Thursday, February 19, 2009
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)
Could this be the year that predicting the Oscars went from sheer guesswork to statistical science?
Nate Silver, the prodigy of prognostication whose FiveThirtyEight Web site called the 2008 elections with uncanny precision, has turned his algorithms on tonight's Academy Awards broadcast.
His methodology weighs myriad factors including genre (drama outperforms comedy), opening-weekend box office (not too important) and whether the film earned any other awards (a considerable plus). He has handicapped the top races not merely to percentage probabilities, but to decimal points thereof. If that sounds like overreaching, remember that Silver has also brought his analytical skills to bear for Baseball Prospectus, the game's annual Bible, with scary-accurate results. If he says rain, take an umbrella.
Some winners seem to be a lead-pipe cinch. The late Heath Ledger's charismatic, decadent Joker in "The Dark Knight" has swept the early awards. The role follows in the bloody footsteps of last year's Oscar winner, Javier Bardem's ice-eyed assassin in "No Country for Old Men." Everyone in this category plays some kind of a mental case: Josh Brolin as murderous San Francisco city supervisor Dan White ("Milk"); Philip Seymour Hoffman as a possible pedophile ("Doubt"); Michael Shannon as a brutally honest lunatic ("Revolutionary Road"), and Robert Downey Jr. as a loopy method actor in blackface ("Tropic Thunder").
Call it: Silver gives Ledger a towering 85.8 percent lead. For artistic and sentimental reasons, I second the endorsement.
In years past, a female supporting role in a Woody Allen film has been a golden ticket to Academy Awards love. Seven of his actresses previously were nominees in this category; two won. Therefore Penelope Cruz's sizzling turn as a bipolar, bisexual Spanish artist in Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was considered by many the performance to beat. A stubborn minority (me included) favors "Doubt's" Viola Davis for her moving 12-minute role as a parish school parent whose boy may be at risk of molestation.
Call it: Resist the pull of emotions and crunch the numbers, however, and logic must prevail. Nominees in a best-picture contender have an advantage, so "Benjamin Button's" Taraji P. Henson has the edge. Silver gives her a 51 percent chance; Cruz 24.6 percent; Davis and Amy Adams ("Doubt") 11.6 percent each, and Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler") 1.2 percent. It would be a shame to see Henson's "Look, Ma, I'm acting" approach top Davis' subtle naturalism, so I'm hoping Silver is wrong.
Six-time nominee Kate Winslet has racked up an impressive string of wins for her role as a German war criminal in "The Reader." Given the fact that she's troublingly good in the ambiguous role — and she's overdue for a win, and Holocaust dramas have a special place in Oscar voters' hearts — this should be her year. True, Meryl Streep's stern Sister Aloysious in "Doubt" did cop the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award, but she's won the Oscar twice already so she'd have to overcome long odds to win again.
Call it: Golden girl Winslet, 67.6 percent. Dark horse Streep, 32.4 percent. Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married"), Angelina Jolie ("The Changeling") and Melissa Leo ("Frozen River") in a three-way tie for zero, figures Silver. I'm good with those odds, since Winslet's role had twice the emotional range of Streep's.
Mickey Rourke took the British Academy and Golden Globe awards for his work as a battered ring rat in "The Wrestler." Sean Penn won the SAG as gay politico Harvey Milk. So it's two falls to one so far. And Rourke has a big advantage in his corner: Fox Searchlight unleashed an ad blitz and mood-of-the-electorate pieces are charting a swing of support in his direction. Brad Pitt (like Jolie) was nominated mostly to goose the TV ratings; most of his "acting" in "Benjamin Button" was accomplished by makeup and computer graphics.
Call it: I admired Penn's work, but as a past Oscar winner, his chances of winning again are reduced. Silver gives Penn a 19 percent chance of winning to Rourke's 71.1 percent. And face it, Rourke's real-life fall and rise is the kind of redemption story that Oscar voters adore. Who can begrudge him a legitimate win and a second chance at a career?
Traditionally, the film with the highest number of nominations or the best box-office performance among the nominees wins best picture. This year, both those distinctions go to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which earned $123 million and 13 nominations. But this is not a year for tradition. "Slumdog Millionaire" has passed through Movie Awards Season like an electromagnet in a trophy shop. Its hip Third World exoticism suits the multicultural spirit of the times, its underdog sympathies are perfect for a recessionary era, and its love-triumphant storyline is comfortingly reassuring to old-guard Academy voters.
Call it: Silver's spreadsheet reckons the Mumbai Cinderella story has a 99 percent likelihood of winning, and "Milk" has a 1 percent probability of unseating it, while "Button," "Frost/Nixon" and "The Reader" have no chance whatsoever. This not only sounds right, it feels just.
"Slumdog's" victory dance probably will start earlier in the evening as Danny Boyle accepts the best director statuette. His technical command is electrifying, he orchestrates the film's ever-shifting moods like a symphony and (with the help of an Indian co-director) he coordinated armies of Hindi-speaking supporting players. Of course, there's abundant love for Gus Van Sant's "Milk" and David Fincher's amazing technical achievements in "Benjamin Button." Still, it was Doyle who won the all-important Directors Guild award, which makes his walk to the podium all but a formality.
Call it: Silver gives Boyle 99.7 percent; Van Sant and Fincher, 0.1 percent each; Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon") and Stephen Daldry ("The Reader") zilch.
Let's hope no one calls for a recount and throws the whole process into the courts. Who could possibly be so petty? Oh, wait...
(c) 2009, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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