Tomorrow night, more than 4,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will learn from the fellows at Price Waterhouse what they all thought of last year's movies. There will be tears and celebration. Sally Field won't win anything, but that doesn't mean we don't still like her anyway. Irving (Swifty) Lazar will have a party, and Mr. and Mrs. America will do the same, quibbling and kibitzing and guessing with their friends, shoveling home popcorn till their heads feel like dumpsters.
It is Oscar night. Number 58, to be exact.
Excitement is higher this year, mostly because it's simply harder to guess who will walk away with the golden statuettes that screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz once used as doorjambs. Last year, the handicapping was easier. This handicapper won so much money that he became a compulsive gambler, and only the prospect of a TV movie based on his decline, presumably starring Dennis Weaver, returned him from the brink.
So this year, I'm hedging my bets. In the interests of precision, and after consultation with a number of shadowy fellows, all of whom steadfastly deny any involvement in the death of Jimmy Hoffa, I have prepared odds for all the major categories.
The biggest problem with handicapping the Oscars this year is that there is no clear favorite for Best Picture, which generally determines a number of the other categories. The smart money is on "Out of Africa," but it wasn't exactly a crowd pleaser. Reviews were mixed, and it was too long (a problem for the largely elderly academy). On the other hand, it's a highfalutin, big-budget epic that did well at the box office. "The Color Purple" might have been a better bet -- it's noble and socially conscious -- but the controversy surrounding the adaptation of Alice Walker's book, as well as the omission of Steven Spielberg's name from the Best Director nominations, has to hurt its chances.
"Witness" might have had a stronger chance if it had come out later in the year, but the omission of Kelly McGillis from the list of Best Supporting Actress nominees indicates shallow support. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" probably can't win -- it's foreign, and not a studio release.
I'm putting my own money on "Prizzi's Honor." Although it's too much of a black xr comedy, and too New York, it looks like it's going to win a number of the other categories; it would be a little schizophrenic if the movie that won Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress didn't win Best Picture. Then again, stranger things have happened.
My odds: "Out of Africa," 7-5; "The Color Purple," 5-2; "Witness," 4-1; "Prizzi's Honor," 4-1; "Kiss of the Spider Woman," 20-1.
You could mortgage the ranch, or even the split level with 2 1/2 baths, on John Huston as Best Director for "Prizzi's Honor." A five-time Oscar nominee and Hollywood scion (of actor Walter, another Oscar winner), Huston is said to be dying. Just on sentiment, he can't lose. If "Out of Africa" wins Best Picture, Sydney Pollack is a possible long shot.
Akira Kurosawa and Hector Babenco will be hampered by the fact that their films ("Ran" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," respectively) probably haven't been seen by enough people; besides, they're not studio films. Peter Weir ("Witness") is too new to the Academy.
John Huston, 2-5; Sydney Pollack, 2-1; Akira Kurosawa, 15-1; Peter Weir, 15-1; Hector Babenco, 30-1.
Best Actor is close to a tossup. Eight-time nominee Jack Nicholson is a slight favorite -- almost everyone loves Nicholson and his role as Charley Partanna in "Prizzi's Honor," complete with Brooklynese, was different from anything he's done before. On the other hand, Nicholson's won before, and he'll win again. James Garner has been nominated for another James Garner performance, in a slight movie ("Murphy's Romance"), but he may be even more popular in Hollywood than Nicholson. This could be a good time for Hollywood to honor one of its own.
William Hurt's flashy performance as a homosexual esthete in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is exactly the kind of acting that the academy loves, but Hurt is known as an East Coast actor, and isn't known as a hobnobber. One must ask, also, whether the movie's homosexual theme might cut in favor of Hurt (in light of Rock Hudson and the AIDS benefit) or against him (in light of the AIDS scare).
Jack Nicholson, 9-5; William Hurt, 2-1; James Garner, 2-1; Harrison Ford, 12-1; Jon Voight, 15-1.
In the Best Actress category, the smart bet is Geraldine Page, an eight-time nominee who's never won an Oscar. Page is the sentimental favorite, and her style is big and theatrical -- she's the kind of actress who an academy member could watch and say, "That's acting." On the other hand, she, too, is perceived as a stage actress, more New York than Hollywood, and her picture, "The Trip to Bountiful," may not have been seen by enough people.
Facing off against Page is Meryl Streep, the academy's favorite actress since Bette Davis. If Streep and Nicholson win, they'll become only the fourth and fifth actors to win three or more Oscars. (The others? Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn.) Streep's popularity, though, could cut both ways -- there could be a sense, as with Nicholson, that she'll be around to win plenty of awards. If "Out of Africa" wins Best Picture, though, Streep could ride on its coattails.
Similarly, Whoopi Goldberg could win as part of a "Color Purple" sweep. Don't dress for it.
Geraldine Page, 4-5; Meryl Streep, 8-5; Whoopi Goldberg, 5-1; Jessica Lange ("Sweet Dreams"), 20-1; Anne Bancroft ("Agnes of God"), 30-1.
The Supporting Actor category pits skill against sentiment. Klaus Maria Brandauer is a hot actor, and his performance in "Out of Africa" provided the only fun in the movie. The academy likes Brandauer ("Mephisto," his acting tour de force, won Best Foreign-Language Film), and he's been very visible promoting "Out of Africa," representing the film while Streep and Redford stayed home.
The 77-year-old Don Ameche is the sentimental favorite for his role in "Cocoon," but Ameche was never a significant Hollywood figure in the way that, for example, Huston was, and "Cocoon" came out almost a year ago. Bet on William Hickey as a long shot for his hilarious portrait of a doddering Mafia chieftain in "Prizzi's Honor."
Klaus Maria Brandauer, 1-1; Don Ameche, 7-5; William Hickey, 5-1; Eric Roberts ("Runaway Train"), 15-1; Robert Loggia ("Jagged Edge"), 30-1.
In the Supporting Actress category, Anjelica Huston is the odds-on favorite. Her performance in "Prizzi's Honor" was lauded by the critics, and besides, who could resist father-and-daughter Oscars? "Color Purple" partisans will probably split between Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery. As a long shot, bet Meg Tilly, whose name seems to be popping up a lot for her performance in the title role of "Agnes of God."
Anjelica Huston, 4-5; Meg Tilly, 3-1; Oprah Winfrey, 4-1; Margaret Avery, 6-1; Amy Madigan, 50-1.
For Best Original Screenplay, Woody Allen has a good shot for "The Purple Rose of Cairo"; so do William Kelley, Pamela Wallace and Earl W. Wallace as a sort of consolation prize for "Witness." Best Screenplay Adaptation is up for grabs, too, although if you think "Out of Africa" will win Best Picture, then Kurt Luedtke will probably win for adapting the Isak Dinesen memoir.
Best Cinematography will probably go to David Watkin for "Out of Africa" (it was garlanded by the New York and Los Angeles critics), although "Ran" has a chance, and John Seale's work in "Witness" was clearly the best cinematography of the year. Betting the "Out of Africa" ticket, you'd give the nod to composer John Barry for Best Original Score.
The buzz in Hollywood says that "Broken Rainbow" will win Best Documentary Feature. Best Foreign-Language Film will go to Argentina's "The Official Story," hands down.
In doing your own handicapping, keep in mind that, however unpredictable they might be this year, the Oscars tend to follow certain patterns. For example, whatever wins Best Picture tends to have coattails. Those who have been nominated before have a better chance of winning. "Message" pictures are valued more highly than mere entertainment, especially if the message is vaguely left-wing.
Or, as Art Carney said in "The Late Show," "This town never changes -- they just move the names around."