Oscar showdown

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Mark: Hey, Michael, I don't know about you, but I'm far more comfortable predicting the Oscar nominees than picking the winners. Reason No. 1: Predicting the winners becomes a combination of making ridiculous apples-kumquats comparisons (was Adrien Brody more effective as a Holocaust sufferer than Nicolas Cage was as a neurotic screenwriter and his dopey identical-twin brother?) and gauging insider politics (is it Scorsese's turn?) rather than appreciating great artistry on its own merits. Reason No. 2: I'm generally way more accurate with the nominees than the winners, and my ego can't stand the strain.

Yet I can't deny it: I care about this stuff. My connection to music is at least as emotionally deep as to film, yet I've never given a hoot about the Grammys. The Oscars are something else: Never mind that my favorite films usually go unrewarded; I'd be watching every minute even if I weren't professionally compelled to do so. And I like guessing the winners, even in the categories where I haven't seen the entries, like animated short subject. In part I enjoy trying to tap into the mind-set that is Hollywood, even though the "community" is far less monolithic than it's portrayed. But mostly . . . dunno . . . it's the Oscars -- and nothing else is.

MIKE: Hmmmm . . . I wouldn't worry too much about enjoying the Oscars or agonize over whether insider politics is triumphing over great artistry. In the first case, almost everybody likes the show on some level -- whether it's for the glamor, the suspense, the music the sense of hobnobbing with stars or even just because they enjoy complaining about them afterward.

In the second case, it's futile to worry whether politics trumps artistry. There are great movies that win ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Casablanca"), great films that lose ("Dr. Strangelove," "Pulp Fiction") and great movies that weren't nominated ("Some Like It Hot," "Singin' in the Rain," "Vertigo"). Ditto for the other categories. History -- and movie lovers -- always even the scores afterward.

And of course it's more fun picking the nominations. If you're guessing six nomination categories and miss four, you're a genius. If you're guessing the Oscar winners, and miss four, you're an idiot. And there are so many information sources and Web sites now, it's easier than ever to make a good guess. I'm with you on being hooked on the show, though. It's like a mad crush that won't go away. You don't care if the Oscars lie or cheat or take your money -- or if they're just a sham. You just want to get to the party and walk in with them, grinning like a fool, like everyone else. The Oscars are also, lest we forget, the only night of the year when artists and works of art (at least on some level) make the most important news in the world. That's a big improvement on a lot of what we've been seeing and hearing lately.

Mark: Amen on that last point, but for the record, I, like you, missed just three of the 30 nominees in the top six categories this year. So why we're currently setting ourselves up for public ridicule is anyone's guess.

And now let's just admit the real reason we watch: fashion tips.

Best supporting actor

MIKE: Have you ever seen somebody as far ahead with Oscar guessers as Chris Cooper (in "Adaptation") this year? Playing that frowsy, gap-toothed, charmingly psycho orchid thief John La Roche, he seems to have blown away all the competition in the middle of the battle. I didn't talk to one Oscar expert who wasn't sure he is going to win. He's the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of acting this year, miles ahead of the pack. And it's strange in a way, because Cooper isn't an actor who's ever played Hollywood games, and it's a role you wouldn't normally associate with him: a full-blooded roaring comic scenery-chewer (with no teeth).

Still, I'm a little bewildered nobody takes Ed Harris seriously here, even though he's playing a dying flamboyant poet and he's due. John C. Reilly was really busy this year, but chalk up his song-and-dance nomination to sheer "Chicago" power. Paul Newman ("Road to Perdition") and Christopher Walken ("Catch Me If You Can"), the ones who seem closest to Cooper, may suffer from the fact that they're so good all the time, these performances don't necessarily stand out -- as Cooper's does for him.

So should we just call it a day on this category and hand it to Coop?

MARK: I guess so. There's usually one upset in the supporting categories, though, so let's try to make the case against Cooper. (1) Harris has never won and has a more impressive track record than Cooper, so he gets the overdue-recognition vote. (2) Walken won the BAFTA supporting actor award and would make a fine so-good-to-see-you-after-all-these-years story. (3) Academy members don't necessarily love "Adaptation," yet at this point it's positioned to win Oscars for supporting actress (Meryl Streep), supporting actor plus adapted screenplay, which may be too much -- so our boy Chris could take the fall. Do I buy it? Um . . . I don't think so. Cooper's performance is a whole mess o' fun. But I reserve the right to change my mind before this exchange is over. Is your confidence shaken?

