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A Plea to Oscar Voters: Please, Please Surprise Us

Paging Marisa Tomei! Someone needs to pull a shocker fast, as the Academy Awards appears poised to fall, yet again, into a rut.

Surprise Ending?
Oscar statue: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images/© A.M.P.A.S.; iStock

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Dear members of the Motion Picture Academy, I'm begging you. Please do something to surprise us. It's getting down to the wire. You have until Feb. 21 to submit your ballots, and I know many of you have probably made your picks. But if you haven't already listed The Artist as your top choice for best picture and given the nod to Octavia Spencer and Christopher Plummer, then take a moment to reconsider. Yes, there's still some suspense surrounding whether George Clooney or Jean Dujardin will be named best actor, or Viola Davis or Meryl Streep best actress, but, really, the script for the 84th Academy Awards seems as if it has been written in advance.

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Look, I've been covering the Oscars for years, and the suspense has gone out of the game. The King's Speech? Even though The Social Network had a fanatical following among the bloggerati, everyone else knew a coronation was inevitable. The Hurt Locker's win over Avatar? Once the little war movie picked up PGA and DGA endorsements, the battle was over. Slumdog Millionaire? Once it got on a roll, there was no stopping it.

These past few years, the Academy Awards have become so predictable even presenters have had to feign surprise as they open those envelopes while the losing nominees applaud politely like so many expensively dressed extras.

Let me make a stipulation: Right now, every Oscar strategist's nerves are on edge, rubbed raw by every knock, real or imagined, on their candidates, so let me assure them that I think The Artist is a lovely, charming movie, and Spencer and Plummer are both exceedingly lovely and charming people. But I just don't want to sit through another Oscar show where we all dutifully check off the boxes as the expected names are called. I want one of those what-the-hell-just-happened moments like when Jack Palance stunned everyone by proclaiming Marisa Tomei, of My Cousin Vinny, best supporting actress over such British acting royalty as Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright.

So why have the Oscars become so predictable? The studios have put in place publicity and marketing machinery that begins whispering, then shouting, "awards contender" even before a movie is released. Not every film lives up to its advance billing -- this year, J. Edgar failed to survive the initial hazing. But those that do take on an air of inevitability as an echo chamber kicks in and the media joins the chorus.

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Believe it or not, up until the mid-'80s, a publication like the Los Angeles Times didn't even write about potential contenders while the early nominations were under way for fear of playing favorites. Contrast that to today, when even The New York Times is running daily, if not hourly, updates on such minutia as Randy Jackson's Oscar picks. Add in the din of columnists and bloggers (we here at The Hollywood Reporter are perpetrators -- mea culpa), and all those prognostications and rankings solidify into self-fulfilling prophecy.

With the Oscar-precursor shows, the front-runners are then set in stone. Everything from the Critics' Choice Awards to the DGA Awards crowds onto dates ahead of the Oscars while boasting of their track records as Oscar predictors. Some of the pooh-bahs at the Academy want to move the Oscars to an earlier date in late January or early February so they can cut down on the awards fatigue. But they're kidding themselves. Should the Oscars move, all those other shows -- like the cattle egret who feed opportunistically in the shadow of a wildebeest -- will simply move along with it.

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Finally, it comes down to human nature: Everyone wants to jump on a winning bandwagon. (Or, to put it less charitably, a herd instinct takes over and everyone behaves like lemmings.) That's understandable in those years when the movie industry puts forth a mainstream juggernaut such as Titanic. That type of movie, like the Lawrence of Arabias of the past, is expected to stage a triumphal march through awards season. But in years like the current one, when the nominated movies are more or less evenly matched, it would be nice if the members of the Academy didn't just rubber-stamp the presumed front-runners in the major categories. 

So, please, Oscar voters, I'm begging you. I don't really care whom or what you vote for, but on Feb. 26, do something, anything, to surprise us.

♦♦♦♦♦

BIG OSCAR STUNNERS: No one saw them coming, which made for dramatic moments

Actress, 1969: For Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand was a favorite, but when she tied with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter, it came as a shock.

Supporting Actress, 1993: Marisa Tomei's win for My Cousin Vinny was so unexpected, the accountants had to testify it wasn't a mistake.

Picture, 1999: When Steven Spielberg won best director, it looked like victory for Saving Private Ryan until Shakespeare in Love stole the prize away.