Oscars preview: Picking winners a shot in the dark

As the red carpet is rolled out, Siobhan Synnot prepares for a few surprises at tonight’s Oscars

BEING good and ­being Oscar-worthy are rarely the same thing. Taking home the gold baldy doorstop doesn’t even change ­careers anymore. Just look at the paths of best supporting actress winners such as Mira Sorvino, Marisa Tomei and Marcia Gay Harden. Who? Well, that’s showbiz I’m afraid.

Like Christmas and your January tax deadline, the winter film awards season annually elicits moans and sighs. It’s a luvvie fest. It’s a chance for Cher, or Björk or nowadays Tilda Swinton to run amok in a deranged Halloween costume shop. And, despite a recruitment drive, the average Oscar voter is still male, white and beyond retirement age, which is probably why distributors also presume they have short memories and save up their contenders until November, when suddenly action blockbusters have to fight to be heard above the clamour of biographies, musicals, Meryl Streep vehicles and compassionate foreign fare.

The Oscars are the golden fig leaves that the industry wears to pretend it’s as committed to being in the quality business as it was in the past. Back then, of course, it was the only game in town, whereas now there’s a forest of guilds, critics and film festivals all happy to fling prizes from ­November to late February. The Academy Awards may still represent the top of the tree, but with so many other opportunities to pick up silverware along the way, some of the surprise and excitement of a win has been lost.

Last year’s sweep by The Artist was so easily predicted that the ceremony’s ratings plummeted. On the other hand, 2013 has been so strange and wide-ranging that only Anne Hathaway and Daniel Day-Lewis can wake up wondering “what have I won today?” Over the past few weeks, there have been fierce debates where no-one, not even nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, has been discounted from the possibility of walking to the Governors Ball with a statuette.

When the Oscar nominations were announced, Day-Lewis’s film Lincoln was considered the frontrunner, not least because of its field-leading 12 nominations, including best picture and best director. Now it seems that the smart money is on Argo, after it picked up top prizes from the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the ­Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, the Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild and of course the Baftas.

This is even odder since the Directors Guild of America and the American Academy didn’t put Ben Affleck on their shortlist for best director. Kathryn Bigalow and Tom Hooper also failed to get Oscar director nominations, but Argo has managed to spin this into a sign that their film is an underdog at the awards table. It isn’t, but it is the second choice for a lot of people, and when first choices have polarised into Lincoln vs Django Unchained or Life Of Pi vs Zero Dark Thirty, Argo has been able to slide through a lot of Best Picture categories as Best Default Choice. It isn’t as politically controversial or as bleak as Amour, or as deceptively light as Silver Linings Playbook, or as deafening as Les Misérables. The new ­Oscar balloting system of ranking this year’s nine nominated films, rather than simply picking one outright winner, makes Argo a likely consensus winner.


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It could also make 2013 one of those rare years when a best picture is not paired up with the best director, a situation described by Billy Crystal in 1990, when Bruce Beresford went home empty-handed but his film Driving Miss Daisy was voted “best picture that directed itself”.

For predicting the winners of many of the other categories, I suggest a blindfold and a pin, although if you fancy a flutter – and you can’t put money on the Oscars in the US – last weekend’s Baftas may give some signs of the way the award winds are blowing, since the British and American academies share several hundred of the same members, and have agreed on the best film winner for the last five years. Who knows? Maybe French star Emmanuelle ­Riva’s surprise win as Bafta’s Best Actress means Oscar voters have cheated on local sweethearts Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain and decided to crown Riva the oldest winner in any acting category, at 86 today.

The real winner, however, is the Oscar ceremony itself. Box office returns also suggest that many more of the contending films have already been seen by larger audiences than in previous years, so in the early hours of Monday morning you may feel more engaged by ­Oscar wins than you have for a long time; good news for the show itself, which in recent years has had to downsize its boast of being “watched by billions” to mere millions across the world in 225 countries.

At this point there’s a lot riding on this year’s leftfield choice of host, Seth McFarlane, who is neither an old hand like Bob Hope or Whoopi Goldberg, nor a star name like Hugh Jackman. After the ­embarrassing pairing of a mustard-keen Anne Hathaway and a vague James Franco, the Oscars no longer trust wattage to power their show through three hours, and McFarlane could be great. He can be as edgy and funny as Crystal in his pomp, he can sing even better than Hugh Jackman, and he doesn’t cost as much as Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. He’s also humble enough to seek out advice from previous presenters, and credits Jackman with the most useful tip: “Get all your jokes in by midway through the show, ­because after that point you’ll have a lot of angry people in the audience who have lost their categories. They’re not ready to laugh.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot