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The Oscar watch Jeff Simon offers a tipsheet for tonight's Academy Awards in a year when anything might happen

You've got to have a strategy.

After all, if you're going to throw a whole evening away watching an Oscarthon, you have to know how to do it, just as you do when you watch a football game. You have to know how far your guys have to go to get a first down and how much more of the game you can watch before you need to take a bathroom and kitchen break.

So here, from one critic -- and lifelong Oscar watcher -- is a tipsheet on How to Watch the 84th Annual Academy Awards:

1) Remember Billy Crystal is a comedian, not a savior. He can't work miracles. He is a proven winner at the helm of any Oscar broadcast, but even at his fastest and cheekiest and funniest, nothing can stop an Oscarthon from doing a Costa Concordia on the rocks, if that's where the show really wants to go.

So have some faith in Billy. But remember a disaster is always possible -- even if it's a disaster with better wisecracks and cheekier music than most. Look at it this way -- really bad dance numbers and dreadful song nominees are God's way of giving you bathroom breaks and time to heat up more pizza rolls.

2) Don't expect people to come out dressed as swans or covered in rump steaks. There will be plenty of sartorial eccentricity to mock at home, but the gifts to wisecracking previously provided by Bjork and Lady Gaga are rarities. Treasure them, but expect ordinary bad taste, not the extraordinary and superhuman variety.

3) Talent, acting or otherwise, matters only in case of a tie. Just because you and all your BFFs think, say, George Clooney should have a Best Actor Oscar locked up for giving the most unusual and vulnerable starring performance in a habitually suave performing life doesn't mean that will be the case.

In the famous old truism usually attributed to the great Martin Mull, "show business is high school -- with money." Just as Stevie the dunce may have been elected president of your senior class over brainy and ambitious Maggie because Maggie's brother Alan lorded his Jaguar over everyone else's Honda in the parking lot, Oscars are always popularity contests and, therefore, always dependent on whether they make awardees look and FEEL good.

4) Never leave the room when someone British is accepting a prize. Even their dullards and technicians have the knack of doing it right. Almost everyone British knows how to carry off noblesse oblige because they secretly believe genuine, awardable excellence to be rude (James Agate: "An Englishmen instinctively admires someone who is mediocre and is modest about it.") Every award they accept, then, is accompanied by secret guilt and a hidden heartfelt apology.

5) Don't expect Oscar prognosticators -- even someone like me, in his 39th year of cut-rate swami-hood -- to secure you a guaranteed cash-back triumph in the office pool. Chance and weirdness always rear their heads before everything's over. That will be especially true this year, when none of the favorites were sweepingly popular.

The way this year's Oscars dope out, for watchers, bettors and office pool participants:

> BEST PICTURE

"The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life," and "War Horse."

My Oscar, five times over, would go to Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." After that, I'd give it to Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," a huge, sentimental epic in the grand style of Oscar movies past.

Neither has a chance. "The Tree of Life" isn't merely radically different from everything else, it's a movie made by a man who is never gratuitously protective of actors, the class of Hollywoodians who are the largest segment of Oscar voters. As for "War Horse," Oscars require active campaigning by winners and backers, and Spielberg, in award season, has usually been nowhere to be found (unlike, say, mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is pulling all the levers he can reach, not to mention all those appearances by actors on talk shows, in magazines, etc. for "The Artist").

Movie love was the hip theme this year, which means it's "The Artist" vs. "Hugo." Almost as big this year was Tate Taylor's "The Help," which had many great things to recommend it -- an immense American subject overdue for major film treatment and a raft of great performances -- without ever quite seeming like the kind of film that people ought to throw Best Picture gold at in the 21st century.

Because Martin Scorsese, at long last, scored his major Oscar bellringer with "The Departed" in 2006, that leaves "The Artist," a very good film, perfect for overrating and covering with gold. It flatters the culturally pretentious streak in America's suburban heart. Because the film is French, it has cachet. Because it's silent and in black and white, it doesn't matter that it's French -- especially with so many familiar and even loved American actors in it (John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Anne Miller, Ed Lauter).

It seems creative enough to make everyone feel great about giving it prizes. Which is why it has already scored big prizes from the producers and directors guilds. Never mind that Mel Brooks' take on it years ago in "Silent Movie" may have been more daring in its time. The blatant movie love exhibited by director Michel Hazanavicius is so pure that his movie is the best bet, by far.

