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Second-guessing the Oscars

The only additional Oscar prediction I'm prepared to make this year is that Hugh Jackman will be a delightful host for the evening. Famous for playing Wolverine in the X-Men movies, he may not strike you as the life of the party, but I base my prediction on two factors: He's Australian, and he's the youngest of five. Therefore, he's funny, born and bred.

In the actual competition, most of the experts believe the top categories are nailed down. An expert is anyone with an opinion that has been expressed before the Oscarcast begins, which it will Sunday at 7 p.m. Chicago time on ABC/7.

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My own predictions, published last Feb. 6, written Feb. 2, tend to reflect the consensus that has developed since then. Most gurus agree "Slumdog Millionaire" will win as best picture, Kate Winslet as best actress, Sean Penn as best actor, Heath Ledger as supporting actor, Danny Boyle as director. I wrote Boyle a note predicting the best picture Oscar 60 seconds after seeing his film's press premiere at Toronto--not that it required great insight. Some movies, you just feel that tingle.

The category where most Oscarians disagree with me is supporting actress, where I believe Viola Davis had a good chance for her work in "Doubt." The world guesses otherwise: Penelope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," most people say, and you hear murmurs about Taraji P. Henson for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

It may be too much for me to expect getting all six top choices right. I choose Davis because her performance provided, for me, one of those rare Yes!! moments, when an actor appears on the screen, electrifies you, and makes you intensely happy. A lot of people must have shared that feeling, I reasoned.

Which performance is objectively better is of course beside the point. You can't grade art objectively. It is worth reflecting that many best actor winners over the years have likely not scored a simple majority in their categories. We'll never know who lost by one vote. The secret ballots have been called a rebuke to democracy, but there is nothing democratic about it. If there was, there should be primaries.

Another category that's interesting is best actor. My emotional preference was for Mickey Rourke, but my prediction was Penn. In deciding that, I went against an interesting theory of Gene Siskel, who reasoned like this: The voters are in showbiz, and when they vote, to a degree they're scripting the show. It's hard for them to resist certain nominees because they know how dramatic it would be if they won. Sometimes a groundswell forms for an underdog, an outsider, a winner whose Oscar would thumb its nose at the powerful.

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"Slumdog" will benefit from that impulse on Sunday, and so might Rourke. Sean Penn is one of our greatest actors; on that we all agree. But if Mickey's name is read out, a mighty roar will rise up from the crowd, and Jack in the front row will leap to his feet. It would be a popular victory. That's why I'm less confident in this category than some of the others.

In other categories, an Oscar will mean that a lot more people will be encouraged to see some terrific films they would otherwise not seek out, films that never play in some cities (or states). "Man on Wire" as best documentary will supply them with riveting fascination. What kind of man would illegally string a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and walk back and forth eight times? How would he do that? How would he smuggle two tons of equipment and two teams of helpers past security?

For foreign film, I predicted "Waltz with Bashir" but would not be surprised by "The Class," which is more broadly appealing. Few people have yet seen the other three nominees, so a surprise is not out of the question.

But wait a minute. Wasn't this supposed to be the year of "Benjamin Button?" Didn't it have an overwhelming Oscar campaign, including a full-color gatefold ad in Variety that cost as much as some indie films? Wasn't it the presumptive front runner? What happened?

Although a lot of people thought my criticism of the film was screwy (how can you identify with a life that runs backwards?), I think in a broader sense I was on to something. "Benjamin Button" was amazingly well done, but it didn't grab people on a gut level. There was something too...strange...about it.

One of the warm moments of the evening will come when Jerry Lewis is given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. If there was ever a man who paid his dues for that award, it is Lewis.

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