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Simon says News' movie expert shares his picks for the Academy Awards

A moment, just a moment. That's all it usually takes. That's certainly all it took this time. But, more than any other, this moment is likely to determine what happens at next Sunday's Oscarthon, which begins at 8 p.m. on Channel 7.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were introducing their film "Brokeback Mountain" for the best ensemble award at last month's Screen Actor's Guild awards, one of the maze of little satellite prizes that have now sprung up around the Oscars, the blazing sun of all TV award shows.

The boys smirked, giggled, rolled their eyes and deliberately stumbled their way through the intro to convey to one and all their innate superiority over the corny, self-serious prose of the poor, keyboard-pounding shlemiel who had tried to explain, in very few words, "Brokeback Mountain's" unexpectedly wide appeal and historic impact.

It was the kind of obnoxious, twerpy actorly behavior that could even give obnoxious twerps pause.

You suspected right then and there that:

1. They could each kiss their Oscars goodbye. For every actor who might be charmed by the old-school Brando/James Dean bad boys act, there were probably 30 who were disgusted that the stars of a groundbreaking movie weren't even graceful enough professionals to get through 20 seconds of clumsy prose. The audience for their jerkiness couldn't have been worse. Actors are the largest single voting bloc in the Motion Picture Academy.

And too, the better actors know that without writers -- even bad ones -- they'd have no jobs. You publicly humiliate writers at your peril.

2. They virtually made Ang Lee a shoo-in for a best director Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain." If Lee's Director's Guild Award didn't indicate that already, his two stars in their televised gracelessness (or, to be accurate, a profoundly graceless Ledger and Gyllenhaal as supporter and enabler) revealed to the show business world just how lost and clueless they could be without a great director telling them how to act.

3. They transformed the best picture Oscar race from a "Brokeback" cakewalk into a tiny bit of a horse race. It is now dimly -- very dimly -- possible that Paul Haggis' "Crash" could come from very far behind as the dark horse winner for best picture, all thanks to a couple of "Brokeback" actors showing the world just how insufferable actors at their worst can be.

Not since Burt Reynolds took every public opportunity to diss Paul Thomas Anderson -- the benefactor responsible in "Boogie Nights" for the only Oscar nomination Reynolds will ever have -- has public gracelessness so emphatically seemed to take actors out of the running.

Since everything is possible in this, the best of all possible worlds, Gyllenhaal -- even Ledger -- could still pull a rabbit out of a duncecap and win an Oscar next Sunday. If so, it will be a miracle in spite of a lapse in award-season deportment for the record books. If so, it will be a tribute to the monumental strength of "Brokeback Mountain" and all that it has come to signify in changing American attitudes.

Never before -- not even with "Midnight Cowboy" -- has there been an American film about gay experience that hit the emotions and changed the views of so many straights. So large has the phenomenon been that the film has engendered no small gay backlash, as it became generally obvious that it was heterosexuals, not gays, who probably made the greatest strides anywhere in sexual tolerance. (It's analogous to films about the black experience that always center around heroically tolerant white people.)

Next Sunday's Oscars are fascinating. They may turn into something of a ratings fiasco (that will happen when big populist successes at movie houses are so emphatically and systematically shut out of nominations) but the ceremonies are aboil with unfolding tales and injustices. In a year of rather terrible Oscar nominations, this year's ceremonies come complete with a lot of freelance discontent. They even come with a host -- Jon Stewart -- smart enough to know that if you're going to be embarrassed about the gig (as Chris Rock so foolishly was last year), you probably shouldn't take it in the first place.

This annual Oscar Tip Sheet is now in its 33rd straight year of fun and frolic. The increased attention to the Oscars and the cluster of preceding satellite prizes have made Oscar prognostication a lot easier. Even so, I still expect my batting average to stay in the usual .500-.750 range (even though it's been much higher the last two years.)

>And the Oscar will go to...

BEST PICTURE -- The nominations were a minor travesty. Few, if any, would quibble about "Brokeback Mountain" or "Crash" or even "Good Night, and Good Luck," but the inclusion of Bennett Miller's "Capote" and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" in the field instead of Woody Allen's "Match Point," David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," Peter Jackson's "King Kong," Fernando Mereilles' "The Constant Gardener" or even Terrence Malick's "The New World" and Spielberg's own "War of the Worlds" is, at best, dubious, if not honking, 300-hp ridiculous. There are even those muttering under their breath about the exclusion of James Mangold's "Walk the Line" and Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," though I'm not one of them.

