Indecision reigns on Oscar circuit

Uncertainty is in the air as the race of all races heats up to the boiling point.

Candidates are not leaving anything to chance, some still running frantically from one public forum to another, trying to reach voters with that personal touch, even as the first big contests of the season are about to take place.

After months of endless campaigning it's do-or-die time. No front-runner has completely broken through. Several private polls indicate the race is the most fluid in years.

Even Oprah has jumped into the race to tout her own pony.

Strategists for the hopefuls are busy putting their spin on events as districts originally thought to be slam-dunks for a couple of key candidates turned into nail-biters that could produce a few unexpected winners.

With ballots in hand, a few voters are now going to determine one of the most important decisions of our time.

No, not the 2008 presidential primaries.

Who the *#*** is gonna win the 80th annual Academy Awards?!

It's hard to remember a season that brought so many unanswered questions, and though that "other" contest may be making big headlines this week, it seems Hollywood is preoccupied by whether or not it should get that designer evening wear ready for the Golden Globes.

Well, Travolta is, at least.

With the looming uncertainty about even which award shows will go on, and in what form, the seemingly endless race that has confounded most so-called experts is still looking for a clue to its ultimate outcome at the Kodak Theatre less than eight weeks from now.

By Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, even the two major party presidential nominees will likely be known, but in this topsy-turvy awards season we'll STILL be wondering which nominee has the nerve to get up on the Kodak stage.

Hopefully, the Critic's Choice awards being handed out Monday night, and the Globes telecast, which NBC promises will go ahead on Jan. 13, will narrow the field and make it easier for prognosticators.

Also, in the next 10 days or so we will have the nominees in from the directors, writers and producers guilds. The industry groups are always good but not perfect Oscar soothsayers.

The awards season certainly isn't always this way.

Last year at this time we knew for sure that Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy were going home with Oscars. In the end, only the "Norbit" guy got tripped up by an Academy wet kiss to a prized veteran star, Alan Arkin.

This year the best actor heat looks like a knock-down-drag-out between Daniel Day Lewis and George Clooney. Best actress is turning into a three-way between veteran Julie Christie, foreigner Marion Cotillard, and teen-with-a-dream, Ellen Page. There are no sure shots in the supporting races either with Cate Blanchett going up against Amy Ryan and Javier Bardem tackling Tom Wilkinson.

Then there are all the dark horses who could truly emerge when votes get split this severely. Plus, late-inning box office returns can help take a picture or performance from the back of the pack and put them front and center just at the crucial moment. Or vice versa.

The breakout hit "Juno" could sail into the best picture race if its numbers remain impressive this weekend.

Certainly the awesome figures posted by "There Will Be Blood" in its limited post-Christmas release will get attention.

Conversely, "Sweeney Todd," a film on the best pic bubble, could be relegated to the tech categories if its downward box office trend continues and initial heat turns chilly.

In several conversations with academy voters, as they were trudging through their piles of DVD screeners over the holidays, absolutely no consensus emerged.

More intriguingly, there seem to be no slam-dunk across-the-board choices that one normally hears.

"I don't get what some of you [media types] are thinking. I couldn't get through 'No Country'," one perturbed voter in the writers' branch told us of the near-unanimous critics groups' best picture choice.

"And 'Juno' looked like a Lifetime movie to me."


But the same voter extolled the virtues of "Lars and the Real Girl," a movie about a disturbed young man's relationship with a blow-up doll that didn't even get an official academy screening.

"Now that's a movie we could relate to," she said, although we didn't want to know exactly how.

This particular voter also had glowing things to say about "Away From Her" (something we have heard from many members who are just now catching up with the May release). The same person still had to see "There Will Be Blood" since the screener she was sent conked out 10 minutes into the film.

She didn't want to bother with "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or "The Kite Runner" because the subtitles were "difficult to read."

"I did enjoy the performances in that British film even though it also had subtitles for some strange reason," she said, referring to "Atonement."

When we pointed out that "Atonement" was not subtitled, she insisted it was on her screener. Or perhaps she just pressed the wrong button on the remote.

This brings up the difficulties studios face in getting their award-worthy films seen by voters in the most desirable conditions.

Sure, the academy constantly promotes the glories of watching movies on the big screen, but even the official screenings at the state-of-the-art Samuel Goldwyn Theater are usually just half full at best, and sometimes much less than that.

More than ever, academy and many above-the-line guild members are relying on screeners in order to see everything, even most things.

"Sweeney Todd's" complete absence from the recent SAG nominations could be partially attributed to the fact that those voters did not receive screeners of the film.

Still, awards-season marketers hope against hope that their movies will be seen in theaters and they arrange for them to be seen as conveniently as possible.

This includes venues in hot vacation spots like Aspen and Maui or even near actual movie locations where a handful of voters might be found actually working.

Some members go to studio-sanctioned guild showings in private screening rooms around town as well. Other members (the rich ones) show studio prints in their own homes in what is known as "the Bel-Air circuit."

Then there are the commercial theaters where academy and guild members seeking to see movies "the way they were meant to be seen" can usually get in by flashing their membership cards.

Studios do this as a convenience even though theater chains are increasingly reluctant to go along with the practice.

Some like the Bridge and Regal theaters will admit the member only (no guest freebie) and often only Monday through Thursday -- no weekends.

It's gotten so complicated dealing with the different theater policies that reading the snipes that begin "Attention AMPAS members" on studio newspaper ads can be a very daunting exercise.

The small print detailing the specifics of the admittance policy ran to 209 words alone on a "The Great Debaters" ad, to cite one example.

Still, just as academy members expect to receive screeners for every movie, when (or if) they go out, they expect to get into theaters for free.

But even as voting has begun to take place, a survey of ads in The Times as late as New Year's Day showed some major contenders not even offering this convenience to any members, AMPAS or otherwise.

These include "Juno," "The Savages," "There Will Be Blood" and "Atonement." But if you wanted to use your card to get into Sony's mega-bomb "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," no problemo.

With academy ballots due back in just nine days, it's definitely The Season to see a movie – no matter how you do it.

The candidates are counting on you to get out the vote.

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