Pushing The Envelope

March 05, 2006

THE OSCARS AREN'T JUST A HORSE RACE OR A popularity contest. They provide a prime opportunity for movie lovers to forget the odds and fantasize.

George Clooney could become tonight's big story if he makes Oscar history and wins awards for co-writing and directing Good Night, and Good Luck and acting in Syriana. Terrence Howard -- sensational not just in his nominated lead performance in Hustle & Flow but also in supporting parts in Crash, Get Rich or Die Tryin' and HBO's Lackawanna Blues -- just might upset the best actor front-runners. Nothing would liven up the proceedings quite as much as a full-throated, unexpurgated rendition of Hustle & Flow's nominated song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" -- and nothing would better confirm the Academy's new hipness than if that rap took home a prize.

When they haven't been stargazing dreamily themselves, Sun movie critics Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach have surveyed the field and come up with their lists of probable winners and deserving alternatives. Right now, it looks like Brokeback Mountain all the way. But there are all these fascinating C-factors -- Clooney, Crash and Capote. For details, read on and stay tuned.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

MICHAEL SRAGOW

BEST PICTURE

"I just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?" It was a recurring laugh-line in Saturday Night Live when Jon Lovitz portrayed Harvey Fierstein, but it's a rallying cry for supporters of Brokeback Mountain (even John Waters), which will ride an emotional wave to victory. Capote, though, deserves to win. As a movie about a writer, it's nonpareil; as a story of a man who shreds his personal integrity for a cause (albeit an artistic one), it's heart-piercing and quietly tumultuous.

BEST ACTOR

Philip Seymour Hoffman should win and will win for tracing the lures and the boundaries of urbanity in the title role of Capote. Hoffman does something terrifying and unsettling: He takes a literary voyager to the limits of his identity. He gives us the horror of empathy divorced from conscience -- and the sadness of a man whose self-knowledge defeats instead of strengthens him.

BEST ACTRESS

Reese Witherspoon will notch another deserved win for her kaleidoscopic performance in Walk the Line. She's been a critical favorite and box-office draw for years, but she achieved new breadth, stature and emotional immediacy as June Carter Cash. She gave equal impact to the wisecracking, girlish country star, the humiliated divorcee, and the courageous woman willing to take on a great and tortured talent as partner, lover and husband.

BEST DIRECTOR

Ang Lee sure does take his time. To my mind, turning Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain short story into a 134-minute movie is even more of a reverse feat than transforming a snappy comic book like The Hulk into a leaden 138-minute spectacle. His fans in the Academy respond to what they consider to be his gentle, patient touch. But Capote's Bennett Miller deserves the nod. Miller is the best of the new independent American directors. He combines a gift for plain-spoken profundity with a knack for creating atmospheres that make an ensemble sing.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Not since Richard Burton played John le Carre's Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has an actor portrayed a burned-out spy with as much bone-deep, marrow-chilling, harshly poignant desperation as George Clooney in Syriana. It's not the 30 pounds of extra weight he put on that counts. It's the million miles of hard road reflected in his eyes. The Academy will agree and approve.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

John le Carre has always provided the big screen with great heroines --- including Diane Keaton in The Little Drummer Girl, and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House -- and he did it again with Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener. She turns an activist named Tessa into the embodiment of passionate social engagement and committed love. It may be the most romantic performance of the year. It won't be overlooked.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

CHRIS KALTENBACH

BEST PICTURE

Brokeback Mountain will probably win, as much for its cultural significance as its artistry -- both considerable. Crash could prove the dark horse; people who love it really love it, and it's set in Los Angeles, where most of the Oscar voters live. Munich may actually be the most daring film of the bunch, and if it had been made by anyone other than Steven Spielberg, it might stand a chance. But it's seen as lesser Spielberg, and thus not really award-worthy.

BEST ACTOR

The surest thing to a lock among this year's races: Philip Seymour Hoffman, with more than a decade of great performances behind him, finally grabbed the spotlight with his eerily spot-on channeling of Truman Capote in Capote. Support for Brokeback Mountain's Heath Ledger has been building, and a Brokeback sweep could bring him the prize, but this should prove Hoffman's year.

BEST ACTRESS

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