The Front Row

The Oscar Cheat Sheet

Anupama Chopra is a film critic and author. She tweets @anupamachopra
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Our best guesses for the Academy awards this year

The Oscars are upon us.  As always, it’s been a season of breathless excitement, controversy and forecasting. This year, of course, the last-minute change in the show’s producer only ramped up the buzz (for those who came in late: originally Brett Ratner was slated to do the job, with Eddie Murphy as host.  But after he made a series of politically incorrect remarks on radio, including “rehearsal is for fags”, Ratner bowed out, followed by Murphy. The dependable Billy Crystal, who has hosted the show eight times already, was roped in, with Brian Grazer as producer).  Here’s all that you need to know about the four main categories before the 84th Academy Awards take place on 26 February.

Best Film

In 2011, the Academy expanded the best picture nominees from five films to anywhere between five and 10 films. This year, nine films made the cut. The expansion of best film nominees was seen as an attempt to include blockbusters such as The Dark Knight, which was famously snubbed in 2008.  But, in fact, only one of the current nominees—The Help—has crossed the $100 million mark at the box office.  Currently, the leading contender for the award is The Artist, a silent, black-and-white film featuring actors who were largely unknown, in the US at least, until now.  None of which is likely to stand in the way of this terrific film. It also helps that the legendary Harvey Weinstein has picked up The Artist. Weinstein is regarded as a Machiavellian Oscar campaigner who, of course, famously beat Saving Private Ryan in 1999 and took home the best film award for Shakespeare in Love

Best Director

Predictions in this category are especially difficult. The frontrunner is French director Michel Hazanavicius, who has already picked up the Directors Guild of America trophy (a key indicator of the Oscar winner).  But Hazanavicius, who was not even a blip on Hollywood’s radar until The Artist, is up against men with formidable reputations. These include two bonafide legends—Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris); one homegrown auteur—Alexander Payne (The Descendents); and one director who has become an institution with an output of only five films in 38 years—Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life).  Of course, Academy members know that even if they win, Allen (who eschews competitions of any kind) and Malick (who eschews public appearances of any kind) will not come to the ceremony, which is always a bit of a downer.

Best Actor

Two superstars—Brad Pitt and George Clooney—face off with one elder statesman (Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), one French actor (Jean Dujardin for The Artist) and one absolute unknown (Demian Bichir for A Better Life). Dujardin is the favoured contender, especially since he picked up the male actor in a lead role award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG, with 120, 000 members, is the largest branch in the 5,515 member Academy). Conventional wisdom also states that men who are matinee idols don’t win this Oscar—think Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and James Dean.

Best Actress

Meryl Streep has won her 17th nomination for The Iron Lady.  That is, of course, a record.  She is also the only actress nominated in five consecutive decades. Which doesn’t mean that her award is a slam-dunk.  Even though her performance was praised, the film was widely panned for being simplistic and politically naïve. Her stiffest competition is Viola Davis for The Help.  Davis picked up the best actress award at SAG, again a key indicator, and her win has historical weight because she would be only the second Black woman ever to win a best actress Oscar—the first was Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball in 2002. The other nominees—Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn, Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs and Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—are widely seen as long shots.