The 2005 Oscar nominations were, in fact, perfect specimens of why true movie fans never take Oscars seriously except as exemplars of coastal industrial sentiment. You'd have more chances of hearing eternal truths from your friendly neighborhood lunchroom gossips.

Even so, it's been obvious since Day One that 2005 is a two-film race for best picture: "Brokeback Mountain" vs. "Crash." If it weren't for "Brokeback's" stars treating their fellow actors to an audition to be in the cast of "Veronica Mars," no one would even call it a contest.

Thanks to them, though, things in this category have suddenly turned interesting. While the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a "Brokeback" rout, "Crash" has an outside shot, especially if enough Angelenos can suddenly get their backs up about the thoroughly rude treatment "Crash" has generally had at the hands of Manhattan's intelligentsia.

Oscar Will Go To: "Brokeback" is still the obvious choice.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Terrence Malick's "The New World."

BEST ACTOR: If Jeff Daniels never again speaks to the members of the Academy nominating committee, I wouldn't blame him. He was that diabolically clever in "The Squid and the Whale" despite the nomination of Terrence Howard in the spot that might have gone to Daniels.

Then again, that's probably what you get for living in Michigan with your wife and kids and not on either coast.

And why not Ralph Fiennes for "The Constant Gardener?" There are those who say Viggo Mortensen belonged here for "A History of Violence" too. Even so, Howard, Joaquin Phoenix and David Straitharn all know they don't have a snowball's chance in hell for "Hustle & Flow," "Walk the Line," and "Good Night, and Good Luck," respectively. For them, the nomination WAS the award.

If "Brokeback" somehow sweeps, giggleboy Ledger could miraculously snatch the Oscar from its rightful owner, Philip Seymour Hoffman for "Capote." Don't bet on it. At the same award show at which Ledger made a fool of himself, Hoffman told his fellow actors that their profession is hard enough, but if its members don't have each other's backs, it's impossible. That's what near-certain Oscar winners say. Giggleboys take note.

Oscar Will Go To: A virtual lock for Hoffman.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Hoffman too. He was astounding as Truman Capote. And he's been terrific for a long time -- and in a lot of tiny roles too.

BEST ACTRESS: Why no nomination for Claire Danes in "Shopgirl?" Or Cameron Diaz for "In Her Shoes?" Surely, there was room here. Few, if any, would object to bumping Charlize Theron for "North Country." (Besides, Theron already has one. She'd be better off getting out of the Oscar business and making movies again.)

This is the kind of category where you nominate Judi Dench and Keira Knightley just for the class supposedly conferred by the accents. This is also the category where everybody will be rooting for Felicity Huffman to win for "Transamerica" even though Reese Witherspoon should be a lock for "Walk the Line."

Oscar Will Go To: A win for Huffman might make for too much gender crisis in one Oscar night. Make it Witherspoon.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Claire Danes. Her performance was lovely, subtle and haunting.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: As always, a great category. And tough to pick. Gyllenhaal's very nomination in it for what was essentially a leading role should have locked it up for him. But then his cast mate needed to show off.

George Clooney asserted himself as a major film force in 2005 and a prize to him here would acknowledge that. Matt Dillon in "Crash" and William Hurt for "A History of Violence" are also thoroughly plausible, credible choices.

Oscar Will Go To: The likelihood here is a huge Paul Giamatti sympathy vote -- not only for being excluded from the nominations last year in "Sideways" but in being in a film whose box office was so soundly destroyed by Russell Crowe's phone-toss. Don't discount Gyllenhaal, though, despite his behavior.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Hurt. You don't often get a chance to see William Hurt have that much fun onscreen. He ought to be encouraged to do it more.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Not much of a category, which means anyone can win. The extreme likelihood, though, is Rachel Weisz, who received the only major nomination for one of the year's best films, "The Constant Gardener." On top of that, she is pregnant with her first child by her partner Darren Aronofsky, one of the genuine whiz kids of current American film ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream.") She seems awfully likely.

