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Oscar Quiz: Ugh, Multiple Choice? We Prefer Essay Questions, But...

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Last year was too easy. It was as if our Oscar Buzz Probe could read the names through the sealed envelopes before they were opened: Mirren, Whitaker, Hudson, Arkin, Scorsese and "The Departed." Six for six. Spooky. But even the CIA could have gotten four right.

This year? We found it necessary to recalibrate the Probe, fiddle with the formula, factor in "Clooney Points" and the "Juno Enigma." Lot of lab work. Just look at the Best Supporting Actress multiple choices: Tilda? Ruby? Cate? Tough nuts! It's like the SATs. You might as well not even go to college. But we did our prep. Went glassy-eyed on the blogs, attended the press feedings/screenings and covered more awards shows than ever before. We showed up at the Golden Globes -- and they didn't even have them. And the Screen Actors Guild show, where we learned never ever to call them the Sags.

Here's what the Probe knows.

* * *

BEST ACTOR

Did you know there is now an entire job sector devoted to oscaroprognostication? These are highly trained people who watch movies and guess for a living. How can the Probe compete? The Envelope, a file stuffed with Oscaranalia over at the Los Angeles Times, obsessively tracks the best guesses of 33 Oscar forecasters. While these deep thinkers may not be able to agree on whether to order bubble or still at Osteria Mozza, they are unanimous (33 to 0) in their opinion that Anglo-Irish super-intense Method actor Daniel Day-Lewis will be victorious for his super-intense oilman Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood," a character who confesses, "I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed," and whom the Vanity Fair blogger nicely dubs a "petrosexual."

"I'll tell ya, I don't like Daniel Day-Lewis," said George Clooney at the Oscar luncheon earlier this month. "I don't know if any of you guys have met him, but I caught him stealing." But seriously. "It's a funny thing about comparing art," said Clooney, nominated for the legal thriller "Michael Clayton." "There's someone like Daniel Day-Lewis who screws the whole thing up because he's so good. He raises the bar for everybody in the room every time he works." Etc. Clooney didn't even need to mention Viggo, Johnny and Tommy.

"The race for Best Actor really is over and done with, and anybody who suggests otherwise is guilty of fostering competition for the sake of it," concludes David Kenealy of the Awards Daily blog. "Let us not indulge in fantasy scenarios for the hell of it. The time for such speculation has come and gone."

That fantasy scenario is: Clooney Points. The 5,000-plus voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences worship the guy. Why?

"He's better at the job of being a movie star than I think anybody has ever done it," said Tony Gilroy, the writer-director of "Michael Clayton." "The things that he does and the way that he does them and the effortlessness that seems to go into it -- I mean, he really is the Michael Jordan of movie stars."

Probe pick: DDL regardless.

* * *

BEST ACTRESS

"I'm in love with her. And my wife knows that, she's cool with that," said "Juno" director Jason Reitman about his 21-year-old starlet Ellen Page. Being up for Best Actress this year is "very surreal," said Page, who does teen preggers proud in the center-left comedy and box office hit. "It's very bizarre. Sometimes, it doesn't always feel right when you're being associated with four women, a group of people you have so much respect for and so much admiration for. It just feels, 'Are you sure? You wanna double check that?' "

Checking, checking. No. The pundits say they do not have a reservation for an Ellen Page onstage Sunday night. Would you care to wait?

Cate Blanchett is back in the octagon as the queen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." But queens were last year. Laura Linney is back, too. "To be nominated now the third time, it's a very different time in my life than with the first and second," Linney said at the luncheon. We suspect number four is her charm. "Linney is remarkable in 'The Savages,' " wrote Glenn Kenny in his Premiere blog, "but doesn't quite manage to transcend the horrific wig she's saddled with." Marion Cotillard as the French warbler Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" had the critics swooning, but the breakaway favorite among the professional guessers is Julie Christie for "Away From Her."

On one level, Christie is an improbable choice: Her film generated only $4 million at the box office and is about Alzheimer's disease (and love and loss, of course). But Julie Christie, ahh, Julie Christie. It's been a long affair, since she was Lara in "Dr. Zhivago" in 1965. As Ann Hornaday wrote in her review of "Away From Her" in The Post, "She's the female corollary to what they always said about James Bond (or was it Steve McQueen?): Men want to be with her, women want to be her."

The Probe wants Julie Christie.

