Before we get to the Great Big Three-Way (not like that) that is the Best Picture race, let's look at a few contests that look more or less decided.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
- Adriana Barraza – Babel
- Cate Blanchett – Notes on a Scandal
- Abigail Breslin – Little Miss Sunshine
- Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls
- Rinko Kikuchi – Babel
Will Win: Jennifer Hudson
Should Win: Adriana Barraza
And I am telling you that Hudson has 12 circle wins including the Golden Globes, BFCA and BAFTA. Oh, and SAG, too. What's Cate Blanchett got? Seven circle wins. And she's already won an Oscar. Abigail Breslin? 3/2 odds, so maybe she's a spoiler. Hudson's tracking 1/8. The only downside for Hudson is she doesn't get to sing her showstopping number. Unless she refuses to leave when the show ends.
I loved Hudson's performance in Dreamgirls. Of course I got weepy during "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." But you know what? Barraza packed more punch. That punch developed over a longer period of time, and maybe that's the difference between a sprinter and a marathoner, but Barraza got it done.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
- Alan Arkin – Little Miss Sunshine
- Jackie Earle Haley – Little Children
- Djimon Hounsou – Blood Diamond
- Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls
- Mark Wahlberg – The Departed
Will Win: Alan Arkin
Should Win: Jackie Earle Haley
Here is where I go against the conventional wisdom. Sort of. I usually do it once every year, and I usually get burned as a result. Still, I have to think that in spite of Eddie Murphy's SAG, BFCA, and Golden Globe wins against Arkin's measly BAFTA, that the late reward rule of the Academy will kick in in this case. I keep thinking of James Coburn's surprise win for Affliction. And this isn't because of Norbit. The Academy likes it when people make money. That's part of the reason Scorsese's gone so long without a statue. But the actors, who make up the majority, like a legend even more. As it turns out, Arkin's got 1/1 odds here against 2/3 for Murphy, but I think that's crap. The smart money is still on Murphy.
If I had my druthers, Steve Carell would be up for this instead of Arkin, and Noah Emmerich would be up instead of Haley, but then my decision would be really hard. As it is, I think Haley stands out. Wahlberg has a more traditional supporting role (and steals every scene) while Murphy develops his fullest character by far, but the heaviest lifting comes from Haley, who takes an already unsympathetic role and carries it through the second most interesting character arc in a film full of interesting character arcs. (The most interesting arc in the film belongs to Emmerich, and he nails it.)
- Penélope Cruz – Volver
- Judi Dench – Notes on a Scandal
- Helen Mirren – The Queen
- Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada
- Kate Winslet – Little Children
Will Win: Helen Mirren
Should Win: Helen Mirren
As Jamie Foxx and Philip Seymour Hoffman were to Best Actor, so is Helen Mirren to Best Actress. 31 circle wins, including BAFTA, BFCA, and the Globes with a SAG cherry on top. 1/25 odds.
And she deserves it. This is the most complete, engaging, yet understated performance on this list. Like Foxx and Hoffman, she creates a fully realized persona based on an actual person. Does the fact that it's based on an actual person make it any easier? I don't know. I think of Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos or Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena. Maybe that type of performance simply lends itself more readily to a complete portrayal. Regardless, it's the most convincing of the lot (with the caveat that I haven't seen Dame Dench yet).
- Leonardo DiCaprio – Blood Diamond
- Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson
- Peter O'Toole – Venus
- Will Smith – The Pursuit of Happyness
- Forest Whitaker – The Last King of Scotland
Will Win: Forest Whitaker
Should Win: Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker is almost as much of a lock as Dame Mirren. He's got the BAFTA, BFCA, Golden Globe, and SAG quadfecta, plus another 20 circle wins to spare. It's also the third in an increasingly long line of biographical favorites after Ray and Capote. The only thing missing is to call his film Amin. Will Smith is playing a true life character, too, but you've never heard of… um… that guy he plays.
Leo does a great job in Blood Diamond. His Scene of Menace with Djimon Hounsou is a showstopper. But there's only so much else going on. Gosling is fantastic in Half Nelson, but he gets overshadowed by a 15-year-old and besides, he should have won this for The Believer. I haven't actually seen O'Toole or Smith's performances, but they'd have to be damn good to top Whitaker's all-encompassing turn as Amin. Pulling off charismatic, intimidating, psychotic, and vulnerable all at once is probably worth the statue.
