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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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How to buy an Oscar
The awards aren't for the best movies, but the best campaigns
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In The Queen, Mirren shows us the woman both behind and atop the throne.
In The Queen, Mirren shows us the woman both behind and atop the throne.

In a wonderful example of life imitating art imitating whatever, there was some Oscar buzz for Catherine O'Hara's performance in For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest's funny/sad look at...well, at Oscar buzz. O'Hara plays Marilyn Hack, a two-bit movie actress well past her prime, if indeed she ever had a prime. And when word starts spreading, via the Internet, that she might land a Best Actress nod for her portrayal of a Jewish matriarch in a low-budget period melodrama called Home for Purim, Marilyn becomes slightly unhinged, signing up for all the plastic surgery she's been putting off until she was caught up on her mortgage payments. Home for Purim itself undergoes some nips and tucks, leaving the operating room with a new title, Home for Thanksgiving. Alas, the Oscar buzz for Marilyn disappears into thin air, as it did for O'Hara. Perhaps neither of them fanned the flames enough.

To win an Oscar nomination these days, you have to both fan the flames and keep adding fuel to the fire. It's a months-long process that resembles nothing so much as a presidential campaign, complete with primaries (think of the Golden Globes as Super Tuesday) and a continually unheeded call for campaign-finance reform. A studio will drop anywhere from $8 million to $25 million for a movie it thinks has a chance of landing a Best Picture nomination. Some of that goes toward the For Your Consideration ads that run in the trade press and major dailies. Some goes toward the mass mailings of DVDs to Academy members, who are apparently too busy to run out and see a movie like the rest of us. Some goes to private screenings, so that those who do run out don't have to rub elbows with the hoi polloi. And some goes to private jets, so that stars might span the globe (i.e., film festivals), drumming up support.

To say that seeking an Oscar nomination is a full-time job is to underestimate the effort that is required. It's several full-time jobs ' for the potential nominee, for the potential nominee's personal manager, for the potential nominee's personal publicist and for the potential nominee's personal assistant(s), who must schedule all the meet-and-greets, grip-and-grins, Q-and-A's, interviews, panels, roundtables and, last but not least, visits to the Actors' Fund Retirement Home, where there are enough votes to swing an election. The goal is to create a sense of inevitability, the Big Mo. And the goal, once the nominations have been announced, is to keep that momentum going, which is where the acceptance speeches at earlier awards ceremonies come in. These can be seen as auditions for the privilege of having an Oscar bestowed upon oneself, and just the right tone has to be struck ' modest but not too modest, fabulous but not too fabulous.

Did Helen Mirren, at the Golden Globes, conduct herself with enough royal majesty and yet still convey to us, somehow, that she remains, at heart, one of the people? Did Forest Whitaker convince us that, although he's brilliant at playing flamboyant madmen, he himself couldn't hurt a flea, let alone feed his subjects to the crocodiles? Did Eddie Murphy serve up enough humble pie to feed a town that's grown tired of his egotistical sullenness? Did Jennifer Hudson nail that deer-in-the-headlights stare, courting Oscar by appearing to consider herself unworthy of his love? Perhaps only RenÃe Zellweger, who perfected the acceptance speech on her way to winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cold Mountain, knows for sure. A modern-day Eve Harrington, Zellweger showed more craft and craftiness leading up to Oscar night than she did in the film she was nominated for. She knew how to play the game.

And it remains, despite the millions spent on it and the millions made off it, a game, one that's been played for years. Back in 1930, Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart, won one of the very first Best Actress Oscars after playing host to the panel of judges at Pickfair, the legendary mansion she shared with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Consequently, the judges were dropped and the voting was opened up to the entire Academy. But that only led to the studios telling their contract players how to vote and, in some cases, filling out their ballots for them. Trade ads began in the '30s. And in 1955, the producers of Marty made Oscar history by spending more on the Oscar campaign than they'd spent on the movie itself. And you know what? It worked. Not only did Marty win for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay, it became a hit. Ever since then, Oscars have been worth their weight in gold.

So, who's going to win on Sunday night? More important, who should win?

Here's who I'm putting my money on.

