vote between the picture and director awards, giving the director prize to Roman Polanski for 2002's "The Pianist" rather than picture winner "Chicago" and giving the director prize to Ang Lee for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" rather than picture winner "Crash."

Among the other nominees this year, Tony Gilroy has earned stellar reviews for his directing debut with "Michael Clayton," but the film's lack of flashiness will not help in such a bold year. And Jason Reitman snuck into the director lineup with "Juno" after being overlooked at the DGAs and the Globes, making him unlikely to win here.

Winners: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Possibilities: Paul Thomas Anderson, Julian Schnabel

Actor
It's a straight shot for Daniel Day-Lewis in the only major Oscar category that's a sure-fire bet. Day-Lewis, as a driven turn-of-the-century oilman in "There Will Be Blood," has dominated all the major awards this year and also the critics' prizes.

That means the other lead actor contenders -- George Clooney ("Michael Clayton"), Johnny Depp ("Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), Tommy Lee Jones ("In the Valley of Elah") and Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises") -- will have to be content with also-ran status.

Among these contenders, Clooney and Jones are the two most likely to prevail should Day-Lewis stumble. Clooney is adored by Hollywood, but his recent Oscar win for 2005's "Syriana" might be too fresh in voters' minds. And while Jones appeals particularly to older members, his movie left many cold.

Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis
Possibilities: George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones




Actress

Julie Christie ("Away From Her") and Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") will slug it out for the best actress award, but the odds favor Christie.

While both earned the top acting kudos at the Globes, Christie is likely to have an edge with the Academy's older members, who have a nostalgia for her earlier performances in movies like "Darling" (which won her an Oscar) and "Doctor Zhivago," both from 1965. Her recent SAG Award win added to her momentum.

Cotillard has another strike against her for appearing in a foreign-language film, since nobody has won the best actress award for a foreign-language performance in half a
century -- in fact, not since Sophia Loren in 1961's "Two Women."

Among the other nominees, Ellen Page ("Juno") has her youth against her; Laura Linney ("The Savages") is loved, but the film hasn't developed a strong enough fan base; and Cate Blanchett is likely to get more votes for her supporting role in "I'm Not There" than for her reprise of the Virgin Queen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age."

Winner: Julie Christie
Possibility: Marion Cotillard
   
Supporting Actor
In what is widely considered the most competitive of all the major categories, Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") is entering the race as the front-runner.

Bardem, one of the most admired actors of his generation, has already scooped a number of awards for his role as the killer Anton Chigurh, not least the Golden Globe and the SAG Award. But both those awards frequently have shown a disparity with the Oscar in this category, and the Academy's older members might favor Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild"), 83, a multiple Emmy winner who has never before received an Oscar nomination.

Still, this is a wide-open category and always the one with the greatest chance of a real surprise, which could also bode well for the other nominees.

Tom Wilkinson has drawn praise for his role as an unbalanced lawyer in "Michael Clayton"; Casey Affleck stunned with his title role in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"; and Philip Seymour Hoffman might have been a much stronger contender (nominated for playing real-life CIA maverick Gust Avrakotos in "Charlie Wilson's War") if it weren't for his recent win for 2005's "Capote."

Winner: Javier Bardem
Possibility: Hal Holbrook

Supporting Actress
Until the SAG Awards on Jan. 27, it would've been safe to bet on Cate Blanchett winning the supporting actress prize. After all, she had won so many awards for "I'm Not There" that she seemed poised to enter the Oscars as a favorite.

But since SAG gave its prize to Ruby Dee for her role in "American Gangster," this category has been as hard to predict as any in Oscar history. Two factors will work against Blanchett: First, she recently won the supporting actress statuette for 2004's "The Aviator"; and second, "I'm Not There" was disliked by many in the Academy, even if they loved her performance.
That could open the door for either Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone") -- who has drawn kudos including a National Board of Review win -- or Tilda Swinton, who plays a ruthless corporate lawyer in "Michael Clayton."

Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement") is probably too young to gather much momentum, though that has not prevented wins by young actresses like Anna Paquin (1993's "The Piano") in the past.

And finally, as SAG showed, Ruby Dee has sentiment on her side. But SAG has often been more sentimental than the Academy, and Dee's role was not as showy as others in contention.

Winner: Amy Ryan
Possibilities: Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton

Original Screenplay
Will a stripper with a heart of gold win the Oscar? Diablo Cody's storied past has helped her go from being a screenwriter to a phenomenon -- and has also helped her become the favorite to scoop the Oscar, especially after her victory at the WGA.

True, Cody's original screenplay for "Juno" (her first script) faces competition from two other dramedies -- Nancy Oliver's "Lars and the Real Girl" and Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages." But among the three, hers is the most likely to win, and has won huge support across a wide swath of the Academy.

If anything plucks the prize from "Juno," it could be a very different sort of film: either the animated "Ratatouille" (screenplay by Brad Bird, from a story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco and Bird); or Tony Gilroy's thriller "Michael Clayton," which has drawn raves for its screenplay.

At this stage, however, with other awards already in her pocket, Cody is firmly the one to beat.

Winner: Diablo Cody
Possibility: Tony Gilroy

Adapted Screenplay
Following their triumph at this month's WGA Awards, the Coen brothers are the favorites to pick up their second screenplay Oscar, for "No Country for Old Men." (Their other Oscar came in the original screenplay category for 1996's "Fargo.")

But the Academy vote is likely to be very divided, with different contenders drawing support from different segments of the membership. Sarah Polley appeals to older members familiar with the issues she deals with in her Alzheimer's-themed "Away From Her"; Christopher Hampton's "Atonement" appeals to the part of the Academy that adores English period pieces; Ronald Harwood's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" appeals to fans of the film's wild inventiveness; and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" appeals to the real cineastes in that border zone where the Academy overlaps with the Independent Spirit Awards.

While this might seem to limit the chances of "Blood," the Academy has also strongly favored original and daring work in its writing awards, even more so than in other categories -- and "Blood" is a genuine original in a year that has seen a great deal of originality.

Winners: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Possibility: Paul Thomas Anderson   
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