Getting into Oscar shape

This is it, the stretch run, the gallop to the finish line. After months of hype, handicapping and 157 (or so) movie awards shows, the Oscar marathon is finally reaching its end. Can you stand the suspense? Have you made your predictions? Are you mentally and physically fit to endure and fully appreciate the four hours that will be Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast?

That's why we're here. Consider us your personal Oscar trainers. When you're done with our program, you'll be in such great Oscar shape that you could step in for any number of windbag entertainment pundits who will tell everyone how to interpret the 2000 Oscar winners.

You'll know better.

We've broken down the regimen into three days of moviegoing, video renting, history, Oscar party ideas and clues about who will win and why. Feel free to mix and match what you do on which day. But don't shirk your cinematic workouts or you'll pay the price: The Oscar telecast will seem even longer than it really is.

Day One: Friday

First of all, have you seen all of the best-picture nominees?

That's your first duty, because aside from providing the most suspense for the biggest award -- and this year there is suspense -- these movies will keep coming up in other categories: 12 total for "Gladiator," 10 for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," five each for "Traffic," "Erin Brockovich" and "Chocolat."

"Crouching Tiger," "Traffic" and "Chocolat" are still in the theaters. Make a special point to see "Crouching Tiger" on a big screen with digital stereo so you can appreciate its Oscar-nominated cinematography and score. "Erin Brockovich" and "Gladiator" are available on video and DVD. Check out the DVDs' behind-the-scenes featurettes, and you can impress your friends with your knowledge of Steven Soderbergh's editing strategies and the difficulty of creating a computerized ancient Rome.

Also, try to see a wide-screen version of "Gladiator" on as big a TV as you can find. Oscar voters are impressed by the movie's largeness. Shrink "Gladiator" and you might not understand what all the fuss is about. You might not anyway.

If you don't have time to see all five nominees, skip "Chocolat." It won't win.

Next, let's cram on the top acting awards. First, consider this: The best-actor and -actress awards tend to go to well-respected actors who turn in performances that dominate movies that academy members like. Being thought "due" for a win also helps.

So forget Geoffrey Rush. He's showy and respected enough to earn a nomination for "Quills," but he won't win because his movie has alienated as many viewers as it has impressed, and he already won for 1996's "Shine."

For a quintessential Oscar-winning performance, watch Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich." She carries the movie, people like the movie, the movie made a lot of money for Hollywood, she makes a lot of money for Hollywood, and this is her third nomination.

The widely admired Joan Allen also received her third nomination for "The Contender," which just came out on tape and DVD, but as you watch her subtle turn as a troubled vice president nominee, you'll see that it lacks that oversized quality that the academy mistakenly equates with great acting. Laura Linney's performance in "You Can Count on Me" (still in some theaters) is understated as well, but because you're more likely to become emotionally involved with her extremely well-drawn character, she's the strongest challenger to Roberts.

Academy voters also are impressed by performances in which the character suffers from a substance abuse problem or handicap, so if you've seen "Requiem for a Dream" (which has ended its theatrical run here and is not yet out on video) you understand why Ellen Burstyn is in the hunt as a pill popper who goes through hell. (She won't win for similar reasons to Rush.)

On the best-actor side, here are some questions to consider: Will Tom Hanks' feat in almost single-handedly carrying the megahit "Cast Away" be outweighed by the sense that, with two best-actor Oscars already, he's been honored enough? Does Russell Crowe's effective action-star turn in "Gladiator" count as great acting? Are "Before Night Falls" and "Pollock" audience-friendly enough to generate enough votes for the highly praised performances by, respectively, Javier Bardem and third-time nominee Ed Harris?

Day Two: Saturday

Let's fill in some more categories.

Catching up with the best-picture nominees will get you up to speed in the directing category. ("Billy Elliot" director Stephen Daldry has no chance because his film isn't a best-picture nominee.) The same movie usually wins both categories, but this year the picture is muddled by two Soderbergh nominations ("Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic"), lots of support for "Crouching Tiger" director Ang Lee and less enthusiasm for Ridley Scott, who directed the supposedly front-running "Gladiator."

As for the writing nominees not up for best picture, you should see Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" and Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" (winner of the Writers Guild award), which will vie for the original screenplay Oscar, and the Steve Kloves-written "Wonder Boys," and, just for fun, the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in the adapted screenplay category.

Among the foreign-language nominees, you know about "Crouching Tiger." The French entry "The Taste of Others" just ended its run here. Lions Gate plans to open Mexico's "Amores Perros," which won the top prize at last fall's Chicago International Film Festival, on April 13, and the Czech "Divided We Fall" also played the Chicago fest. We don't know much about the Dutch comedy "Everybody Famous!" except that it has no chance.

You probably don't want to hear all of the best-song nominees. A sappy hit ballad, preferably from a Disney cartoon, usually wins, but that "Emperor's New Groove" song doesn't really fill the bill, so seek out Bob Dylan's "Things Can Change" from "Wonder Boys." Academy voters like being able to claim a legend as their own. Good song, too.

Day Three: Sunday

It's the big day, so let's concentrate on how to watch the Oscars.

First, you shouldn't watch alone. You're going to make sarcastic comments, and you'll want someone to hear them. And you'll need someone else's zingers to help boost the night's entertainment quotient. So, make your own Oscar party or attend a friend's. Here's some of what you need:
  • Food. Pizza and chips-and-dips always work, or you can get thematic: Chinese food from a restaurant with "Dragon" in the name, purified water (to avoid those contamination problems of "Erin Brockovich"), some Italian bread (there's not much appetizing that goes with "Gladiator"), homemade hot chocolate with a dash of chili powder in it, and some eggs delivered room-service style a la "Traffic."

  • A buzzer such as you find in games like Taboo. Whoever holds it is responsible for buzzing the fashion atrocities and lame speeches and embarrassing production numbers.

  • Oscar pool ballots. Every Oscar party needs an Oscar contest; otherwise, no one has any reason to pay attention to all the categories, and everyone yammers throughout the show. It's your choice whether to give extra weight to the major categories, but you'll need a way to break ties in any case. Here are some suggested tiebreakers:
    • What time will the show end?
    • How many Oscars will the best-picture winner receive?
    • How many shots of Jack Nicholson will you see?
    • How many movie ads will air during the show?
    • Who will wear the gaudiest outfit?
    • How many references will there be to Wilson the Volleyball?
    • How many winners will thank God?
    • How many winners will thank their agents?
Finally, here are some readymade quips to show off your Oscar expertise as the evening progresses:
  • "You know, `Gladiator' has the most nominations, and the movie with the most nominations has won best picture every year since 1991. Which one didn't? Oh, that would be `Bugsy,' which got gobbled up by `The Silence of the Lambs.' Get it? `Gobbled up'? Har."

  • "Hey, folks, pay close attention to this cinematography award. `Gladiator' and `Crouching Tiger' are in this category, and four of the past five cinematography winners went on to win best picture."

  • "Yes, that speech was long, but not nearly as interminable as Greer Garson's seven-minute soliloquy in 1942."

  • "Tom Hanks could become the first three-time best-actor winner, but, hey, Kate Hepburn won four best-actress Oscars."

  • "Oh, yes, and the last year a director received two best-director nominations was 1938, when Michael Curtiz was up for `Angels with Dirty Faces' and `Four Daughters.' He lost both, to Frank Capra for `You Can't Take It With You.' Poor guy."