Oscar pre-predictions: is a little knowledge a dangerous thing?

Well, Sunday night is Oscar night, and WE’RE INVITED! So that’s pretty cool.

I definitely will be watching the Academy Awards broadcast and expect it to be a load of fun, especially with two honest-to-goodness funny people like James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosting.  (Anything’s better than Ricky Gervais at this point.)  But it’s more to me than just being the first time I’ll spend three straight hours watching TV since the World Series ended.  ‘Cause if you don’t know it, I like predicting the Oscar races.

In the past, I’ve done okay at it — I got 17 out of 24 right last year, 16 out of 24 the year before that, 14 the year before that.  This time I’m hoping to build on previous successes, aiming for 20 but with 18 probably being more realistic.  However, there’s been a change in my prediction preparation this year that might adversely affect my picks, and I’m a little worried about it.

You see … I’ve watched a lot more films this year.

And it’s not just older stuff on Netflix, either, though there’s been a lot of that.  I went to see more movies in the theater than probably at any time in my life since high school.  It was a stressful time (still is, candidly), I needed an inexpensive way to get away for a few hours at a time, and movies are a great way to do that.  Plus, needing something to occupy me while watching Sean during the days, I started reading about films more, and thus getting more interested.

In the process, my old saw about having watched almost none of the eventual Oscar-nominated flicks went by the wayside.  I ended up seeing The King’s Speech.  And True Grit.  And Inception.  And of course (since I have kids) Toy Story 3.  That’s four of the ten Best Picture nominees, which is probably three more than I’ve managed in any of the last 20 years.  That’s in addition to several films farther down the nomination list — Tangled, TRON: Legacy, Iron Man 2.  I’ve even seen Dogtooth, one of the foreign-language feature candidates.  (And incidentally, the most physically and morally repellent movie I’ve ever sat all the way through, bar none.  Avoid it, and thank me later.)

But one of the things I’ve always found to be an advantage in prognosticating was that I hadn’t watched the films!

This may seem a little counter-intuitive — after all, how can you know who most deserves to win Best __________ if you haven’t observed the quality of their work?  But as I’ve discovered over the years is that there’s very little correlation between who deserves to win an Oscar and who actually does.  What I call Rule #1 of Oscar Prediction is this: the nominations are based on merit, the wins are based on politics. You can be pretty sure that, if five guys are nominated for Best Actor, they represent, if tnot the five best jobs at lead acting by a male that year, at least five of the top seven.  But which of those five actually gets to make their little speech and put the trophy on their mantle is based on a host of other factors: their popularity among their peers, the mood in Hollywood that year, the “showiness” of their roles (how abnormal and/or unhinged their characters are), their previous track records (have they been nominated before/how long have they been working in films without a nomination) and whether or not they’ve made any racist comments to the press lately, among other things.  The nomination is an honor; the award is part honor, mostly popularity contest.  And when you’re trying to pick winners, you have to remember that.

Let me give you an example from last year: the Best Actress race, which pretty much came down to Meryl Streep (playing Julia Child in Julie & Julia) vs. Sandra Bullock (playing Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side).  I saw both films in a six-month space, and it’s no contest — Meryl almost became Julia Child, and so lit up the screen that when the film switched from the Julia Child story line to that of Julie Powell (played by a legitimately great actress, Amy Adams), it was almost disappointing.  That’s how good Meryl was (and usually is) at her craft — greatness was disappointing by comparison.

Sandra … she wasn’t terrible.  She was quite good, kept the movie moving along, showed the requisite emotions at the right times.  She was brassy and bold and hecka fun to watch.  But there wasn’t one moment when either I or my wife (who’s a big Bullock fan) thought to ourselves, “that right there is the best female acting performance of the year.”

