Twists, turns make road to Oscars tough to map out

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Oscar beckons: The musical "Dreamgirls" is the odds-on favorite to take home best picture honors. Clint Eastwood is again in the driver's seat as a best director nominee for "Flags of Our Fathers." And everyone is talking about how Jackie Earle Haley scored a comeback with his supporting nomination for "All the King's Men."

Uh, wait a moment. That was the way the 79th Annual Academy Awards was expected to unfold.

But the reality is something different: "Dreamgirls" will arrive at Sunday's Oscar ceremony at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland as the most nominated movie of the evening. But though it boasts eight noms, it failed in its quest for the brass ring of a best picture nomination. Eastwood will be on hand as well, but he is nominated for "Letters From Iwo Jima," his Japanese account of the battle in the South Pacific that suddenly surfaced and picked up steam when his "Flags" was dropped to half mast. And Haley will be represented not for his work in "Men" -- that film, which many had decreed an Oscar front-runner sight unseen early on, quickly fell by the wayside -- but for his performance as a sex offender trying to reclaim his life in "Little Children."

One thing is certain about this year's Oscar race, which looks as if it will continue to generate suspense right down to the moment when the final envelope is opened: It just didn't play out according to the script.

Of course, the original script was written not by the 5,830 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but by the legions of Oscar prognosticators, campaign consultants and self-styled "Hollywood insiders," who have turned predicting the Academy's every move into a nearly year-round obsession.

Oscar, because of its ability to focus the public's attention on the movies, is the engine that drives an ever-enlarging entertainment media.

The Academy, even as it hails Oscar as a celebration of "excellence in cinema," is the most direct beneficiary. It derives three-quarters of its annual income from the licensing fees it charges ABC and outlets around the world to air the starry broadcast. ABC, in turn, will charge an average of $1.7 million per 30-second commercial.

Hollywood itself used to benefit from the added boxoffice boost that came from the nominations and eventual Oscar wins. But now that theatrical windows are shrinking, it is no longer the case. The nominations do still trigger a boxoffice uptick, but of this year's five best picture nominees, only "Iwo Jima," which has grossed less than $12 million to date and played in only 781 theaters at its widest point, stands to benefit at the boxoffice should it be named best picture.

Three of the other best pictures nominees have already migrated to home video. "Little Miss Sunshine," which debuted in theaters way back in late July, was released on DVD, on Dec. 19. "The Departed" hit the shelves at Wal-Mart and Best Buy on Feb. 13, and "Babel" went on sale Tuesday. And "The Queen," which has grossed more than $50 million in domestic boxoffice since it bowed in late September, can be expected to follow suit soon. For them, an Oscar win will translate into added revenue in the home video and ancillary markets. But it won't result in significant returns for exhibitors.

Still, that represents only one segment of the cultural-industrial complex that revolves around the Oscars. TV, the traditional print media and the Web have all jumped on the Oscar bandwagon -- partly in hopes of grabbing some of Hollywood's annual campaign expenditures that can run as high as $15 million per campaign, partly to raise their own profiles.

ABC, for example, will double down with celebrity-filled specials from Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters, keyed to the big night. The Los Angeles Times entered the fray this year with a weekly awards season supplement, the Envelope, that appeared in its print edition, an offshoot of its Web site of the same name. Meanwhile, the iTunes Store is offering Oscar-nominated shorts for $1.99 a pop -- as of Wednesday, its best-selling short was "The Little Matchgirl," Walt Disney Pictures' return to traditional animation.

At the same time, the universe of bloggers devoting themselves to the minutiae of awards season continues to expand. With so many trying to claim a piece of Oscar's reflected glory for themselves, the Academy reclaimed the territory for itself by confounding many of the self-appointed experts.

When "Dreamgirls" won the Golden Globe in January for best comedy or musical, a winningly choreographed awards season campaign -- which began when footage from the film was previewed at the Festival de Cannes in May -- appeared to be right on track. After all, "Chicago" had used its Golden Globe win in 2003 as a steppingstone to Oscar glory.