- Clint Eastwood – Letters From Iwo Jima
- Stephen Frears – The Queen
- Paul Greengrass – United 93
- Alejandro González Iñárritu – Babel
- Martin Scorsese – The Departed
Will Win: The Scorsenator
Should Win: Paul Greengrass
With 17 circle awards including a BFCA and a Golden Globe, I was still disinclined to predict Scorsese for the win. Why? Because I've been down this road before, and it has broken my heart. If Scorsese couldn't win with GoodFellas or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, what chance could he have with The Aviator or Gangs of New York? And then something magical happened. Unprecedented, really.
He won the DGA award.
See, the Directors Guild seemed to hate him even more than the Academy. He's only lost four directing Oscars. He's lost six DGAs. And the DGA is the best predictor out there. 90 percent accurate. So I'm finally comfortable saying it:
It's Scorsese's year.
Except it isn't. I loved The Departed. Don't get me wrong. But United 93 is a better film, and Paul Greengrass pulls off an even tougher task. When you're at this level, it's all strength of schedule, and to make any film about 9/11 only five years after the fact and make it in such a way that doesn't distance you from the material but rather confronts you with it in the most intimate way possible – cinéma vérité – is bold. To go one step further and not fuck it up is admirable. To go even further and make it near-flawless is Oscar-worthy.
- The Departed
- Letters From Iwo Jima
- Little Miss Sunshine
- The Queen
Will Win: The Departed
Should Win: Letters From Iwo Jima
Babel is the secret favorite. The unoffical buzz around Hollywood has a lot of people voting for it the way they voted for Crash last year. It pulled out a Golden Globe for Best Picture without troubling the water in any other category.
The Departed is Scorsese's comeback. His third or fourth comeback. Anyway, if you're going to reward the director, why not reward the film as well? Even if splitting director and picture is increasingly common, the trend is still toward one picture to rule them all. Besides, it's the most seen film in the bunch to the tune of $128 million, more than twice its closest competitor. Oh, and there's the matter of eight circle wins, including the BFCA.
Letters From Iwo Jima has all the grandeur we've come to expect from a Best Picture. And if anyone had gone to see it, they might have noticed.
Little Miss Sunshine is the other secret favorite. The Producer's Guild surprised everyone and virtually made the film a lock since almost every time they agree with SAG's Best Ensemble award, that films goes on to win Best Picture. Almost. Did I mention the Academy hasn't awarded a comedy Best Picture in 30 years? (Unless you count Titanic, which was high-larious!) On the other hand, you could argue that means they're due. It's also the second most lucrative film on this list at $59 million.
The Queen has a BAFTA win. Moving on.
So why between the three most likely suspects do I pick The Departed, other than its 1/5 odds and a vague belief in the wisdom of crowds? Well, looking back at the last ten or so winners, I get a sense of stodginess. Not that The Departed is a stodgy film per se, but certainly more so than the other two. Here's how it breaks down:
Babel, too artsy.
Little Miss Sunshine, too funny.
The Departed, positively Shakespearean.
It's something I didn't really notice until just now. The Departed is very Macbeth. And that Shakespearean stodginess may just carry it into the winner's seat.
Again, due respect to The Departed, but Letters is the better flick. As well drawn as the characters are in The Departed (and they're not all well drawn – I'm looking in your direction, sole female lead) they're even better drawn in Letters. As potent as the action is in The Departed, it's more unforgettable in Letters. As lyrically tragic as The Departed is, Letters is, um, tragickier.
And Letters has more to grapple with. I give Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan a lot of credit for developing the Hong Kong original and adding issues of class, masculinity, and ethnicity to spice up the story, but the issues Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita raise are even meatier and the experiment (to take the opposing side of one of the few relatively morally clear wars we have left) riskier.
Even if you strip all of that away, I was simply more moved by Letters than by any of these films (though Babel comes close).
That having been said, if Borat had been nominated, we wouldn't be having this discussion.