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Reading the Oscar Vibes

Nominees07_thAs a record 140 nominees posed for the traditional group portrait at the Beverly Hilton's annual Academy nominees luncheon, an ebullient Will Smith, standing near Djimon Hounsou, led the cheering squad, as he had when he attended as a nominee for Ali. The raucous Mexican contingent applauded their own. Leonardo DiCaprio hung close to his Departed cronies Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Graham King. As he went to pick up his plaque, DiCaprio high-fived Abigail Breslin, who was sitting in the front row kicking her short black boots, which didn't reach the floor.


If I know one thing about the Oscar race, it's this: momentum is a key factor. Here's what I have gleaned lately, especially from reading the room at the nominees luncheon:

1. Peter O'Toole works a room like a pro. He flirted with Sherry Lansing (who's getting an honorary Oscar) and hung with the equally tall Clint Eastwood. The Academy holds considerable affection for these older survivors, who also include The Departed director Martin Scorsese and Little Miss Sunshine supporting actor Alan Arkin. O'Toole is giving front-runner Forest Whitaker—who is not a glib speechmaker—a run for his money. Neither Whitaker nor O'Toole stars in a best picture contender. O'Toole is getting the late spate of media attention, now that he's in L.A. for the final round. The gang at the Hilton Monday gave the 74-year-old master thespian a standing ovation. They love him, they recognize his desire to win a real Oscar (he got an honorary one in 2003) before he leaves this mortal coil. That's a big deal.

2. Dame Helen can't lose. She's invulnerable. She has worked graciously, tirelessly, and given a new and different acceptance speech every time. Mirren's an insider, she lives in L.A. with director Taylor Hackford. She's an actors' actor, British, respected, and she's never won an Oscar. Meryl Streep and Judi Dench have won. Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz have not, but now is not their time.


3. Both Eddie Murphy (who has never acted in a drama before, and kicks ass) and rookie actor-belter Jennifer Hudson are front-runners in the supporting actor and actress categories, respectively. But Dreamgirls is losing steam, because it didn't win a best picture slot. But who can beat them? Maybe senior citizen Arkin, because the little movie that could, Little Miss Sunshine, has to win a few things. But Arkin is the shy and retiring type. Babel's Adriana Barraza (a moving performance) and Rinko Kikuchi (a discovery) would have better chances of beating Hudson if they weren't competing against each other. Abigail Breslin has a shot. And Cate Blanchett won recently for her role as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.

4. Marty can't lose for best director. It is his turn; it is not Clint's year.

5. The Queen's Peter Morgan could unseat Little Miss Sunshine frontrunner Michael Arndt. That's because Morgan is relatively fresh on the L.A. PR circuit; he wrote two big screenplays (Last King of Scotland is the other); and he's got Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon still to come. He's an articulate Brit on a hot streak. Arndt has written a very funny and beloved script his first time out of the box, and now works with the ace comedy writing team at Pixar.


6. Best Picture is anyone's guess. Little Miss Sunshine has momentum, but it's a small-scale comedy whose rookie directing team did not get nominated. But people love it. The Queen will land an Oscar for Mirren for sure and possibly a few others, but no matter how clever and adept it is, it too is small. For many, Letters from Iwo Jima's Best Picture slot was a nomination for Clint Eastwood's extraordinary achievement in 2006; it includes Flags of Our Fathers. Some folks haven't seen Letters and may never do so. It feels like The Departed and Babel still have momentum. They are the two most complex movies; they have the most scale and scope. Clearly the actors love The Departed; but it is a genre remake for which Scorsese will be rewarded for pulling it off so well—and for all the other times he didn't win over the years. Babel has art and gravitas and emotion. And a sprawling ensemble like Crash.


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