But what no one really counted on is that many Academy voters appear resistant to the modern musical's lure, that "Chicago" win notwithstanding. When the nominations were announced Jan. 23, "Dreamgirls," despite its two supporting actor nominations and a trio of nominated songs, was left waiting in the wings. In the end, it didn't dance to the "Chicago" tune but seemed more of a reprise of "Evita" and "Yentl," which in 1997 and 1984, respectively, charmed the Hollywood Foreign Press, which awarded them top musical honors before they failed to win best picture noms.

But because "Dreamgirls" still scored more nominations than any of its competitors, the fact that it didn't figure in the best picture race created a statistical anomaly -- in fact, it's the first time in Academy history that has happened.

With no dominant player, a la "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in the game, the best picture competition has become anyone's game. Each of the five nominees has its cadre of supporters. (There are no obvious bloopers in this year's lineup.) But none appears to have sealed the deal.

The polyglot "Babel," with seven nominations, might be in the strongest position. But it's the second-lowest-grossing film in the lot -- moviegoers en masse never took it to heart -- and its democratically ensemble cast failed to produce a best actor or actress nominee. (Although its partisans are sure to point out that a similar situation didn't hurt "Crash" last year.)

With five nominations, "The Departed" proved a boxoffice juggernaut, grossing nearly $132 million domestically, but the intricately plotted crime drama is still being dismissed by some as a genre effort, which will receive its due if Martin Scorsese wins a long-overdue best directing Oscar.

With four nominations, the plucky indie success story "Sunshine" would certainly win the "Miss Congeniality" prize if there was one to be won. But it also must contend with the Academy's traditional preference for drama over comedy as well as the fact that its husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were not welcomed into the best directing circle.

"Queen," with its six nominations, and "Iwo Jima," with four, can't be dismissed, either. Both scored all-important directing noms. But still neither is considered a shoo-in.

Yet, while the blognoscenti can't agree on which picture will win, it has crowned four actors as the odds-on favorites in their respective categories: Helen Mirren, both regal and vulnerable as Elizabeth II in "Queen"; Forest Whitaker, mercurially maniacal as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"; Eddie Murphy, revealing real soul as a struggling R&B singer in "Dreamgirls"; and up-from-the-people Jennifer Hudson, in her no-holds-barred debut in "Dreamgirls."

Certainly, there's reason to believe all four will prevail. Each has already claimed both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award. But if the stage is set for their eventual coronation at the Oscars, it's also primed for an upset in one or more of the acting categories.

If the Academy has demonstrated anything this year, it is that it's capable of picking and choosing among its available options and not simply going with the flow. None of the five nominees in the cinematography category, for example, come from films nominated for best picture -- it's only the second time in Oscar history that that has happened.

The voters' ability to discern among a wide range of films from an assortment of genres particularly benefited the self-styled three amigos -- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of "Babel," Guillermo del Toro of "Pan's Labyrinth" and Alfonso Cuaron of "Children of Men." And that, along with Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," which earned a best actress nom for Penelope Cruz, served to shine the spotlight this year on an empowered generation of Latino filmmakers with a particular knack for bending traditional genres into unusual shapes.

The Spanish Almodovar, blending comedy, melodrama and the possibility of the supernatural with abandon, has led the way. And now the Mexican-born troika is blazing trails of its own. In addition to its foreign-language film nom, del Toro's "Labyrinth," a sort of Lewis Carroll riff set amid the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, picked up five other noms. Cuaron's "Children," a futuristic tale that grapples with contemporary hot-button issues, scored three. Meanwhile, Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" defies time and space as it examines human connections, and disconnects, in an age of globalization.

For an organization that's often miscategorized as insular and homogenous, the Academy, as it cast its votes for the 79th time, actually appeared to be surveying the world. In doing so, it may have surprised itself. It certainly surprised the even more insular world of Oscar watchers who thought they had the Academy's number.
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