How to be an Oscar expert

That old cliché that says "everybody's a critic" gets a new twist every awards season. And this year will be no exception. Faster than you can say "Everybody's an Oscars expert," predictions will start coming in from all quarters, long before nominations are announced.

What's always forgotten, of course, is that most so-called experts turn out to be dead wrong, or that they usually wind up with at least as many misses as hits on their scorecard.

But becoming a bona-fide Oscarologist is easier than it looks. All that's required is a firm grasp of 18 key forecasting rules, all of which are clear, simple and peculiar to that very odd Hollywood awards game. The trick? Knowing which of the rules to apply this year.

1. Best picture = big picture. True. Think epic ("Titanic"), think laden with costumes ("The Last Emperor"), think butt-numbingly long (the longest nominated film wins about half of the time).

2. Best picture = $100 million. Only one champ in the past six years did not reach that sum at the U.S. box office as of Oscar night — the one, ironically, with "million dollar" in its title: "Million Dollar Baby."

3. Best picture winners have the most nominations. Usually. That's been the case 17 times in the past 20 years.

4. Know the name behind the film. There's often one person strongly identified with a best picture nominee, usually a director (Ron Howard, "A Beautiful Mind"), sometimes a star (Russell Crowe, "Gladiator") or even a producer (Harvey Weinstein, insert 17 Miramax films here). Name brands carry a lot of weight in this town.

5. If that person is a studly actor who just took up directing, his movie's automatically nominated — and often wins. Consider Mel Gibson ("Braveheart"), Kevin Costner ("Dances With Wolves"), Robert Redford ("Ordinary People"), etc. Actors comprise the largest voting bloc within the academy (1,500 out of 5,800), and they all really want to direct.

6. Best picture victor often takes a top acting trophy. Such was the case with "American Beauty" (Kevin Spacey) and "Shakespeare in Love" (Gwyneth Paltrow). But there were times when the truism didn't hold ("Chicago" and "Titanic").

7. Voters have no sense of humor. Choosing winners is serious business, and comedies rarely get the last laugh. "Shakespeare in Love," "Annie Hall" and "The Apartment" are among the few humorous best picture champs in Oscars history, and Lee Marvin ("Cat Ballou") and Richard Dreyfus ("The Goodbye Girl") are two of the few funny guys to triumph.

8. Film critics' awards affect the Oscars. Actually, the Los Angeles and New York critics' awards, bestowed in early December, have a lousy track record as predictors. But they often introduce contenders that might otherwise be overlooked. Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") and Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock") probably owe their Oscars to the critics. But academy voters don't just rubber-stamp their picks. It didn't matter that both groups named Sissy Spacek best actress in 2001; she lost the Academy Award to Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"). Both critics' groups voted "Sideways" best picture last year, lifting it into the Oscars contest.

9. The Golden Globes predict the Oscars. In recent decades, two-thirds of Oscar's best actors and actresses and nearly three-quarters of the best picture champs won Globes just weeks earlier. But remember, this rule isn't as cut-and-dried as it sounds: The Globes have two sets of best picture awards — for drama and comedy/musical.

10. Guild awards are the best predictors. That's because they are, like the Oscars, peer-group prizes and they have many of the same voters. You can foresee about three-quarters of the Oscars winners among recipients of kudos from the directors', writers', producers' and screen actors' guilds.

11. Keep it real. Academy members may earn millions by putting fantasy on-screen, but when it comes to the Oscars, they like contenders based on real people and events. Last year, four of the five best actor nominees were reality-based (Jamie Foxx won for playing Ray Charles). Same goes for three of the five best picture nominees (four, if you count winner "Million Dollar Baby," which was based on fiction inspired by the real experiences of fight manager Jerry Boyd).

12. Hug a hooker. Not only is prostitution the world's oldest profession, it's one of the oldest tricks for bagging a best actress trophy. This rule dates back to Helen Hayes in "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1932). Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor and Charlize Theron are among the many performers rewarded by Oscar for playing it fast and loose.

13. Embrace the handicapped. Especially if they're guys. Think Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks and many others.

14. Drink up. Booze plays a lead role in rehab-happy Hollywood: sometimes villainous ("The Lost Weekend," "Affliction"), sometimes glamorous ("Sideways," "Lost in Translation"), but almost always worth a vote.

15. Bet on the babes; give the heartthrobs the heave-ho. Legend has it that voters are geezers who lust after babes (Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman), don't mind wrinkles on guys (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins) and punish heartthrobs (Tom Cruise still hasn't won). There are rare exceptions, if Jamie Foxx and Adrien Brody count as beefcake.

16. Win ugly. Some of Hollywood's most lovely leading ladies have been awarded for knowing they must temporarily forfeit their beauty and play against type. Just ask Charlize Theron or Hilary Swank.

17. Play favorites. Voters certainly do. They cheered on Julia Roberts to expose corporate corruption in "Erin Brockovich." They even rooted for Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Chicago") and Russell Crowe ("Gladiator") to get away with murder.

18. Best picture nominees are usually released at year's end. This assumes that most voters are old and have short memories. Perhaps that's true, come to think of it. Recent champs "Chicago" and "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" debuted in December. Heck, "Million Dollar Baby" wasn't in wide release until Jan. 28 of the year it won — three days after nominations were announced and 12 days after "The Aviator" won best drama at the Golden Globes. Sure, there are exceptions: "American Beauty" (September), "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" (May), "Annie Hall" (April), "Silence of the Lambs" (February), but they're increasingly rare.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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