MIKE: Not really. Harris is the case where I think your arguments are most convincing. But for some reason, people seem cool to this role and performance: with its heights of grief and pain, its horrific makeup. Maybe it's too dicey, too troubling, too obviously a sympathy grab. Harris doesn't seem to compute for all the people I talked to; they don't even see him as the runner-up. (That position goes to Walken.) As for my feelings on your Meryl S. theory -- and she's one of my all-time favorites -- check out the supporting actress chatter below. Cooper seems to have all the ducks in a row for this one. I really think he's unbeatable.

MARK: Oh, well. I thought maybe I could nudge you off of Cooper so I'd have him to myself, but, alas, we are, as Fred Durst would say, "in agreeance." Cooper it is.

Best supporting actress

MARK: The supporting categories can be the most surprising, and the biggest shock would be if Queen Latifah aced out her more prominent "Chicago" co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones. Don't count on it. Kathy Bates ("About Schmidt") also is a long shot, and although the trend used to be for double-nominated performers to win in the supporting category, my gut says if Julianne Moore is going to be recognized, it won't be for "The Hours." The showdown appears to be between Zeta-Jones' high-kicking performance and Streep's portrayal of magazine writer Susan Orlean's virtual counterpart in "Adaptation."

Streep is a record-breaking 13-time nominee who hasn't actually won an Oscar in 20 years, was also admired for her performance in "The Hours," and in "Adaptation" we finally get to see her in a swamp with a gun. Zeta-Jones has been most visible during the "campaign" period suing a British magazine over wedding photos and shilling for a cell phone company. My guess is the academy opts for class and Streep. And you?

MIKE: Finally, we disagree on something! Streep is a very good guess. But my guess is the academy goes not for class but for sass -- and for pizazz, razzmatazz, all that jazz and Zeta-Jones. If "Chicago" is the big front-runner lots of people seem to think, it ought to be able to carry one actor to an award. (After all, it's a performance movie.) And Zeta-Jones is a better bet than Renee Zellweger or Reilly.

Furthermore, though I agree with your reasoning that an offbeat show like "Adaptation" shouldn't be a triple front-runner, I think that argument works more against Streep than Cooper. After all, people can say to themselves: "We don't have to worry; she'll get nominated again; she always gets nominated."Zeta-Jones has something else going for her: that ineffable "babe" factor. Remember Geena Davis, Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Juliette Binoche, even maybe Judi Dench (a babe in her day). Looks and sex appeal seem to count in this category, perhaps because the (mostly male) voters see it as a sure stepping-stone to stardom and enjoy anointing somebody -- or perhaps because they just like recognizing beauty. That means they won't care about miscues, tabloid chatter and bad behavior. You know who I wish had a better shot here? Kathy Bates. Now, there's a babe!

MARK: Judi Dench??? Oh, I forgot about the hot tub scene in "Shakespeare in Love." But you're right in noting the academy's tendency to honor up-and-coming hotties in this category; you also could've mentioned Jennifer Connelly and Angelina Jolie. But the academy doesn't need to confer stardom on Zeta-Jones; she's already flaunting the lavish lifestyle. And Streep is at an age when great roles are tough to come by, so I don't think that next nomination can be taken for granted. Of course, people may very well prefer CZJ's razzle-dazzle to Meryl's pollen-sniffing, gun-toting author, but I still say there'll be more movie biz types who want to honor Streep's great, durable career than want to give Zeta-Jones something else to blab about on her cell phone between selling family celebration pictures to magazines.

MIKE: Re. Dench: I was referring to her great nude Titania in Peter Hall's 1968 "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Anyway, I'd buy your reasoning except for two things. One: Streep will get cast in good roles in good movies for the rest of her life. Maybe she won't be considered for the "Road Trips" and "Daredevils" or the rest of what studio execs think should be major product. But people will be lining around the block to give her prize parts until she keels over -- on the theory that she'll get an Oscar or Oscar nomination and make them look good.

As for Zeta-Jones, I think you may be overestimating the effect her follies or current privileged status may have on Hollywoodites. Do you think they care? In 10 years in L.A., I heard bad stories about almost everybody. (Well, maybe not Dench. She was too far away.) I don't think people vote on lifestyles -- unless it's an extreme case, like Roman Polanski. And I think Zeta-Jones knocked them out in "Chicago."

Best actress

MIKE: This one's interesting. Nicole Kidman, as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," is a heavy favorite for a lot of reasons. She's a beauty who turned herself into a wallflower for her art, she missed out last year for "Moulin Rouge!" and she has that tremendous depot scene with Stephen Dillane. Furthermore, she still has all the sympathy that was going for her last year after her tabloid troubles. She's the legitimate favorite.