> BEST ACTOR

George Clooney in "The Descendants," Brad Pitt in "Moneyball," Jean Dujardin in "The Artist," Gary Oldman in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and Demian Bechir for "A Better Life."

My choice here wasn't nominated -- Pitt in "The Tree of Life," his best performance on film and one of the most unusual star performances of our time. After that, my choice would be Clooney for being the representative movie star of our era. And too, his negotiation of the gently comic and vulnerable turns in "The Descendants" was so artful, it is exactly the kind of performance that the Oscars ought to reward more often (rather than all those stunts the statues so love).

And now the secret oddity of this year's Oscars: the spoiler for him could be (drum roll please) Rupert Murdoch.

The presence of the embattled and little-loved press lord at the table for "The Descendants" at the Golden Globe awards in January caused no commentary whatsoever during the evening or afterward, either, in the press. And that may tell you everything you need to know about the international movie press.

But he was very conspicuously there and people noticed. Why was he sitting there? Because "The Descendants" is a Fox Searchlight film and, therefore, a part of his huge entertainment holdings. There may even be a possibility that he feels enormous personal affection for the film despite being at political loggerheads with its star on many fronts.

That is not good news for Clooney. It's the "mean bullying brother Alan" factor that might have eliminated your pals Maggie and Sid from contention for senior class president. In addition, Clooney's campaign for the Oscar has bordered for some time now on cockiness and the presumption that he's already won (he was on Entertainment Weekly's cover with friend Viola Davis months ago in a mock regal pose). He felt so free, he made jokes about Michael Fassbender's anatomy in "Shame" at those same Golden Globes.

And Fassbender wasn't even popular enough to be nominated this year over Demian Bichir for the little-seen "A Better Life."

The result of it all? Clooney actually lost the Screen Actors Guild Prize to the star of "The Artist," Jean Dujardin. He may lose again at the Oscars.

My guess is that a sudden lurch of sanity, along with a sudden spasm of Hollywood pride in the whole socially and politically committed Clooney/Pitt generation of American actors will carry the day and Clooney will win.

If anti-Murdoch and anti-cockiness sentiment is big enough, he could still lose to "The Artist," this year's default, innocuous Oscar a la "The Sting," the winner the first year I ever did a pre-Oscar piece.

Be aware that, though the prize once seemed a "gimme" for Clooney, it's not. It's a close race. The best news in the whole category may be the nomination for the exquisite subtlety and reserve of Gary Oldman in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

> BEST ACTRESS

Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady," Michelle Williams for "My Week With Marilyn," Viola Davis for "The Help," Glenn Close for "Albert Nobbs" and Rooney Mara for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

Close should have won this years ago for "Fatal Attraction." Her role playing a man in "Albert Nobbs" is only superficially showy. It's actually that of a repressed, locked-up soul and entirely unawardable in stunt-loving modern Hollywood.

Forget, too, Rooney Mara and, sadly, Michelle Williams, so unexpectedly moving playing Marilyn Monroe. It's between Golden Globe winner Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady" and SAG winner Viola Davis for "The Help."

Golden Globes are given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- foreigners covering Hollywood. SAG awards are given by Screen Actors Guild Members, mostly American. Not only are actors the largest single voting bloc, but it's likely that ONLY the Foreign Press Association would feel affection for an actress playing Margaret Thatcher.

Streep, admittedly, was great in the role.

But the film, to put it mildly, wasn't. Streep has been quoted calling it "Lear for girls," a hilarious and wonderful line, but misleading. Margaret Thatcher is very real and remains one of the least popular leaders of modern times. The film's effort to make her gender triumph and dementia sympathetic was artful evasion, however brilliantly acted.

Not at all evasive in the least was anything about Davis' all-heart performance in the greatest role in "The Help," about a servant class many in Hollywood took for granted until this film came along and advised against it. Davis was magnificent.

The very presence of Streep makes the category tough. But I don't see how Davis can lose.

> BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Octavia Spencer in "The Help," Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids," Berenice Bejo in "The Artist," Jessica Chastain in "The Help," and Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs."

As always, it's a great category stuffed with hugely worthy people. But the winner at award ceremonies thus far -- and a hugely popular one too -- has been Octavia Spencer. There's no reason to think she should lose this, even to someone as shockingly good as Janet McTeer.

The fact that voters will have trouble checking off "The Help" for Best Picture does nothing but help immensely. Its hugely memorable performers veritably scream out for attention somewhere.

> BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christopher Plummer in "Beginners," Nick Nolte in "Warrior," Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn," Jonah Hill in "Moneyball," and Max Von Sydow in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

The feel-good prize of the entire evening and a virtual gimme: Plummer playing the elderly father coming out of the closet as a gay man in "The Beginners." Everything about it screams "Oscar!," especially Plummer's long, long supremely honorable history on stage and in films.

Branagh doesn't even deserve a nomination here playing Laurence Olivier; Hill was more surprising than good, and Von Sydow had the bad luck to play a silent character in the year of "The Artist" (expect many Billy Crystal jokes).

The best thing about the category is that Nolte really did deserve to be in it for "Warriors," not the sort of film award shows generally feel good about noticing at all.

Plummer all the way. As Jack Klugman once quoted an old racetrack friend, "Bet your lungs."

> BEST DIRECTOR

Michael Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants," Martin Scorsese for "Hugo," Terrence Malick for "The Tree of Life" and Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris."

My Oscar, again, would go to Malick, five times over, just for daring. It's more than a little appalling that Woody Allen's innocuous little success "Midnight in Paris" snared a nomination here over Steven Spielberg for either "War Horse" OR "The Adventures of Tintin," but there you have it. Even David Fincher for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" would be a more logical nominee than Allen, but Allen has won more than his share of Oscars for actors and "Paris" was one of his most financially successful films.

And that, as Charlie Sheen might say, is how Hollywood rolls.

Hazanavicius has already won the Directors Guild Award, which makes him the odds-on favorite.

> ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig for "Bridesmaids," J.C. Chandor for "Margin Call," Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris" and Asghar Farhadi for "A Separation."

My Oscar would go to Chandor, but he doesn't stand a chance against Hazanavicius on a night that is going to belong to him (and producer Harvey Weinstein) unless fate kindly intervenes. The unkindest -- but not least likely -- cut of all would be an Oscar to Woody Allen that he doesn't really deserve.

> ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for "The Descendants," John Logan for "Hugo," George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon for "The Ides of March," Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin for "Moneyball," and Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

In any prize where cloudland politics didn't figure, this would be the toughest category of the night. Factor in politics, though, and it should be "The Descendants," Rupert Murdoch notwithstanding.

> CINEMATOGRAPHY

"The Artist," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "Hugo," "The Tree of Life," and "War Horse."

My vote, 10,000 times over, would go to Emmanuel Lubecki for "The Tree of Life." This time, the Academy may hear me. If they don't and they give "The Artist" another award it doesn't deserve, this may turn out to be a really bad Oscar year indeed. In case of a desperate search for an alternative, don't entirely count out Robert Richardson for "Hugo." But even people who hate "The Tree of Life" will easily admit it's amazing to look at.

> EDITING

"The Artist," "The Descendants," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Hugo" and "Moneyball."

There is great Buffalo news here. The nominee for "The Descendants" is Kevin Tent, the brother of Lauren Tent, the education director of the CEPA Gallery and former assistant to the late Buffalo photographer Patricia Layman Bazelon. Tent grew up in Marilla and hitchhiked to Hollywood at the age of 19.

"The Artist" will probably win, but keep a kind thought for Tent. And then some.

> FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

"Bullhead," "Footnote," "In Darkness," "Monsieur Lazhar" and "A Separation."

So much adulation has already gone to "A Separation" from Iran that unless "In Darkness" sneaks in, it would seem to walk away with the category.

> ART DIRECTION

"The Artist," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," and "War Horse."

For anyone who understands just what it is that art directors do, how could "Hugo" lose?

> ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

"A Cat in Paris," "Chico & Rita," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Puss in Boots" and "Rango."

Spielberg was robbed for his direction of "The Adventures of Tintin." Which makes the almost certain winner Gore Verbinski for "Rango," which really was delightful.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

GRAPHIC: JEFF SIMON'S OSCAR PREDICTIONS

Best Picture: Jean Dujardin and Missi Pyle in Michel Hazanavicius's film "The Artist."

Best Actor: George Clooney / "The Descendants"

Best Actress: Viola Davis / "The Help"

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer / "The Help"

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer / "Beginners"

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius / "The Artist"

Original Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius / "The Artist"

Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash / "The Descendants"

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubecki / "The Tree of Life"

Editing: "The Artist"

Foreign Language Film: "A Separation"

Art Direction: "Hugo

Animated Feature Film: "Rango"