The Little Movie That Could...and Probably Will: In a year when Best Picture seems up for grabs, Little Miss Sunshine has suddenly positioned itself as the film to beat, and you have to wonder how it got the job done. (Dreamgirls tanking didn't hurt.) Oscar doesn't like comedies, and yet this road movie about a family that has to push-start its van is dark enough that you almost don't notice it's a comedy, and yet not so dark as to turn off the more squeamish Academy voters. It's pleasantly unpleasant. And people seem to pull for it, like they would an ailing pet. I found it a little too easy to swallow ' a little bogus, even. (Who isn't opposed to beauty pageants?) But American Beauty paved the way a few years back, and Little Miss Sunshine may well follow in its footsteps.

The Little Movie That Could...and Probably Won't (but Should): Why hasn't The Queen been able to get any traction for Best Picture? Because it's British? I've read that it lacks production values, but what does Little Miss Sunshine have in the way of production values? Plus, we're talking Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle here, folks. Yes, The Queen was made for less money than it takes for the royal family to have its afternoon tea, but that only contributes to its chamber-piece intimacy, the sense that we're being given a peek at a life that's always been kept hidden from us. With flashes of extremely dry wit, Helen Mirren shows us the woman both behind and atop the throne. And the movie, directed by Stephen Frears and written from scratch by Peter Morgan, shows us the monarchy teetering on the brink of a public-relations disaster.

The British Are Coming...and Staying: What I love about Mirren's performance is that she disappears right before our eyes. It's clearly her, but it's just as clearly Queen Elizabeth. And there's such pleasure in watching one actress play another, Elizabeth having been making appearances as Her Royal Highness since she was a teenager ' literally the role of a lifetime. Mirren's a shoo-in, of course, and I certainly wouldn't replace her with PenÃlope Cruz, who was fine, but only fine, in Volver; or with Kate Winslet, who was good, but only good, in Little Children; or with Meryl Streep, who acted up a quiet little storm in The Devil Wears Prada but seemed stranded in an ice palace of her own devising. That leaves Judi Dench, who acts up a quiet little storm of her own in Notes on a Scandal, where she plays a woman so desperately lonely she'd gladly blackmail you just to have someone to talk to.

Not unlike Mirren's, Dench's is a precision-tooled performance, a carefully calibrated mixture of (in Dench's case) fire and ice, and I'd be perfectly content if the two of them tied. And let's throw Naomi Watts in there as well for playing a spoiled-brat Englishwoman dragged to the Chinese hinterlands by her doctor-husband in The Painted Veil, a sadly overlooked movie that I would have expected Oscar to embrace.

Badfellas: They say it's finally Martin Scorsese's year, but only for Best Director. I wouldn't mind if he cleaned up on Oscar night ' Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Actor (What? DiCaprio's not nominated? You're kidding me), Best Actor (Nicholson wasn't nominated either? You've got to be kidding me), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Walhberg or just about anybody else in the cast). A gangster flick in which both sides of the law lie, cheat and steal, The Departed may not have the thematic heft of Scorsese's masterpieces, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. And the Academy appears to be turning up its nose at the movie's fetid air of depravity. But if a movie that smells like a rotten fish wrapped in yesterday's newspaper ever deserved to win an Oscar, this would be the one.

Out of Africa: With DiCaprio and Nicholson out of the picture, Forest Whitaker has a clear path to the podium. Yes, DiCaprio was nominated for Blood Diamond, where he gives a powerful performance as a Bogartian antihero who may or may not develop a conscience. And Ryan Gosling did some very nice work in Half Nelson as an idealistic schoolteacher with a really bad drug habit. (Will Smith in

Speaking of mercurial dictators, I would have included Sean Penn among the nominees for his charismatically brash Huey Long in the ultimately disappointing All the King's Men. And I would like to have seen Steve Martin nominated for The Pink Panther, where he totally nailed that French-fried Borat, Inspector Clouseau.

It's an Honor ' and a Bit of a Stretch ' Just to Be Nominated: Can Babel pull off a Crash? The two movies certainly resemble each other ' multi-story narratives that try to bridge the gap between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic to tell us something important about the way we live. But Crash stuck to Los Angeles, whereas Babel roams all over the world, making connections that perhaps only director Alejandro GonzÃlez IÃÃrritu fully understands. I felt the movie's reach exceeded its grasp. Likewise, Clint Eastwood took on an enormous challenge with his pair of World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. And that Letters is told from the Japanese perspective ' in Japanese! ' should qualify Eastwood for the Nobel Peace Prize. But it wasn't the heart-wrenching experience I was expecting. And as Eastwood must have realized by now from the box-office figures, World War II is so five minutes ago.

