Underneath the glitter of the Oscars are the sweat and strain of a horse race. Victory goes not necessarily to the swift or the strong, but to the entrant that matches up best against the competition. A competitor's weaknesses can, and often do, matter more than your own strengths. Now for the specifics.
Best picture: Everyone says "Chicago" is going to win, and for once everyone, as judged by the film's strong showing in the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild awards, will probably be right. The heart of this film's appeal is that, very much like "Dances With Wolves" more than a decade ago, it has taken a beloved albeit moribund genre and brought it back to life. The film is also helped by the fact that rivals "The Pianist" and "The Hours" will probably divide the serious picture vote. One of them could still pull an upset, but "Chicago" looks like a lock.
Best director: A race that got trickier after "Chicago's" Rob Marshall took the Directors Guild race. The Oscar voters don't always follow the DGA lead, but the industrywide groundswell of support for "Chicago" will probably carry its leader along with it. Strongest competition is from Martin Scorsese, who finds himself in the odd position of being a sentimental favorite for "Gangs of New York," a film that is anything but. Curiously enough, the 10 nominations that the not universally revered "Gangs" received and Miramax's aggressive campaign for it seem to have galvanized the film's opponents. Scorsese could still squeak through, but it looks less likely.
Best actor: Ordinarily, a good maxim here is "Don't bet against Jack," but once "About Schmidt" couldn't manage a screenplay nomination, the heat behind Nicholson's marvelous performance seemed to dissipate. On the other hand, Daniel Day-Lewis' intense work in "Gangs of New York" seems to be the one thing even the film's detractors grudgingly admire. People might vote for the charismatic cobbler, who famously took a year off to work as a shoemaker, just to eyeball the kind of footwear he walks onstage in.
Best actress: Despite Renee Zellweger's win at the SAG Awards, don't expect her to take home the Oscar. And never mind that the popular Diane Lane gave the performance of her career in "Unfaithful" or that Julianne Moore won tons of critics' awards in "Far From Heaven" or that "Frida's" Salma Hayek will no doubt show up in a killer dress that will look great from the stage. They all have the misfortune of competing against Nicole Kidman in "The Hours." Not only did she give a thrilling performance; consensus is building that this is her moment, her year to take it home.
Best supporting actor: Once again, although cases could be made for other contenders, this comes down to a two-person race. "Adaptation's" Chris Cooper was the early favorite because of the energy and skill of his performance and because it was so different from what he'd done before. But veteran Christopher Walken, SAG winner for his role in "Catch Me if You Can," has been gaining ground. He might get to the finish first, but it still looks as if Cooper, fittingly considering his role as a trainer in the upcoming "Seabiscuit," will take this one by a nose.
Best supporting actress: A race with a lot of entrants who can go the distance. Given her history of multiple nominations and victories, "Adaptation's" Meryl Streep can't be discounted. Similarly, Kathy Bates' uninhibited "About Schmidt" hot-tubber is the kind of eccentric performance that the academy has a history of rewarding. But if you like "Chicago," and clearly many do, you have to love its irreplaceable energy source, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Having co-star Queen Latifah in the same category is going to hurt, but it still looks like a Zeta-Jones victory.
Best documentary: After its best original screenplay victory at the Writers Guild, "Bowling for Columbine" has passed into the genuine phenomenon category, but that doesn't mean it's assured a victory. Because voters here have to go to the trouble of seeing all five films, they sometimes shy away from picking a favorite. Which, in a category where not that many vote, could make room at the top for almost any film. Still, when a film becomes a phenomenon, it's hard not to pick it, and "Bowling" still looks like the film to beat.
Best foreign language film: The nominations here cover an especially wide range, from a Mexican potboiler ("El Crimen del Padre Amaro") to a Chinese epic ("Hero") to a broad comedy from the Netherlands ("Zus & Zo") to an unclassifiable film from Finland ("The Man Without a Past"). However, the winner looks to be the German "Nowhere in Africa." Not only is its subject matter, Jews fleeing Germany in advance of the Holocaust, academy-friendly, it actually is an excellent film in the bargain. Which never hurts.
Best adapted screenplay: While Bill Condon's work on "Chicago" and Charlie Kaufman's on "Adaptation" have solid chances, this looks to be a category in which "The Hours" will prevail, partially because turning Michael Cunningham's book into a film was especially challenging and partially because voting for playwright David Hare fits in with the academy's traditional respect for all things British and prestigious.
Best original screenplay: Truly the race from hell as far as predictors go, with each of the five nominees having as many plausible reasons to lose as to win. The two Spanish-language entrants, "Talk to Her" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," are probably the best written, but they may cancel each other out, and, like "Far From Heaven," they don't appear to have galvanized a significant percentage of the membership. Even partisans of "Gangs of New York" will admit that whatever its strengths are, the film's screenplay isn't one of them.
Which leaves, though I hope I'm wrong on this, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," with a sitcom script that probably could not even get an Emmy nomination, as the likely Oscar winner. Never forget that actors, who make up a majority of the academy voters, like to see other actors branching out.
As Sherlock Holmes, the patron saint of Oscar prognosticators, once observed, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."