Oscar Will Go To: Weisz.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Frances McDormand, just for being Frances McDormand. Though either Weisz or Michelle Williams for "Brokeback" would make me happy.

BEST DIRECTOR: They nominated the wrong "Berg." It should have been David Cronenberg for "A History of Violence," not Spielberg for "Munich" (a gutsy film, to be sure, but one whose very existence is a kind of award to Spielberg for being Spielberg. No one else could have gotten it made.)

Oscar Will Go To: Spielberg, Clooney, Haggis and Bennett Miller have all been prepared for weeks to congratulate Ang Lee for winning. He is, in fact, the least likely loss in the entire night.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Terrence Malick for "The New World."

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Who's going to argue with the Penguins? They were a smash hit. It was a feel good movie that actually made people feel good to be alive.

Oscar Will Go To: Make it "March of the Penguins."

My Personal Oscar: No argument from me.


Oscar Will Go To: Another virtual lock for "Brokeback Mountain," even though Dan Futterman, who wrote "Capote," is well-known as an actor (TV's "Judging Amy.") Larry McMurty -- who used to walk around in a T-shirt that said "Minor Regional Novelist" -- is one of the grand old men in the screenwriter's trade. He and his partner Diana Ossana are unlikely to lose.

My Personal Oscar: In this field, "Brokeback" will do quite nicely.

SCREENPLAY (ORIGINAL): Believe it or not, this is the most interesting category of the entire evening. Everyone in it deserves it -- sort of. Winnowing down isn't hard, though: "Syriana" was too complicated and "The Squid and the Whale" too minor. "Match Point" presents the problem of post-Soon-Yi Woody Allen, not mainstream Hollywood's favorite poster boy.

Oscar Will Go To: Huge sentiment will be behind Clooney for "Good Night, and Good Luck" but this is the Oscar that Paul Haggis and "Crash" actually should win.

My Personal Oscar: Would be a tie between Haggis for "Crash" and Woody Allen for "Match Point."

CINEMATOGRAPHY: An unlikely loss for "Brokeback Mountain" and Rodrigo Prieto, though in this day and age, black and white cinematography as beautiful as Robert Elswit's in "Good Night, and Good Luck" is nothing to sneeze at. Nor was Emmanuel Lubezki's amazing work in Malick's "The New World."

Oscar Will Go To: Make it Prieto.

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Prieto. It was a film that was sumptuous to look at whether it was indoors or out.

ANIMATED FEATURE: A tough one. But the amount of Hollywood good will that will go to "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" should be impossible to beat, even by Tim Burton, however painful it would be to pass up an Oscar for him.

Oscar Will Go To: "Wallace and Gromit."

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Tim Burton, just for being Tim Burton.

EDITING: "The Constant Gardener" was brilliantly shot and edited but probably in a way that will annoy Academy voters. "Crash" may be more up their alley. Don't discount the need to give something -- anything -- to Spielberg's "Munich" either.

Oscar Will Go To: Make it "Crash."

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Claire Simpson for "The Constant Gardener."

ORIGINAL SCORE: Well, OK, "Memoirs of a Geisha" wasn't much of a movie and John Williams already has more Oscars and Hollywood support than any film composer ought to have. Even so, his score managed to enlist Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and surely there ought to be an Oscar just for that.

Oscar Will Go To: "Geisha."

My Personal Oscar: Would go to Ennio Morricone, one of the great living figures in world movies who has never won an Oscar, despite many nominations. So what if he didn't write music for an American film last year?

ART DIRECTION: They've got to give "King Kong" something. Don't they?

VISUAL EFFECTS: Same as above. In this case, though, "Chronicles of Narnia" and "War of the Worlds" aren't exactly minor league competition. Though I'd probably vote for "Kong" too.

ORIGINAL SONG: A truly immortal category in the entire 78-year history of the awards. Yes, one of the nominees is actually a rap called "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow." No one -- I repeat -- no one should ever be asked to announce that with a straight face at any awards ceremony. And don't forget the immortal "In the Deep" from "Crash" and "Travelin' Thru" from "Transamerica."

My Personal Oscar: Would go to "Zip a Dee Doo Dah" from "Song of the South" which is no more absurd than this year's nominees -- or, for that matter, the category's history in the last two decades.


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