* * *

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

The herd says it will be Javier Bardem at the podium for his sociopathic assassin with the Beatle haircut and the pneumatic stun gun in "No Country for Old Men."

We can go there. We know it will not be the coward Casey Affleck for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." He's fresh paint. Plus, he's an Affleck, so there's concern he would take his Oscar and go make "Pearl Harbor II." It won't be Philip Seymour Hoffman's spook in "Charlie Wilson's War." Hoffman doesn't need another Oscar right now (he won in 2006). Ditto Tom Wilkinson (plenty of work). The possible upset here is Hal Holbrook, who is the oldest Academy Award nominee in the history of the world for his turn as a wise geez in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild."

"It's a tremendous thrill, especially at this age of my life," said Holbrook, who is 83. "It's something you maybe dream about a few times as an actor after going through year after year of a career, but you don't really expect it to happen to you."

Year after year after year. That is still worth something in this bitter town.

The Probe loves Grandpa.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Flip a coin? That appears to be what the pundits have done. "A five-horse race if you ask me," wrote Kristopher Tapley at the blog In Contention.

Remove the filly from "Atonement" (13-year-old Saoirse Ronan, a tyke in Oscar years) and you have a four-horse race. Remove Amy Ryan, who plays the bad Beantown mom in "Gone Baby Gone," because as Myles Hughes at Oscar Igloo coldly calculates: "She lacks the star power of most of her fellow nominees, and some may consider it too early for her to win just yet. She's not a name, nor is she really a breakthrough star. Limited screen time and a role that did little to further the overall plot may seal the deal."

Now -- this is starting to hurt -- remove Ruby Dee, the bad gangsta mama in "American Gangster," as too obvious, too sentimental, too righteous, too Holbrookian. Years and years and years (see above). Her main problem: The film was eh.

Here is where it gets tricky. Cate Blanchett, she's double-trouble this year. She was also the best thing about the wildly uneven Bob Dylan homage "I'm Not There." But. But.

Jeffrey Wells on his blog Hollywood Elsewhere postulates that "the thinking is that Academy voters, wanting to give Tony Gilroy's film something but knowing that a Best Picture or Best Director or Best Original Screenplay or Best Supporting Actor win won't happen . . . will throw all their 'Clayton' love to Swinton."

Anne Thompson in Variety concurs: "I'd put Tilda Swinton ahead of the other supporting actresses looking to unseat Blanchett." Why? "Because someone's got to win something for the very popular 'Michael Clayton.' And she's a Brit. The Academy loves classy Brits."

The Probe tilts Tilda.

* * *

BEST DIRECTOR

At the Oscar luncheons, the director of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Julian Schnabel, came out to speak with the press, wearing his purple pajamas and cradling a huge tumbler of what appeared to be Scotch. "It's interesting to be nominated for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay but not Best Picture. I don't know what else you have to do to make a picture," said Schnabel slyly. "But it's all good . . ." Slurp. Slurp.

Regarding Paul Thomas Anderson, director of "Blood," he might struggle to display too much Art for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while Tony Gilroy doesn't display quite enough of it in his more traditional "Clayton." But the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen of "No Country for Old Men" are arty in just the right way.

The Probe raises its glass to the Coens.

* * *

BEST PICTURE

These are the Dark Oscars, dominated by films of violence, pain, betrayal. Bad war. Bad men. Bad pesticides. Back in December, the top pick of the "Gurus o' Gold," a panel of 15 critics representing the most obsessed oscarologists, was the epic "Atonement." How long ago that feels. Now it is "No Country" that appears to be the unstoppable meteorite plummeting to Earth. Except. Beware the Juno Enigma.

This is the theory, anyway, as pitched by Scott Feinberg at the blog And the Winner Is: "I just watched 'No Country' for the fourth time, and some things are still unclear, not least of all the meaning of the ending," he writes. "Most Academy members will watch it once, if at all, and probably feel the same way. I understand and respect the point the movie is trying to make, but I also know the Academy likes its Best Pictures to have clear, definable, and above all satisfying messages, and this one does not."

Meaning, Feinberg continues, if the Motion Picture Academy decides to reject the abject nihilism and unclearness of "No Country," its voters will not defect to the even weirder, darker, unclear -er"Blood," but go all the way to happy town. Home to "Juno." Interesting hypothesis.

The Probe doesn't buy it. It's "No Country for Old Men."

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