LOS ANGELES

From the pool parties at the Golden Globes to the slushy streets of the Sundance Film Festival, we kept our ears open -- for this thing called Oscar buzz. At intimate studio dinners in L.A. (chicken for a hundred) to the champagne crush at Cannes, we listened for the zzzzz sound. Producers whispered knowingly. And the publicists? The p-girls spun us like spent sheets at an all-night Laundromat.

We dialed a Vegas bookie. We slogged through the blogs. And we even spoke with a dozen real live members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (out of 5,800 eligible to vote). And so now we're prepared to do something crazy . . .

BEST ACTRESS . . . And predict (spoiler alert!) that Helen Mirren is going to win an Academy Award for "The Queen." There. We said it. And guess what? So has everybody else. And yet, does one not secretly pray to the movie gods that when they rip open the envelope tonight on ABC the winner will not be the incredible Mirren (who has won everything) but the edible Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), who will go bat guano at the podium? Oh, a rio of mascara would flow, my friend. But sadly, the oddsmakers say no.

So let's pick a hard one, shall we?

BEST PICTURE This is giving the professional prognos the fits. "Nobody knows what will happen," writes the brainy insider Anne Thompson in her Hollywood Reporter blog Risky Business. "This is the widest open I can remember it in years," says Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, who has been a voting member of the academy for three decades.

Here's our math:

"Babel" is a serious (+3), complicated (-1) ensemble starring Brad Pitt (+1) and Cate Blanchett (+2), who spends most of the film having been shot and needing a pee (-1). The film also features two Best Supporting Actress nominees (+2), the newcomers Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, who are happy for all the attention, but who aren't going to win, for a polyglot (-2) movie about how life is random (-1), violent (+2) and unhappy (-2). Yet "Babel" could be this year's "Crash" with Moroccan goat herders (-1).

Funny, though, that being funny might not help "Little Miss Sunshine," which has a tablespoon of "indie" edge (+1), is beloved by audiences (+3) and stars Alan Arkin as a heroin-happy grandpappy (+2) who dies in what is unfortunately a feel-good comedy (-4). Unfortunate because the last comedy to win Best Picture was "Annie Hall" during the Carter administration, unless you count the period piece "Shakespeare in Love" in 1998 or "Forrest Gump" in 1994, when the debate was: Did you laugh with him or at him?

Speaking of ancient history. "Letters From Iwo Jima" has been embraced by the critics (-2) for its humanity, but no movie entirely in Japanese (-4) or any foreign language (-1) has ever won this category, unless you count "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in 2003, which includes scenes spoken in Elvish. "Letters" was directed by Clint Eastwood (+3), but virtually nobody has seen it (-3). Plus, it's a companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers," which got skunked (-2), except for two nominations for sound mixing and editing, which even a sound editor will tell you is kind of sad.

Again with "The Queen." Good, but TV movie-of-the-week good. On nobody's shortlist.

Finally, if you put a loaded .45 to the head of conventional wisdom, it would whimper "The Departed." It stars that crazy Jack Nicholson (+1) as a mobster (+3) alongside Oscar acting contenders (+2) Mark Wahlberg and Leo DiCaprio (plus a great Alec Baldwin and Matt Damon) in a guy's-guy movie (-1) directed by Martin "Gimme My Damn Oscar" Scorsese (+3).

So, while "The Departed" appears to have a bit more of the go-juice, this year might produce that rare and precious ingredient at the Academy Awards, called suspense, especially if voters split their tickets and give Scorsese Best Director and then turn on him in the Best Picture category, and say what the heck, that Abigail Breslin is cute as a pail of puppies, let's check the box for "Little Miss Sunshine," or wait, these are serious, complicated, random, violent, unhappy times, let's surf the zeitgeist to "Babel" town.

BEST ACTOR An easy one. Let a couple of the contestants put it in their own words. At the annual luncheon for Oscar nominees at the Beverly Hilton, Will Smith suggested that his "Pursuit of Happyness" was inspiring audiences worldwide for its tale of hope, grit and redemption, which may be true, though in this "based on a true story" drama the down-on-his-luck dad becomes a stockbroker -- who makes cold calls. Plus, the movie isn't great. A typical review: "There are worse ways to spend the holiday," wrote L.A. Times critic Kevin Crust. But Smith said that the most amazing thing for him was acting alongside his real-life son, 8-year-old Jaden Smith. "Everything is different for me because he was in that movie with me," the elder Smith said. "I swear I don't need an award."

