Who'll take home an Oscar this weekend?

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

The word is out that this year’s Academy Awards will embrace more populist movies, which means the silent magic of ‘The Artist’ is bound to triumph. But it will have stiff competition in some categories, and we’re hopeful there will be surprises, writes DONALD CLARKE

HAVE YOU BEEN following the US Republican primaries? Every week some new maniac seems to take over the front-runner slot. This libertarian senior is now the challenger. Look, that large man with the colourful sexual history is coming up on the rails.

This year’s Oscar campaign has been in no way like that. A full eight months ago, bleary-eyed pundits wandered into an early-morning screening of some obscure French film at the Cannes film festival. An hour and a half later a few of them tentatively suggested that Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, a gorgeous pastiche of silent cinema, might have enough crossover appeal to triumph at the Oscars. If some satisfactorily aggressive distributor got behind it, the film could fast become a front-runner. When Harvey Weinstein, famous for running ruthless Oscar campaigns, bought The Artist,the odds began to narrow even further.

In truth, Weinstein has, this year, had to hold relatively few voters’ heads down the toilet. Only a handful of projects have mounted a significant challenge to Hazanavicius’s picture. The Help, a sentimental but very likeable story of the civil-rights era, ticks all Oscar’s boxes. It’s about “an issue”. It’s set in the past. It’s soft-centred. But it annoyed as many critics as it delighted.

Alexander Payne’s The Descendantshas a great many fans. But is it anything more than a very classy soap opera? Martin Scorsese’s Hugois a tad recherche. Steven Spielberg’s War Horsenever really made it out of the stalls.

True, The Artistfailed to make serious money in the US. The word is out that the academy is keen to embrace more populist movies. Well, it is only two years since The Hurt Locker,a picture that took $23 and four bottle tops in the US, walked away with the big prize. So The Artist’s relatively sluggish performance shouldn’t matter all that much.

Almost everyone likes Hazanavicius’s movie. But serious filmgoers, like serious Republicans, could be forgiven for wondering why the challengers to the front-runner seem so unimpressive. After all, 2011 was a very good year for the movies. We enjoyed such fine pictures as Melancholia, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Separation, We Need to Talk About Kevinand Drive. Having instituted an absurdly eccentric new voting procedure for the best picture race, the academy nominated nine titles but failed to accommodate any of those projects. (Let’s not start on the absence of Senna from the best-documentary competition.) Instead, the voters shortlisted Stephen Daldry’s roundly ridiculed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. On a recent BBC radio broadcast, Mark Lawson put it to Daldry that his film was the worst-reviewed feature ever to receive a nod for the top prize. He took it surprisingly well.

So the ageing electorate’s need to play it safe – Daldry’s unchallenging films always get nominated – leaves The Artistwith the field pretty much to itself.

THERE ARE, HOWEVER, a few very interesting battles developing elsewhere. When we first heard that Meryl Streep was to play Margaret Thatcher, we reckoned that, 30 years after her last win, the old trooper was sure to break her Oscar drought and take home the best-actress prize. But Viola Davis, an actor who quietly steals every scene, has been steadily accumulating wins throughout awards season. Nominated for The Help, Davis could well deprive Streep of another statuette.

Jean Dujardin, magical in The Artist, and George Clooney, charming in The Descendants, progress towards the best-actor sprint separated by the thinnest of cigarette papers. Clooney is an enormous favourite in a town that still craves old-fashioned movie stars. But, should The Artistachieve a sweep, then Dujardin could very well be carried along for the ride.

Here’s a tip for those who want to place a very late bet (or go to bed early). If The Artist wins the prize for best editing, it is probably embarking on one of those unstoppable marches towards indecently comprehensive success. Dujardin and Hazanavicius should then begin rehearsing their speeches.

Where will the surprises come? There is a slim possibility that the other 82-year-old could triumph in the best-supporting-actor race. Everybody is expecting Christopher Plummer, nominated for Beginners, to become the oldest actor of either gender to win an Oscar.

But such is the affection for Max von Sydow, the best thing in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that he could be the one to break that record. Upsets are more common in the supporting categories than the lead races.

And let us not forget the Irish contingent. Clocking up 40 per cent of the nominations for best live-action short, the domestic team have every chance of taking home a golden gentleman. A win for Peter McDonald’s Pentecostor Terry George’s The Shorewould, after a host of recent nominations, finally confirm that the making of short films has taken over from the Eurovision Song Contest as our true national pastime.

And the nominees are... Who should win. Who will win


Should win The ArtistThe film will likely come to be regarded as an utter one-off. But what a one-off.

Will win The ArtistIn 2011 it was The King’s Speechversus The Social Network. In 2010 it was The Hurt Lockerversus Avatar. This year there’s only one show in town.


Should winMichel Hazanavicius ( The Artist) If you have even a smidgeon of confidence in the auteur theory then you will surely agree that, in such races, the best director is the person behind the best film.

Will winMichel Hazanavicius See above. It is possible the academy could give in to sentimentality and hand the statuette to Martin Scorsese.


Should winGary Oldman ( Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) Please, for once, honour an actor who demonstrates that there are less noisy, less showy routes to glory.

Will winJean Dujardin ( The Artist). Or will it be Clooney ( The Descendants)? The entrails suggest The Artistis on a roll.


Should winViola Davis ( The Help). Yes, the film is sentimental and her role is smallish. But Davis can draw tears from a boulder.

Will winViola Davis Streep could grab her third Oscar. But Hollywood has little affection for The Iron Lady.


Should winMax von Sydow ( Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). We know, we know. The film stinks. But von Sydow does wonders with a wafer-thin, wordless part.

Will winChristopher Plummer ( Beginners) And the lifetime achievement award goes to . . . To be fair, Plummer, who is 82, is good as (awards bait) an older gay man.


Should winBérénice Bejo ( The Artist). Sorry? Best supporting actress, you say. In what universe does that make any sense?

Will winOctavia Spencer ( The Help) Hollywood would really like both female acting winners to be African-American. She also happens to be excellent.


Should winAsghar Farhadi ( A Separation) For once, Hollywood acknowledges a foreign-language film in the writing category. The Iranian film-maker hasn’t a hope.

Will winWoody Allen ( Midnight in Paris) The lack of dialogue hampers The Artist’schances in this category. Despite his almost never attending the ceremony, the Oscars love Allen.


Should winBridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan ( Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) A masterful contraction of a hugely complex novel. Sadly, O’Connor died before Tinker, Tailorwent into production.

Will winAlexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash ( The Descendants) Once a challenger for best picture, The Descendantscould end up with just one Oscar. Moneyball is second favourite.


Should win Chico and RitaThe adorable jazz-themed movie takes the maverick spot in a weak year for full-length animation.

Will win RangoThis year’s Pixar film, Cars 2,was too awful even to receive a nomination. So the award goes to a passable stopgap.


Should win A Separation Hugelyacclaimed on release, Asghar Farhadi’s picture is a cunning combination of social commentary and postmodern detective story.

Will win A SeparationOr anything else on the list. This tainted category has kicked up some bizarre results in the past.