Every year it’s the same. Oscar pulls out a list of pseudo successful nominees, pundits kvetch and make their predictions, various underling awards hand out their trophies, and by the time the biggest ceremony rolls around, a group of presumptive number ones are anointed. As the list dwindles down - PGA, DGA, SAG - the question of who walks away with Academy gold seems clearer and clearer. So assuming the following Monday morning winners - Slumdog for everything, Streep for Doubt, Penn for Milk, Ledger for Knight, and Cruz of Barcelona - who exactly is number two. Who are the runner ups that, unlike other prized pig popularity contests, don’t get to take the place of the winner if said victor can’t (or is unable) sample their own spoils?
Oddly enough, calling the race for second place is, with one or two rare exceptions, a far more complicated process. Since the Academy doesn’t release results, and few on the inside are willing to offer their perspective, we are stuck with the annual list of winners…and little else. So consider this a combination, a set of attempted predictions as to what will happen 22 February, and a hopefully educated guessing game on who came up a few votes short. None of this takes into consideration the films that were snubbed, or had to settle for recognition in the lesser, technical categories, and as we move closer to Oscar day, SE&L will sort everything out with its own idiosyncratic set of recognitions. Until then, let’s play Tinsel Town’s game, beginning with:
Best Screenplay (Original)
Presumptive Winner - WALL-E (Jim Reardon, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter)
Runner-Up - In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
In the category which used to be known as the “thank you for playing” home version of the Oscars, people who would otherwise never win an award - say, the Coen Brothers circa the mid ‘90s - would be thrown a big fat bone of quasi-recognition here. It was the spot where such names as Spike Lee, David Lynch, and Terry Gilliam typically landed. Now, the trophy holds a little more aesthetic weight, with previous winners such as Alan Ball, Cameron Crowe, and Pedro Almodovar setting the bar pretty high. This year, however, the love for Pixar’s animated epic will translate into one non-animation award. That just leaves indie darling Martin McDonagh to sweep up afterward.
Best Screenplay (Adapted)
Presumptive Winner - Slumdog Millionaire (Simon Beaufoy)
Runner-Up - The Reader (David Hare)
In order to justify its presence as part of 2009’s Academy pageant, don’t be surprised if The Reader walks away with more than one little gold man. The multiple nominations indicate a tendency toward rewarding this mediocre effort, but it’s hard to envision earning the major hardware. If Slumdog somehow stumbles, failing to fulfill it’s destiny as Oscars latest multicultural comment on its own previous cluelessness, be prepared to see David Hare hobble up to the podium and pick up yet another Academy certified undeserved nod to scribing (right, Akiva Goldsman???).
Best Supporting Actress
Presumptive Winner - Penelope Cruz: Vicky Christina Barcelona
Runner-Up - Taraji P. Henson: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Calling Ms. Cruz the best thing in Woody Allen’s PR anointed “return to form” is faint praise indeed. In a movie where all the characters complain like longshoreman debating a rise in union dues, she stands out for two tawdry reasons - her implied sexuality, and her Spanish accent. Still, Oscar likes to think with his ‘sword’, so Penny will walk away bedazzled…and hopefully, soon forgotten. In the meantime, a truly stunning piece of work by Mr. Henson will have to settle for second. In a film filled with grace notes, she’s refinement personified. Every time she mentions the name of her adopted son, your heart breaks a little.
Best Supporting Actor
Presumptive Winner - Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight
Runner-Up - Robert Downey Jr.: Tropic Thunder
Call it a battle between white and black face. Both of these actors do amazing work under make-up jobs that should really limit their range of (e)motion, and each defines their individual movies by the way they carry themselves and their characters. Had Ledger not died unexpectedly, this would be a real hambone horserace. And it would not be a surprise to see the year’s second comeback kid earn his Oscar wings. Instead, the smart money says that the Academy rewards the Aussie posthumously, leaving the previously bridesmaided actor waiting for another year to finally earn his much deserved industry acclaim.
Presumptive Winner - Sean Penn: Milk
Runner-Up - Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler
Actually, this category really isn’t that hard to call. It’s been a race between Penn and Rourke since The Wrestler turned from a whispered about sleeper to a year end Best of darling. Both men deserve it, actually, relying on their perceived image - and their own perversion of same - to reach untold levels of acting truth. Before the recent rash of underling awards, it looked like Rourke would be the clear consensus champion…and he still could be, since Oscar isn’t necessarily in love with Penn’s personal politics. But another recent issue - California’s incomprehensible gay marriage ban - should elevate his profile into the winner’s circle.
Presumptive Winner - Meryl Streep: Doubt
Runner-Up - Melissa Leo: Frozen River
Of all the races out there, this one has been the most interesting to watch unfold. At first, conventional wisdom had Angelina Jolie walking away with the award for Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Then people actually saw the movie. Before long, Anne Hathaway’s troubled addict was moved to the top slot. Then Kate Winslet went from Supporting given to Best Actress possibility and the entire category went to Hell. Now Streep has walked away with the pre-ceremony predicting plaudits, so it could be anyone’s race. The amazing work from Ms. Leo, however, may have to settle for second.
Presumptive Winner - Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire
Runner-Up - David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
He’s the DGA’s choice, had taken home a Golden Globe, and has managed to fend off some last minute negativity (something about the pay for Indian actors) to come a single step away from earning the Oscar he so richly deserves. But if Danny Boyle loses out to someone during the evening’s festivities, it just might be Fincher. Accomplishing something very rare for a filmmaker, the visionary director dialed down the darkness and came up with a meticulous, meaningful epic. Absence the battles with perception (Button is often referred to as Gump Lite) and publicity (star Pitt is a commercial blessing and a curse), he’d be picking up the prize.
Presumptive Winner - Slumdog Millionaire
Runner-Up - Frost/Nixon
This is an odd choice, admittedly, but one that crosses the clear generational gaps that seem to exist within the Oscar voting pool. Should Slumdog struggle - and it still might, no matter that current trending towards victory - then the race is really wide open. The backlash against the Academy keeps The Reader out of contention, and no one really wants Benjamin Button to win. This leaves Milk the odd man out, bringing the sentimentalized treatment of America’s poisonous political nightmare to the fore. Thanks to time’s ability to fade memories, some see Ron Howard’s reconfiguration of history as a revelation. Should the real cinematic vision fail, this could fill the visible void.