So, okay, no award. When Ryan Gosling learned that he was nominated for the crack-addicted teacher in "Half Nelson," he told us, "I don't think anyone is more shocked than me." Gosling went on: "When you don't have the money to promote your movie you're left to the critics," who loved him. Which is not enough. The film did $2.7 million.

Backstage after winning at the Golden Globes, Peter O'Toole said that when people ask him what "Venus" is about, he says it is the story of "a dirty old man and a young slut of a woman." There are a lot of Oscar voters who would get into that -- and a lot who won't. They'd like to endorse the 74-year-old O'Toole, who has never won an Academy Award (out of eight nominations). But O'Toole appears to be bridesmaid again this year.

Because the envelope will read "Forest Whitaker," for his volcanic turn as Idi Amin in the "The Last King of Scotland." At the academy luncheon, Whitaker was asked about his Oscar aspirations. "I'm hoping I'll have one of the greatest nights of my life," he said. And if his limo driver doesn't get in an accident on the way to the Kodak Theatre, he will.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESSOn this one, the herd is united. They love the Cinderella story that is Jennifer Hudson, formerly the also-ran of "American Idol" who as Miss Effie White is the beating heart of "Dreamgirls."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTORBefore we go there let's pause and ponder the business of buzz. Where does it come from? Who has the recipe? "I think Oscar buzz is what journalists say to each other at parties," says Jeffrey Wells, proprietor of industry blog Hollywood Elsewhere, one of the better known of the relentlessly mutating, ever-replicating sites currently obsessed with Oscarology.

Damien Bona, author of the weighty tomes "Inside Oscar" and "Inside Oscar 2," concurs. He tracks the gushing hype sluice through its juicy journey. "It starts with the publicists who, even before a movie is released, will start talking up certain movies as Oscar-worthy," Bona says. "The next step is when people in the industry start seeing movies in previews or rushes or rough cuts," Bona continues. "At cocktail parties in New York and L.A., people start spreading the word about certain films." Then come the film festivals, where more movies are screened and more cocktail parties are held. And finally, the pre-Oscar award ceremonies.

And, of course, reporting on all this buzz are the blogs and their mainstream bloglike counterparts -- which, interestingly enough, are all supported by advertisements touting the very movies they are buzzing about. (So this is how you get Tom O'Neil in the Los Angeles Times supplement/blog The Envelope gushing about the buzz -- seriously -- surrounding the dead-on-arrival "Bobby.")

"My main feeling about buzz is, I distrust it," says Bart of Variety. "It's a mix of publicists, bloggers and common idiocy."

Bart continues: "The self-styled gurus on the blogs, so many of them predicted 'Dreamgirls' would win Best Picture. It wasn't even nominated. That was the ultimate proof of the uselessness of the blogosphere."

Some history:

"A year ago people were already talking about it as an Oscar contender," Bona says. "Then at Cannes, they showed 15 minutes of clips, which went over very well. So that solidified its position as maybe the movie to beat."

The buzz was there, but the buzz was wrong.

And so after the Oscar nominations were announced last month, the blogosphere was piping hot with speculation as to why Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" didn't get a spot for Best Picture. Was the academy anti-musical? Was it anti-black (cast)? Was it anti-gay (Condon)? Or maybe it was that "Dreamgirls" is, as Entertainment Weekly saw it, just a B-plus movie.

Which brings us to Eddie Murphy. For the past month, Murphy was every Oscar-picker's pick for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the fictional R&B star James "Thunder" Early. Then their confidence started to ebb. Could Murphy be hurt in his Oscar chase by the relentless TV commercials for "Norbit," in which he dons a faddish fat suit to become a very broad sassy momma -- a commercial role that does not scream Academy Award-winning actor? Etc.

Somewhere Alan Arkin's people are smiling.

BEST DIRECTORStephen Frears for "The Queen" is a no. Ditto Clint Eastwood for "Iwo Jima," who has been honored up to here. Paul Greengrass managed to make a gripping, respectful, moving work in "United 93" but probably not his Oscar (too real). Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, for "Babel," a possible. But everybody says that Martin Scorsese appears headed toward his first Oscar, after striking out five times at bat.

BEST DOCUMENTARYThe former vice president would now like to say a few words about oceanic carbon loading.

Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.