Who else? We can probably forget about Julianne Moore for "Far From Heaven" (which critics appreciated more than the academy) and Salma Hayek (even though she's another beauty who dressed down to play a legend). Renee Zellweger has a shot, though most of the acting votes for "Chicago" will probably go to Zeta-Jones. If there's going to be a big upset anywhere, it may be Diane Lane in this category -- because she's pretty unforgettable in "Unfaithful," really vulnerable and torrid.

Back to Kidman. If she wins, and she probably will, it's because she's built up so much credit. If she loses, it may be because voters decided her role was really a large supporting gig. But that's not likely. Kidman is still a golden girl awaiting coronation here.

MARK: Someone I talked to this week was wondering whether Kidman is this year's Sissy Spacek ("In the Bedroom"), a presumed front-runner with a supporting actress' amount of screen time who is ripe to be upset. Kidman, after all, worked just three weeks on "The Hours," and next year she'll be seen in Anthony Minghella's Oscar-bait movie "Cold Mountain" as well as Lars Von Trier's "Dogville" and Robert Benton's "The Human Stain," so the academy will have another chance to anoint her.

But I don't see a Halle Berry in the field. At first I thought Lane had a chance, but now I'd put her in the happy-to-be-invited category because that movie seems forgotten. I think the widely respected Moore has the best shot at an upset, but her double nomination could wind up splitting her support. So the Year of Nicole it is -- and she is the heart of "The Hours," disappearing into her role in ways that go beyond that fake schnoz.

MIKE: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? I think Diane Lane may be closer to an upset than anyone realizes. But let's wrap it up for that tall, brainy Aussie with those wicked eyes and that boundless talent -- and prepare to get egg on our faces if Diane or Julianne break through. We won't be alone.

MARK: Nicole wins -- and if she doesn't, I guarantee you we'll be writing those same two words next year.

Best actor

MARK: Let's start with a quick process of elimination. Nicolas Cage ("Adaptation"): No. Michael Caine ("The Quiet American"): No. The wild card here is Adrien Brody ("The Pianist"), the only nominee of the bunch who hasn't previously won an Oscar. He lost lots of weight for the role -- the academy likes actors who suffer for their craft -- and voters could pick him as their way of recognizing "The Pianist" without directly rewarding a convicted statutory rapist (i.e. director Polanski). Plus, you know, he's quite good, though in a low-key way.

The academy tends to respond to showier performances, and Daniel Day-Lewis acts like his loins are on fire in "Gangs of New York." Then there's Jack (is a last name even necessary?) convincing us he's an old man and not an overgrown bad boy in "About Schmidt." The common assumption is one of those last two will win. I'm on the fence. How 'bout you?

MIKE: I'm on the fence, too, but leaning toward Jack -- because the Scorsese award and technical stuff may be all the voters want to give to "Gangs of New York." And remember one thing about Jack: how much people in Hollywood love this guy. He's like Bill Clinton, their favorite bad boy, their fantasy pal. Warren Schmidt is a well-written part and "About Schmidt" a very good movie, and Jack carries us on a real emotional ride, affecting, funny and disturbing, without ever using most of his old tricks and temper tantrums. Day-Lewis is more explosive and stunning as Bill the Butcher. But that's a part that could be seen as a big supporting role (in that category, he would have been unbeatable, even against Cooper), while Jack carries "Schmidt."

Now, the spoiler. If Brody is a wild card, he's a very strong one. Think of his great part: Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish musician on the run, the bourgeois artist who is reduced to a shivering fugitive, witness to the Holocaust. It's a more difficult role, and more impressive in some ways than his competition. Brody, I bet, has a huge sympathy factor going for him; he could be stronger than anyone realizes right now. Yet sadly, even if I love "The Pianist," I'm not picking it for any major categories -- though it could shock us all and win three (film, director and actor). I'm with Jack for the moment. What do you think?

MARK: Jack is a beloved American icon. Daniel Day-Lewis is an odd Brit who badmouths his profession. Jack has one name. Daniel Day-Lewis has three. Yet you and I supposedly are in competition here, so if you're going with Jack, I'll reluctantly align myself with Mr. Day-Lewis and console myself that his "Gangs" bluster is just the kind of performance that wins Oscars. And then we can both smile sheepishly when Adrien Brody accepts the award.

MIKE: I said I was leaning toward Jack. Actually, Day-Lewis has the momentum right now, and there's always Jack's three previous Oscars to consider. There's also one clear parallel with an older contest here: 1991, when Anthony Hopkins won for "Silence of the Lambs" by giving what was essentially a smaller but blow-away killer-villain performance in a year when almost everyone had consigned the award to Nick Nolte for "The Prince of Tides." Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher could be this year's Hannibal Lecter, and the voters could wait to give Jack his fourth later. As for Adrien Brody -- who may be the really smart pick -- I've actually heard that Jack is voting for him. I think it's pretty damned close. But as you say, this is a competition. Go, Jack.

