Puzzled? Use the Liz guide

Times Staff Writer

Put your wallets away -- I'm not winning you any money this time.

After too many humiliating losses, I gave up the prognostication game long ago in favor of lobbing obscenities at my television while speed-dialing friends about the injustice of it all. Unlike my non-film friends, though, I take the awards seriously because they can change the careers of favorite filmmakers. Bill Condon's screenplay for "Chicago" doesn't do much for me, but it's a good bet that he got the gig because he won an Oscar for 1998's "Gods and Monsters." I hope he doesn't win this year, but I do hope his paycheck for "Chicago" was fat enough for him to spend time on another script that's as much from the heart as his previous winner.

Best picture: So, best movie? Well, "Chicago" certainly seems to have some of the biggest advertisements in town (at least in this town and in New York City), which seems like the surest way to win the gold these days. Because I wanted to approach this somewhat more scientifically, I also checked in with Liz Smith, whose syndicated gossip column serves as an excellent bellwether for flackdom. (A short version of Smith's column runs in the L.A. Times.) Between January and my deadline date of March 14, Smith has mentioned "Gangs of New York" and "The Pianist" six times each, "The Hours" 19 times and "Chicago" a whopping 54 times. Meanwhile, "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" has been mentioned ... once. I'm definitely going with Liz on best picture: "Chicago."

Best actor: The race for best actor is one of the toughest because, as is always the case in this category, the guys have no shortage of juicy roles. Although Liz has mentioned Jack Nicholson seven times since January and the other nominees have received only two mentions apiece, I'm going with Daniel Day-Lewis. Granted, Nicholson does sit in the front row during the ceremony, but "About Schmidt" has been a tough sell from the start, particularly with people whose experience of the Midwest is restricted to the nonstop flight from Los Angeles to New York. The film received just two nominations, both for acting, which shows that actors are either smarter than the directors and screenwriters who passed over "About Schmidt" or less spiteful. So, I'm with Day-Lewis, mostly because I remember how good he looked in buckskin in "The Last of the Mohicans."

Best actress: Best actress? For a while it looked as if Julianne Moore's only serious competition came from Nicole Kidman's approximately 30 minutes in "The Hours." Moore seemed a lock, but Kidman's ubiquity seems too hard to beat, and Renee Zellweger's recent win at the Screen Actors Guild hasn't helped. (Then there's the worrisome fact that the "Far From Heaven" ads have been running a line from my review, which seems like a sure portent of doom.) I am going to have to go with Liz here too. Moore has been nominated in two separate categories, but she's racked up a measly five Liz mentions since January. Zellweger, meanwhile, has earned 12 (Liz dubbed her "this season's hottest star") and Kidman has received 15 ("a goddess of our own time"). The goddess has it: Kidman by a nose.

Best supporting actress and actor: Best supporting actress and actor are tricky because they're an embarrassment of riches, but Catherine Zeta-Jones appears to have as firm a lock on her category as she does on Liz (eight mentions), so she's the right choice. For all sorts of reasons -- namely that they're superb, teeth or no -- the race for supporting actor seems to have come down to Chris Cooper and Christopher Walken. Liz hasn't been much help: Cooper received as many mentions as fellow nominee John C. Reilly (two) and Walken received four. Ed Harris and Paul Newman, however, have received just one mention each. Cooper was an early favorite, but Walken's cool quotient is helped by his marriage to Georgiane Walken, the casting director for "The Sopranos." I have to go with Walken.

Best director: Only in Hollywood could Steven Spielberg (for "Minority Report"), Alexander Payne and Todd Haynes be shut out in favor of the attention-deficit direction of Rob Marshall and Stephen Daldry. Marshall's win at the Directors Guild suggests that the guild's sympathy for Martin Scorsese isn't as expansive as I thought. Then too, once guild members heard that the director had signed up to do yet another movie with "Gangs" producer Harvey Weinstein, perhaps they felt he didn't need their sympathy after all. Roman Polanski deserves to win for "The Pianist," but his rape charge carries more weight -- at least in the media -- than it did when he was nominated for "Tess" in 1981. Marshall has it in the can: Liz mentioned him six times.

As to rest of the categories: I'm not making any promises, but hara-kiri seems the only suitable response to a win by "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for best original screenplay, which is why I have to go with the other worst-written nominee, "Gangs of New York." David Hare seems sure to win the best adapted screenplay award for "The Hours," however, because Angelenos are suckers for British accents and because middlebrow kitsch rarely fails to score with the academy. Plus, it seems implausible that the best-written films in that category, "About a Boy" and "Adaptation," could actually win. It looks as if best foreign language film belongs to "Nowhere in Africa," which has pleased smart critics who say it will please audiences and has the advantage of being a Holocaust movie about survivors.

Last, there's best documentary feature, which is a hard category for me because, well, I've seen only one nominee, "Bowling for Columbine." I have a feeling that academy members found Michael Moore badgering the obviously unhealthy Charlton Heston pretty tacky, and I could have done without the footage of the Columbine massacre and the other atrocity images that give the documentary shock value but little else. Still, I hope Moore wins because he has the kind of big mouth and politics that just might shake up what look to be another evening filled with obscenities, speed-dialing and losing propositions.

Liz has been eerily quiet about the documentary nominees, but I'm taking my chances.

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