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February 23, 2007

Oscars set for night of Sunshine and Scorsese

There’s something intriguing about the idea that our society is heavily preoccupied with determining the best of every aspect of popular culture. But when it comes to predicting the Academy Award winners, a kind of cynicism looms overhead. In the end, who the hell cares? I won’t bore you with my theory behind why so many people (including myself) invest so much time in this popularity contest; instead I’ll offer my opinions about the race. Go ahead: I dare you to disagree.

Starting with one of the easiest races to predict, Best Supporting Actress, we’ll go ahead and entertain the idea that Jennifer Hudson has competition in this category. As the assertive Effie White in Bill Condon’s cinematic treat, Dreamgirls, Hudson flies off the screen during her powerful rendition of the ballad, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the song that made Jennifer Holliday a star in the 1982 stage version. Not the best supporting performance overall of the five nominees (after all, she plays the lead role), she is certainly the most memorable. Distant competition comes from Cate Blanchet (Notes on a Scandal). Abigail Breslin as the adorable Olive (Little Miss Sunshine), Rinko Kikuchi as a young, lonely, sexually curious teenager (Babel), and Adrianna Barazza as a helpless nanny (Babel), all earn their nominations.

Eddie Murphy is perhaps the safest choice as Best Supporting Actor. He electrifies the screen in his portrayal of an aging soul singer in Dreamgirls. His supporting role is the first nomination of his 25-year career. (Let’s just hope ballots were mailed before he released Norbit.) Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) follow close behind as a small-town pedophile and drug-snorting grandpa, respectively. Mark Wahlberg received an undeserved nomination as a foul-mouthed detective (The Departed) and Djimon Hounsou gives an intense, yet slightly overacted performance as a South African father searching for his son (Blood Diamond).

Helen Mirren will finally earn her first Best Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth II struggling with the death of Princess Diana in The Queen. In Stephen Frears’s otherwise drawn-out and often boring film, she gets every note right, single-handedly saving the film. Meryl Streep as an evil fashionista (The Devil Wears Prada), Kate Winslet as an adulterous suburban housewife (Little Children), Judi Dench as a high school principal obsessed with Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal), and Penelope Cruz in an impressive role as a young mother working to cover-up a homicide and grapple with the ghost of her dead mother (Volver), round out one of the strongest Best Actress categories in years.

The Best Actor race should not follow my logic below regarding the Best Director race. Peter O’Toole earns his eighth nomination (no wins, aside from an Honorary Oscar in 2003) as an aged actor who forms an unlikely relationship with a teenage girl in Venus. But this year belongs to Forest Whittaker, who embodies Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, to frightening effect in The Last King of Scotland. Eerily tyrannical, yet surprisingly charming, Whittaker gives a history-making performance. Other nominees include Leonardo DiCaprio in perhaps the best performance of his career as a South African diamond smuggler (Blood Diamond), Will Smith as a sensitive father trying to care for his son (The Pursuit of Happyness), and Ryan Gosling in a breakthrough performance as a drug-addicted schoolteacher (Half Nelson).

For goodness sake, just give Martin Scorsese a damn Oscar already! Please! Long overdue, Scorsese should finally be rewarded the Best Director Oscar for his entire body of impressive work, culminating in an impressive return to form in this year’s The Departed. This marks his sixth directing nod without a single win. He recently picked up the Golden Globe Award and his first Director’s Guild Award (after seven nominations) for this mobster crime drama. Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel and Stephen Frears for The Queen should be satisfied with their nominations, and Iñárritu may fare better in the Original Screenplay and Best Picture categories. It was a surprise to see Paul Greengrass cited for his affecting work on United 93, a spot many thought would go to Bill Condon (Dreamgirls). And lurking in the shadows is Clint Eastwood for his epic World War II drama, Letters From Iwo Jima.

The Best Picture category has three standout contenders: Babel (Golden Globe winner), The Departed, and Little Miss Sunshine. All are deserving nominees, but only one is the critical favorite, and that’s Little Miss Sunshine. The “Little Best Picture that could” (and did) racked up surprise wins at the Producer’s Guild (Best Film) and the SAG (Best Ensemble Acting) Awards this year. Two factors are against it: 1) The film failed to garner nominations for its directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and 2) It was snubbed in the Best Editing category (The Departed and Babel are the only two Best Picture nominees that were also nominated for editing this year). It would be safe to go with either Babel or The Departed, since no film has ever won the Best Picture award without garnering a nomination for its editing. Dreamgirls was expected to pick up a nomination, but many believe that spot went to Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. I suspect Eastwood and the film occupy a position similar to Stephen Spielberg’s Munich last year.

The Oscar telecast will air live on Sunday, February 25, 2007 at 7p.m. CST on ABC.