Best director

MARK: This is the race that annoys me the most. "Chicago" is being talked up as the heavy best-picture favorite, yet almost no one gives its director, first-timer Rob Marshall, much of a shot. Why? Because Martin Scorsese didn't win when nominated for "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" (or "The Last Temptation of Christ" and he wasn't even nominated for "Taxi Driver"), so it's his turn to receive the Al Pacino/"Scent of a Woman" Makeup Oscar -- even though the widespread feeling is "Gangs of New York" has zero chance to win best picture and is a subpar work for him. (I know you liked it a lot more than I did.)

If "The Pianist" gets its due, Roman Polanski could have a shot, but he's a statutory rapist fugitive, so an Oscar to him would send the wrong message. Can't these films be judged on their merits? Doesn't the best directing job almost always result in the best movie? And if the voters really think "Chicago" is so great, shouldn't Marshall be the front-runner? (I thought it felt stage-bound, but no matter . . . )

MIKE: Poor Marty Scorsese! He gets short-changed for years at the Oscars because voters thought "Taxi Driver" was too perverse, "Raging Bull" too foul-mouthed and arty, "The Last Temptation of Christ" too controversial and "GoodFellas" too violent -- and now, when he's got his best shot politically, people complain that he shouldn't get a makeup Oscar and that, anyway, "Gangs of New York" isn't as good as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Temptation" or "GoodFellas"! Can't we cut this guy a break? He's the best we have. We should be glad that he's a heavy Oscar favorite -- and, if he gets beat for "Gangs," which is a possibility, then people will complain that the next movie that gets him a nomination isn't as good as "Gangs of New York." Some filmmakers are just too on the edge for an easy Oscar. Like Hitchcock, Cassavetes or Kubrick. Or Scorsese.

Anyway, he's the top dog and Roman Polanski, fugitive and all, is probably the runner-up, with Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") coming in third. Polanski, by the way, would get my personal vote, much as I love Scorsese. But if the complaints about this being a makeup Oscar and the no-Oscars-for-bad-guys factors both kick in, Daldry may get it. And the fact that Marshall doesn't seem to be as well-regarded as his own movie says something about the movie.

Finally, there's a long, honorable tradition of makeup Oscars: Bette Davis for "Dangerous," Katharine Hepburn for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," John Wayne for "True Grit" and -- the one everyone always mentions -- Al Pacino for "Scent of a Woman." You know something: Al deserved the Oscar that year ('92) -- except he deserved it for "Glengarry Glen Ross." In the end, there's nothing wrong with trying to right a longtime injustice. (Consider the alternative: letting the injustice stand forever.) As for Marty, let's be happy the academy may honor a moviemaker who's a real artist -- even if a lot of voters may feel just the way you do.

MARK: I think the fallacy is that Martin Scorsese needs to be validated by an Oscar. Like Hitchcock and Kubrick, his movies won't be remembered any less fondly because he wasn't awarded a little golden guy at a televised industry party. Is his legacy really enhanced if he wins a charity Oscar at the expense of someone else's superior work? Fortunately for him, I don't see a young Scorsese in this group of nominees, so I can't get too indignant if he wins. And I think he will.

P.S. You're right about Pacino; he was much better in "Glengarry Glen Ross." But John Wayne in "True Grit" shouldn't have beaten Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy."

MIKE: A good comparison. But I'm glad they both got Oscars -- Hoffman got two -- and that Wayne wasn't shut out like Chaplin, Grant, Deborah Kerr and Peter Sellers. Being validated by an Oscar may be a fallacy in the long view of movie history -- I'd agree with you on that -- but it's obviously what Scorsese wants. And who can blame him? Even so, we're not really talking about Scorsese's legacy here, or his feelings. We're talking about the validity of a competitive directorial award that's gone to Norman Taurog, Frank Lloyd, John G. Avildsen, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner, but not to Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Cassavetes, Lubitsch, Lang, Griffith, Chaplin, Hawks, Altman, Renoir and the guy we both think is one of the modern greats, Scorsese. Every one of those other directors was beaten, sometimes again and again, in competition -- mostly because they didn't make the right type of movie for an Oscar profile. And though some of them got career Oscars later (as Scorsese will if he fails again), it probably rankled them too.