Who did I pick to win the Oscar for Best Actress last year?  Sandra Bullock.  And that’s who won.  Why?  Several reasons:

  1. Meryl has already won two Oscars, and been nominated 14 (!) other times, while Sandra, despite working steadily in Hollywood for about 20 years, had never even been nominated.
  2. Sandra’s Leigh Anne Tuohy (like the real Leigh Anne Tuohy, or so I’ve heard) was a loud, opinionated, forceful woman who tended to reshape the world around her as she went, whereas Julia’s way of interacting (and thus Meryl’s portrayal of it) was more subtle.
  3. Sandra was 45 at the time, and it’s traditionally hard for actresses not named Meryl Streep to find good roles once they pass 40, so there was a feeling this might be the last chance for Sandra …
  4. … who is very well-liked among her peers, and actually lives in the L.A. area, whereas Meryl lives in New York.
  5. Because Meryl is such an incredible actress, there’s always the feeling that if they really want to give her a third Oscar someday, they’ll have the chance.  (That chance might come as early as next year; she’s starring in The Iron Lady, a biopic of Margaret Thatcher due out in the fall.  Sounds like Oscar bait to me.)
  6. And the other three candidates were a previous winner in a fairly obscure film (Helen Mirren, The Last Station) and two actresses in their early 20s AND in their first lead roles (Gabourey Sidibe, Precious and Carey Mulligan, An Education), where the thinking is that they’ll have other chances.  (Though I’m not sure that’s the case for Gabby  — there aren’t many roles for 300-pound black actresses, sad to say, and it seems like the few there are end up going to Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence …)

So like I said, the wins mostly hinge on stuff besides the particular work on that particular film.  Problem is, the more movies you see, the easier it is to lose track of that and start comparing the actual performances, the actual camera work, the actual editing and music and what have you.  That’s not how the Academy Awards work — maybe it should, but by and large it doesn’t, and only a fool proceeds based on how he thinks the world should operate, rather than how it does operate.  So if you want to make accurate predictions, that way lies disaster.

What it means for me is that this year, I have to watch my biases extra-carefully.  And not just with the movies I’ve seen.  Case in point: THIS year’s Best Actress race, which is coming down to another mano-a-mano between Annette Bening (for The Kids Are All Right) and Natalie Portman (for Black Swan).  Now I’m on the record as having a bit of a crush on Annette (and honestly, can you blame me?), and would love to have her win, hear her gushing acceptance speech, watch her husband Warren Beatty applaud in the audience, and — most of all — soak up the glow from those incredible dimples of hers.  (I’m a sucker for dimples.)  But predictions are not about “what I want” — that’s just wishful thinking.  So when considering whether Annette or Natalie (or Jennifer Lawrence, or Nicole Kidman, or Michelle Williams) is the most likely to win the award, I have to set aside the dimples, the glasses (I have a thing for glasses too) and the memories of her in The American President wearing nothing but Michael Douglas’ tuxedo shirt.  They’re just not pertinent to the issue; I can’t let them distract me.

So who do I think will win?  Well, you’ll have to check back tomorrow.  I plan to drop my Academy Awards picks in three posts on Saturday — one for the ten technical categories (editing, costume, musical score, that sort of thing), one for the six “specialty” categories (like documentary short or animated feature), and one for the high-profile awards for writing, directing, acting and, of course, Best Picture.  Remember, these prognostications are for entertainment purposes only, not for wagering (which means that you can’t blame me for any losses incurred if you make bets based on my choices and I was wrong.  Tough beans and caveat emptor, loser).  Then on Monday or Tuesday, I’ll come back for a recap of the telecast and to pick apart all my screwups.  I don’t promise I’ll be perfect, but I do promise to do the best I can and make it (at the least) an enjoyable read for you.

And I’ll try to keep my biases out of it.

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One Response to Oscar pre-predictions: is a little knowledge a dangerous thing?

  1. […] As promised yesterday, it’s time for my annual Academy Awards predictions.  Again, these are for entertainment purposes only, so please, no wagering.  (And if you do wager and lose, don’t whine at me about it, I warned ya.) […]

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