Fight or Flight: Paul Greengrass' United 93, which meticulously re-creates what some have called the opening battle in the War on Terror, did surprisingly well with Oscar ' nominations for Best Director and Best Film Editing. I'd call it the best TV docudrama of all time. Wielding you-are-there techniques with consummate skill, Greengrass puts us on board the Boeing 757 with its passengers and crew, who either did or didn't thwart the suicide mission they found themselves on. The movie gives them the benefit of the doubt, which raises all sorts of questions about historical truth, not to mention gung-ho propaganda. (It can be read as a call to arms.) But this was the first mainstream movie to tackle the events of 9/11 head-on, and it does so in an extremely powerful way. Everybody said 9/11 was just like a movie. This is the movie it was just like.

I Would Like Thank All Peoples of U.S. Academy, Especially Premier Bush: Okay, not even I would choose Borat for Best Picture, but if there were an award for stirring up the most trouble while making boatloads of cash, Sacha Baron Cohen would win hands down. Posing as a Kazakhstani journalist, he set off on a journey across this great land of ours, fanning the flames of racism, sexism and homophobia along the way. And the result is the most bracing slap in the face we've gotten since de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America.

Along those lines, allow me to mention a pair of extremely provocative films, either of which should win for Best Fake Documentary. Gabriel Range's Death of a President had the audacity to imagine the immediate aftermath of George Bush's assassination. And Kevin Willmott's C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America had the audacity to imagine that the South won the Civil War. Talk about making history.

Like Domino's, Hollywood Delivers: Nobody seems to have noticed, but the studios kicked ass this year, and if the Academy hadn't been trained to look for Little Movies That Could, it might have noticed the Big Movies That Did. Casino Royale not only gave the James Bond franchise a much-needed shot in the arm, director Martin Campbell providing some killer-diller action sequences, it proved that the world's most eligible bachelor is capable of falling madly, sadly in love. Daniel Craig deserved an Oscar nomination for giving Bond an inner life. And Campbell deserved one for capturing exactly what most of us mean when we refer to a night out at the movies. Meanwhile, though more of a Saturday matinee, X-Men: The Last Stand managed to plug into the post-9/11 zeitgeist while achieving pop grandeur ' moments of sublime pathos and mystic power.

I'd also like to mention a couple of once-and-future provocateurs who called off the dogs long enough to reach a mainstream audience. Spike Lee delivered a first-rate heist flick with Inside Man, then immediately sicced the dogs on the Bush administration with his Katrina cri de coeur, When the Levees Broke. And Oliver Stone, whom everyone expected to link the 9/11 attacks to Lee Harvey Oswald, instead delivered a first-rate rescue flick with World Trade Center, a largely misunderstood film that had important things to tell us about heroism. (Heroes are cowards with nowhere to run.)

Finally, two excellent yarns: Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. Apparently, Oscar isn't into tall tales. A pity.

Musical Chairs: Ultimately, Oscar can't be bought, he has to be seduced (with lots of flowers and candy). And Dreamgirls, Bill Condon's cine à clef about Diana Ross and the Supremes, just didn't have the right stuff. It wanted to razzle-dazzle us, but the performers don't belong on the same stage with the legends they're evoking. Compare that to the unheralded Idlewild, another period-piece musical set in the world of black entertainment ' specifically, a rowdy-crowd speakeasy in '30s Georgia. Here, the production numbers strive for, and often achieve, a kind of religious ecstasy. And the whole movie has a scapegrace vitality, like an old Max Fleischer cartoon.

But the winner of Best Musical, if there were such a category, would have to be George Miller's Happy Feet, which managed to ward off the anti-penguin backlash for one more year. Nominated for Best Animated Feature, which it'll probably lose to Monster House, this tap-dance epic was one of the most enjoyable films I saw last year, the movie Busby Berkeley would have made if he'd known about computer animation. The songs are a gas, the dancing's da bomb, and the ecological theme goes down much easier than it does in An Inconvenient Truth.

Odds and Endings: Eddie Murphy is supposedly a lock for Best Supporting Actor. I'd look for Mark Wahlberg or Alan Arkin to sneak in there. And boy will Eddie be pissed.

Jennifer Hudson is also supposedly a lock for Best Supporting Actress, and don't expect an upset here. With that kind of back-story ' booted from American Idol, career left for dead ' the Oscar campaign practically runs itself.

Host Ellen DeGeneres has promised a night free of controversy. Damn.

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