Best picture

MIKE: Picking the best movie winner this year sets up a real heart-vs.-head conflict for me. "Chicago," supposedly the runaway favorite, is a movie that just doesn't mean much to me. I like its razzmatazz and the dark tinge to the comedy; the actors were all pretty good in unexpected ways -- and, of course, it's a terrific show to begin with. But after the lights went up, I still wished Bob Fosse had directed it instead of Rob Marshall. On the other hand, "The Pianist" is a movie I really love: I've never seen a better Holocaust movie drama ("Schindler's List" included) and it's, no question, the capstone of Roman Polanski's career. Unfortunately, that's the problem: Polanski, his past and those warrants in L.A.

The only other picture with a shot is "The Hours" -- a classy women's movie that may not have enough extra English on the ball to win here. As for the other two, "Gangs of New York" is just not liked by many people, and the voters will probably wait to give "Lord of the Rings" and Peter Jackson their due next year. So we're back to "Chicago," the bigger moneymaker of the top two, one really enjoyed by a much bigger public, a musical that will help revive the whole genre -- and a movie, I've heard, really loved by older academy voters.

But here's the catch: "Chicago" has everything going for it, but -- even forgetting the way Holocaust films have always dominated the documentary awards -- Oscars were invented to give to movies such as "The Pianist."

I talked to two Hollywood insiders recently -- a major studio head and an Oscar-winning director -- and they both picked "The Pianist." But you can't go with your heart on this stuff. You'd go broke. What do you think?

MARK: I think you and your sources are right in that what initially was perceived to be a "Chicago"-vs.-"The Hours" battle has become a "Chicago"-vs.-"The Pianist" showdown. "The Pianist" just seems to be the serious movie of choice now, and, for good or bad, it's certainly in the headlines, with Polanski's rape victim making the rounds offering her forgiveness (score one for "The Pianist") as well as sordid rape details (subtract that point and then some).

All that said, I still don't think it's much of a contest. "Chicago" has broad support, hence those 13 nominations and box-office grosses approaching $100 million.

The academy has shown its appreciation of Holocaust-themed films, but "The Pianist" may be too small (commercially, at least) and may carry too much baggage. I'd vote for "The Pianist" over "Chicago," but "Chicago" allows people to be both cheerful and cynical without making them think much, and that mixture seems to fit the country's mood. My pick: "Chicago."

MIKE: My pick too -- though I was hoping you'd talk up "The Pianist." In this case, I think the academy may be letting extraneous factors dominate the discussion.

It doesn't (or shouldn't) matter whether Polanski has a bad side or whether giving the top prize to someone wanted for statutory rape and flight would make the town look bad. If the movie were directed by almost anybody else, I suspect it might be a shoo-in. (A hint: One of my L.A. contacts swears a secret deal is in the works right now to settle his legal problems and bring him back. That's been denied officially, but we'll see.)

However, though I'm not keen on "Chicago," I think it's popular among movie people for more than the cheery cynicism of the moment. I think academy voters really admire the way it works, the sheer professional sheen and electricity. I think they dig the music, the cutting and the color -- and the high-stepping socko panache of a number like "Cell Block Tango." To many of them, it marks the possible return of something they love: show biz. Anyway, "Chicago" it is.

MARK: Yes, "Chicago" appeals for all of those reasons you articulated, and we can't underestimate the entertainment folks' desire to celebrate the official comeback of the musical. I don't even think Polanski is the deciding factor; people admire "The Pianist" and enjoy "Chicago" -- and enjoyment is the more desired commodity right now.

MIKE: Mark, face it, it always is.

Oscar predictions:

Michael Wilmington:

  • Best picture: "Chicago"
  • Best director: Martin Scorsese
  • Best actress: Nicole Kidman
  • Best actor: Jack Nicholson
  • Best supporting actor: Chris Cooper
  • Best supporting actress: Catherine Zeta-JonesMark Caro:
  • Best picture: "Chicago"
  • Best director: Martin Scorsese
  • Best actress: Nicole Kidman
  • Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis
  • Best supporting actor: Chris Cooper
  • Best supporting actress: Meryl Streep
    It's Oscar season again as moviegoers and movie critics try to predict who will win during the March 23 Academy Awards telecast. Our top movie experts, Michael Wilmington and Mark Caro, argue their choices today.Now, it's your turn.Pick one of the six categories Caro and Wilmington are debating and in 300 words or less, write us why they're wrong and you're right.Send your e-mails to ctc-arts@tribune.com and make sure to put Oscar Picks in the subject field and include your daytime telephone number. On Oscar Sunday we'll publish our favorite responses in each category. All e-mails must be received no later than noon on Monday, March 10.
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