The Oscar tip sheet

Martin Scorsese, left, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in the film "The Aviator." Scorsese was nominated for the best director Oscar for his work in "The Aviator." The film received 11 nominations, including a best-picture nod as well as a best-actor nomination for DiCaprio.

Miramax Films
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2005 at 10:27 p.m.
Screenwriter William Goldman is a double Oscar-winner who kibbutzes about the awards in several magazines, but his biggest contribution to the world of Oscar-watching is the phrase, "Nobody knows anything."
Goldman is right. In the annual race for the little gold guys, nobody knows when Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") will pop up out of nowhere to swipe an Oscar from Jack Nicholson (a favorite that year for "About Schmidt") or Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny") will send Vanessa Redgrave ("Howards End") packing. But, although the Oscars generally have one unpredictable category per year, the rest are eminently predictable. Which should make it fairly easy for you to score in your office Oscar pool.
So, while this newspaper in no way endorses wagering - and, in fact, thinks it is very, very wrong - we can offer a few tips on how to pick the Oscars, in this or any year.
  • 1. IGNORE QUALITY. By all means, do go to the movies this weekend; there's a bunch of good stuff in theaters now. But don't expect actually seeing "Million Dollar Baby" or "Sideways" to help you pick Oscar winners. The best actor, director or song of the year almost never wins; usually, it isn't even nominated. Anyway, "best" is meaningless in a system that rewards Irene Cara and Mira Sorvino but not Martin Scorsese or Kate Winslet. As a result, watching all the nominees so you can determine who deserves to win in each category is like voting for the Green Party - high-minded but useless.
  • 2. REMEMBER THE PAST. Those who ignore Oscar history are condemned to lose the office pool to that jerk from accounting who can't stop bragging about the year he won it all by predicting the "Braveheart" sweep. So keep these things in mind: Flashy epics trump intimate dramas. Dramas trump comedies. Ingenues win supporting actress. Veterans win supporting actor. Brits have an edge in the acting categories, unless four of them are up against an American, in which case the American wins (it's the Marisa Tomei Principle). And, most important, subtle acting doesn't win Oscars - drunk scenes, handicaps, hideous makeup, accents and mental illness win Oscars.
  • 3. THINK ABOUT MAKE-GOODS. When you're picking this year's winners, consider who got shafted last year, since Oscars are often about making good on previous errors. Yeah, technically Russell Crowe took home the trophy for "Gladiator," but he really won for the prior year's "The Insider." Yeah, Paul Newman won for "The Color of Money," but he really won for half a dozen better performances. Oscars are often given for lifetime achievement, rather than individual films, so nominees with several losses under their belts have an edge. That's why Martin Scorsese was a favorite two years ago for the worst movie he's ever made, "Gangs of New York." And it should make him even more of a fave this year for the much-better "The Aviator," right? Except that Clint Eastwood, who probably finished second for last year's "Mystic River," is also due a make-good.
    When you're predicting, consider that Oscar voters like movies that make them feel good about themselves. Best-picture-wise, that can mean everything from anointing a 10-hour fantasy that affirms the triumph of the human spirit ("The Lord of the Rings") to a misanthropic comedy that affirms the triumph of the human spirit ("American Beauty") to a caustic musical about larcenous singers that affirms the triumph of the human spirit ("Chicago"). Best pictures can have sad endings - in fact, it's better if they do. But, like "Schindler's List" or "Titanic," they must put a rueful happy face on the sadness.
    If your Oscar pool includes those time-to-head-for-the-fridge awards that clutter up the middle of the show, don't freak. They're the easiest ones to pick, if you consider a few easy guidelines: The editing award almost always goes to whatever film wins best picture. The sound award goes to the loudest movie. Cinematography goes to the prettiest movie. The documentary trophy goes to whatever movie is about the Holocaust. The animated short film winner is the one with the most whimsical title. And the best-score award goes to either a foreign film or John Williams.
  • 6. BONUS POINTS FOR ACTORS. Actors outnumber all other categories of Oscar membership, which gives them an edge when they're nominated in categories such as screenwriting and directing. This explains why Ben Affleck has an Oscar on his mantel, why Martin Scorsese has lost the best-director trophy to two different actors (Robert Redford for "Ordinary People" and Kevin Costner, for "Dances With Wolves") and why, when you're marking your office pool Oscar ballot, you need to think like an actor.
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