Oscars: Clear Top Dog, or a Surprise?

It's nearly a month before all of Hollywood breaks out the tuxedos and gowns and descends on the Kodak Theater for the annual glitterfest known as the Academy Awards. And you can already start engraving a shiny gold 8½-pound statue for Heath Ledger, the late actor who gave such a tortured, on-the-edge-of-mania performance as the Joker in the Batman flick The Dark Knight.

But the big question: Can anyone beat Slumdog Millionaire, the (British-made) Indian tale of love, loss, and victory-over-the-odds that won this month's Golden Globes award and has captured the Hollywood buzz as the flick that's all but certain to waltz off with the Best Picture hardware? Probably not. It's a darn good film. But I can't shake the feeling that there's an upset lurking somewhere in the film world's annual office pool game. Let's just call it a hunch that it could be the riveting political flick Frost/Nixon or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, perhaps the weirdest film to ever grace Oscar-land, that may just pull off the unthinkable.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not rushing to Vegas to bet this one. I liked Slumdog Millionaire. I liked the other two as well. But here are some salient facts. The Golden Globes, a gathering of foreign journalists that annually starts the near endless awards process, is a pretty awful predictor of which flick wins the Oscar. Only four of the last 10 Golden Globe winners have repeated on Academy Award night. As for last year's winner—the British drama Atonement—it got one Oscar, for its original score. Why are the Globes so hopeless as a barometer? Well, its voters include foreign journalists, who give way too much love to foreign flicks. And after years of seeming to vote only for foreign films, the Academy has gone American the past four years, with films like Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, and No Country for Old Men.

The Actors Rule

Then, there's the fact that the Golden Globe members make up such a tiny number of Oscar's more than 6,000 Academy voters. So who makes up the biggest share of the voters? The actors. And No Country for Old Men, which featured Javier Bardem's terrifying portrayal of a bowl-haircut murderer without a conscience and Tommy Lee Jones as the dogged country lawman on his tail, won the Screen Actors Guild top prize as well as one for Bardem. Jones was nominated against Bardem.

So, it may well be instructive to see who the actors (and for that matter the other guilds) put on their ballots. Yup, Slumdog has been nominated for best picture not only by the actors but also by guilds that represent the directors, the producers, and the writers. That's a lot of firepower. The only other films with that much firepower are Benjamin Button and Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. (Button earned 13 Oscar nominations in all, meaning a bunch of other guilds must like it as well.)

Maybe the actors—who nominated Brad Pitt for playing Button and Frank Langella in his role as Nixon—coalesce around one or other of those films. (The actors nominated no single performer from Slumdog Millionaire.) Then again, maybe the actors will split their votes between the two films, and Slumdog will waltz its way to the podium.

That's the way most folks in Hollywood seem to think it will happen. And we may get a hint on Jan. 25 as to which flick gets the Big Golden Guy. That's when the Screen Actors Guild is scheduled to hand out its own award. Maybe the actors will make it all but official and hand out their prize to Slumdog Millionaire. But forgive me if I think Hollywood is capable of surprising us. They do it often enough on the big screen.

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