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The Oscars foretold

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As the clock counts down to the big day, David Coates breaks out the tarot cards and predicts the winners in the 79th annual Academy Awards.

There is little more that can be said about the Oscars. Whether condemned for its attraction to fairytale endings and heavy-handed social commentary or acknowledged for its place as the original and most recognised awards ceremony in the media, it remains the most powerful agenda-maker in the cinematic arts.

In the last few years alone, Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman and even behind-the-scenesters like screenwriter-director Paul Haggis have all gained mainstream legitimacy on the back of Academy success (not to mention Clint Eastwood's recent renaissance as a master director). We may chalk up Halle Berry's misfortunes as the exception that proves the rule.

Some might argue that any prediction based on logic and personal discernment is a vain exercise. Stuff and nonsense.
Whoever takes away the prizes on that balmy Los Angeles night, many others will leave disappointed. With all this in mind, some might argue that any prediction based on logic and personal discernment is a vain exercise. Stuff and nonsense.

The competition for Best Actress is the strongest it has been since Jodie Foster's 1991 win for Silence of the Lambs, and arguably packs more of a punch than Best Actor. The British contingent of Kate Winslet and Dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren lead a striking group that also includes Penelope Cruz and Meryl Streep. Streep feels like a token American, and is unlikely to take a gong for a largely comic role in The Devil Wears Prada, while Winslet (Little Children) may curse her luck after a performance that in other years might have won.

Out of the remainder, it is anyone's guess. Cruz (Volver) is a recognisable star, and a flawless performer in her first language; the Academy could be tempted to make her the first foreign-language Best Actress. Mirren (The Queen), who has received Supporting Role nominations before, delivered a well-handled and affecting performance and in a typically American vagary, Her Majesty has become a remarkably popular figure stateside. Dench (Notes on a Scandal) continues to show her class as a razor-sharp master craftswoman, playing beautifully against Cate Blanchett in her first pure screen villain role since Lady Macbeth. It could go to any one of these three, and the Academy may be just as torn, but my money is on Dame Judi.

The Best Actor race is just as contested, though with a less striking line-up. First-time nominees Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) take on Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) and the legendary Peter O'Toole (Venus), fresh from his honorary Oscar with a competitive nomination.

DiCaprio would have been better served by a nomination for The Departed and it seems unlikely that he'll win anything. Gosling is similarly one for the future and, even if he takes nothing away this time, he should not find himself short of work in 2007. O'Toole may seem like a long-shot, but bear in mind both Paul Newman and Laurence Olivier won competitive Oscars after taking an honorary gong.

The Academy has shown that it loves a biopic, though, and both Smith and Whitaker look in great shape. Smith was cruelly overlooked for Ali, and although Pursuit was rickety at best, he carried it with a charisma few other actors could match. Whitaker's role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin stunned critics, however, and he may be the only serious threat to Smith. Whitaker takes on an arguably more complex role as a man equally charming and menacing, both fatherly and callous, in comaprison to Smith's straight-up, hardworking American. Both act beautifully, but Whitaker could take it by a hair's breadth.

The Best Director award could go any of four ways. First-time British director Stephen Frears (The Queen) shouldn't realistically hold any hope of winning against Paul Greengrass's stunning United 93, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu's Golden Globe-winning Babel, Martin Scorsese's The Departed, and Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. Scorsese picks up his sixth directorial nomination for his best picture since Goodfellas, but its overbearing score and shockingly uncontrolled turn from Jack Nicholson derails a film of otherwise commendable discipline. Babel shows the calibre critics have come to expect from Inarittu, though it suffers from an insurmountably bleak world view and may tread too much on the toes of last year's winner Crash (and indeed, his previous, perhaps better films Amores Perros and 21 Grams.) Ideally, it would come down to Greengrass and Eastwood, who have both broken incredible ground in the past year; United 93 is a film few directors could have handled in terms of subject matter. Its stubborn refusal to sacrifice realism in favour of militant patriotism and a comfortable resolution deserves recognition. Eastwood's two films this year, Letters and Flags of Our Fathers, reflect an anti-war movement gaining not only legitimacy, but support with a balanced, eloquent and tireless voice. There could easily be two winners in this category, and if it came down to a tiebreaker, Eastwood's previous wins may sway the judges in favour of Greengrass. Tough call.

Of the Best Picture nominees (Babel, The Departed, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Queen and Little Miss Sunshine), most have been previously discussed, save for the surprise entry in the category, the independent dramedy Little Miss Sunshine. It boasts an outstanding ensemble cast earning two Best Supporting nominations - including one for 10-year-old Abigail Breslin - and is an incredibly touching film by Steve Carrell, with a straight-forward charm that rarely strays into cloying sentimentality. But Oscar material? It's questionable, and the folks behind United 93 might feel hard done by.

Judged on quality alone, Letters and The Queen appear to be leading the way, although Babel has the air of a piece that aware of its profundity, which may tempt the Academy. On the other hand, Lord of the Rings showed Oscar's love for the popcorn flick, and the sight of Scorsese taking away Best Director and Best Picture on the same night is far from inconceivable. Perhaps more than any of the other awards, Best Picture is wide open and picking the best out of the nominees is a gamble. For the sake of completeness, I would pick Letters, but, on the night, anything could happen.

And The Winner Is... Oscar's surprising tastes

Rocky (1976)
The plucky Philadelphia underdog fought his way into Academy hearts, knocking out Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Stallone proceeded to rub it in by making terrible sequels.

Forrest Gump (1995)
Tom Hanks's appallingly sentimental war veteran, national sensation and all-round irritating putz impaired Academy judgements to the extent of overlooking The Shawshank Redemption, now accepted as one of the best films of all time.

Crash (2005)
All the hype building up to the ceremony had been pointing towards a resounding victory for Ang Lee's depiction of love and repression in Brokeback Mountain. Paul Haggis's stylish and cold presentation of race relations in Los Angeles took the win instead.

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