Will it be a "Knight" to remember or will "Dog" get its day? Patriot Ledger movie critic Al Alexander sizes up the 81st annual Academy Awards, being handed out Sunday night.
It will be Hollywood vs. Bollywood when the 81st annual Academy Awards show commences Sunday night at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles.
Will it be “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Mumbai-set story of a poor-boy orphan pursuing riches and the love of his life on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” or will it be the more traditional epic “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, chronicling the unusual life of a man aging in reverse?
If you go by such bellwethers as most nominations, then it will be the latter with 13 nods to the former’s 10. But if you go by track record alone, it will be “Slumdog,” which has won every major award possible, from the Golden Globe and the British Oscar to sweeping all five guild awards for writing, directing, cinematography, acting and producing.
Still, recent history has taught us that front-runners often end up out of the money, especially ones with only one or, in the case of “Slumdog,” zero acting nominations. But the momentum “Slumdog” has built with its rags-to-riches, feel-good story sends it speeding into Sunday night’s ceremony like a runaway train. It simply cannot be stopped.
That, however, doesn’t mean there won’t be any drama. Three of the four acting categories are anything but locks, and the fourth promises much poignancy when the name of the late Heath Ledger is announced to a rapt audience.
There are also bound to be a couple of surprises thrown in, promising to make this year’s telecast more compelling than most.
So to get you ready, here’s a rundown of how I see the six major categories shaking out.
THE NOMINEES: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost Nixon,” “Milk,” “The Reader,” “Slumdog Millionaire”
It may seem like a foregone conclusion that “Slumdog Millionaire” will win, but they said the same about “Brokeback Mountain” and “Saving Private Ryan.” And like those films, “Slumdog” may have peaked too early. Compound that with a potential lack of support from some guilds (much of the film’s crew was Indian) and the door might be opening just a crack for another film to sneak in.
But which one? The trendy pick is “Milk,” which in the wake of the failure of California’s gay-marriage initiative has taken on added relevance.
The smart choice, though, is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It possesses everything Oscar loves. It’s epic, it’s populated with big stars and looks amazing. It’s also not very good, but that hasn’t stopped Oscar voters before. Remember “A Beautiful Mind,” “Crash” or “Benjamin’s” cousin “Forrest Gump”?
Who should win: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Who will win: “Slumdog Millionaire” (It is written)
THE NOMINEES: Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”; David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Stephen Daldry, “The Reader”; Ron Howard, “Frost Nixon”; Gus Van Sant, “Milk”
Boyle has won every honor possible for his crowd-pleasing Bollywood epic, including the coveted Directors Guild Award, the recipient of which has gone on to win the Oscar about 90 percent of the time. This year should be no different.
But if there’s the slightest chance of an upset, it’s Fincher, who effectively managed a large cast and an even larger budget for a story that chronicled the entire 80-year life span of a man aging backward. A Herculean task, to be sure.
Who should win: Boyle
Who will win: Boyle
THE NOMINEES: Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”; Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”; Sean Penn, “Milk”; Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”
Of all the major races, this one is the tightest, as longtime friends Penn and Rourke battle it out. I even wouldn’t be surprised if we have a repeat of 1968, when Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn tied for best actress.
Me, I’m partial to Penn, who did the best work of his storied career completely disappearing into the role of gay activist Harvey Milk.
But like Oscar voters I’m a sucker for a great comeback story, and none is more compelling than Rourke’s. To draw an analogy, it’s like MC Hammer coming back to rule the record charts after years of ridicule and being the butt of late-night jokes. Yes, Rourke was basically playing himself in the story of a washed-up star struggling to find meaning in his life, but he did it with such poignancy and contrition that voters will have a hard time passing him over.
Who should win: Penn
Who will win: Rourke
THE NOMINEES: Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”; Angelina Jolie, “Changling”; Melissa Leo, “Frozen River; Meryl Streep, “Doubt”; Kate Winslet, “The Reader”
This will be another tight race pitting Streep, representing the old guard, and heir-apparent Winslet, representing the new.
Irony is that neither deserves to win because neither performance was up to their usual high standards. Ditto for their competitors, all of whom, except possibly Hathaway, have delivered better work before.
Worse, the two actresses who really deserve to win – Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Michelle Williams from “Wendy and Lucy” – inexplicably didn’t get nominated. But if forced to make a choice, I preferred Streep’s arch portrayal of a self-righteous nun to Winslet’s pedophile Nazi by a wide margin.
Who should win: Streep
Who will win: Winslet
Best Supporting Actor
THE NOMINEES: Josh Brolin, “Milk”; Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”; Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”; Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”
Not to sound disrespectful, but would Ledger be the heavy favorite in this category if he had lived? In fact, I wonder if he would even be nominated given the academy’s dislike of superhero movies. But then, I never thought it would ever nominate an actor from a broad, blockbuster comedy, as is the case with Downey.
Of the five nominees, though, their performances are by far the strongest, with Downey having a slight edge because of the old saw about comedy being twice as hard to do as drama. And Downey was indeed funny, as his black-faced character chided method acting, racial stereotypes and Russell Crowe in one fell swoop. Plus, like Rourke, it marked an amazing comeback for an actor everyone in Hollywood had long ago written off.
Who should win: Downey
Who will win: Ledger
Best Supporting Actress
THE NOMINEES: Amy Adams, “Doubt”; Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; Viola Davis, “Doubt”; Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
This has become the category with the most upsets in recent years, including last, when Tilda Swinton swept in from nowhere to take home the trophy for “Michael Clayton.” That could well be the case again this year with consensus-favorite Cruz facing stiff challenges from a couple of dark horses in Tomei and Davis.
Of that trio, Tomei is most deserving for her brave (and largely nude) turn as a fading stripper hungry to hear the roar of the crowd. She was also the perfect compliment to Mickey Rourke’s spotlight-craving ex-wrestling champ. And the two of them together made a compelling pair, indeed.
Davis was not far behind, though, as a mother afraid to face the truth about her young son. Where Tomei and Davis gave quiet, subtle performances, Cruz blew the doors off “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as a fiery scorned woman looking to kick butts and take names. She demanded that you take notice, and Oscar voters will likely do just that.
Who should win: Tomei
Who will win: Cruz (but don’t be surprised if Davis edges her out)
Reach Al Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are Patriot Ledger movie critic Al Alexander’s picks in each Oscar category:
Best picture: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Directing: Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Actor: Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”
Actress: Kate Winslet, “The Reader”
Supporting actress: Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Supporting actor: Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Animated feature: “WALL-E”
Documentary feature: “Man on Wire”
Foreign language film: “Waltz With Bashir,” Israel
Original screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”
Adapted screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Editing: Chris Dickens, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Costume design: Michael O’Connor, “The Duchess”
Art direction: “The Dark Knight”
Documentary short: “Smile Pinki”
Makeup: Greg Cannom, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Original score: “Slumdog Millionaire,” A.R. Rahman
Original song: “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire”
Animated short: “Presto”
Live action short: “Spielzeugland”
Sound editing: Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood, “WALL-E”
Sound mixing: Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt, “WALL-E”
Visual effects: Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"