Legendary screenwriter William Goldman once famously wrote about Hollywood that “nobody knows anything.”
The oft-quoted remark refers to the fact that as soon as someone thinks he’s figured out the movie business through various trends, something will happen that blows conventional wisdom out of the water.
Goldman’s wisdom could easily be applied to the Academy Awards, which air Sunday night. A viewer could try to predict the winners through the most sound logic imaginable, only to have voters go a different way.
One need not look any further back than last year, when “Argo” won Best Picture, but director Ben Affleck didn’t even score a Best Director nomination -- and this after winning the Directors Guild of America award for his work.
It’s not as if Affleck is a flash in the pan as a director -- his first two efforts, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” also were Oscar-worthy. So why was Affleck overlooked by his peers in the Academy?
So that’s the caveat for trying to pick among this year’s crop of films. Based on the critics and previous awards, the three films that should stand out Sunday night are “Gravity,” “12 Years A Slave” and “American Hustle.” Whether those films will triumph, or some dark horse enters the race, remains to be seen.
So here are my predictions:
Lead Actor: While not a sure bet, picking Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas Buyers Club” should be the choice when filling out the sheet for your Oscar pool.
McConaughey already has won the Golden Globe for his performance as a man stricken with AIDS, but more importantly, he also won the Screen Actors Guild Award. Why is that more important? Because actors make up the largest percentage of voters in the Academy.
Chiwetel Ejiofor might get some support for his career-making work in “12 Years A Slave,” but McConaughey lost a ton of weight for his role to transform himself physically, and other actors always admire physical transformations.
Lead Actress: The conventional wisdom is that Cate Blanchett will win for “Blue Jasmine,” having also won the Golden Globe and SAG awards.
However, the recent backlash against director Woody Allen over decades-old accusations that he molested his daughter (Allen has never been charged) has put people who like the movie in the difficult position of having to defend their views. Could that affect Blanchett’s chances? Nobody knows. But it could open a crack in the door that might allow Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”) or Judi Dench (“Philomena”) to sneak through for the win.
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto has matched his co-star McConaughey’s success at the Golden Globes and SAGs, and it seems unlikely that voters wouldn’t follow suit at the Oscars.
However, the Academy has a history of voting for unconventional choices in the supporting categories (remember Dr. Haing S. Ngor in “The Killing Fields?”), so Barkhad Abdi could earn a gold statue for “Captain Phillips,” the actor’s first role. The Academy also enjoys the work of a good villain, so Michael Fassbender’s work in “12 Years A Slave” could draw some attention as well.
Supporting Actress: As noted, this is a category where the Academy likes to recognize the work of actors who previously were unknown. Two actresses -- Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years A Slave”) and June Squibb (“Nebraska”) -- fit the bill, but not only do they have to face off against each other, but also the juggernaut of Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”), who won a Best Actress trophy last year for “Silver Linings Playbook.”
This will likely be the toughest of the acting categories to call, since Lawrence won the Golden Globe but Nyong’o won the SAG. The gut feeling here is to go with Nyong’o for a potential star-making turn despite the universal love for all things Lawrence, but remember, nobody knows anything.
Best Director: With the notable exception of Affleck last year and a few other cases, Best Director and Best Picture usually go hand-in-hand. Based on the critics and previous award shows, this category likely will come down to Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) or Steve McQueen (“12 Years A Slave”), with David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) also a contender.
It could be an historic night if Cuaron or McQueen wins, because it would mark the first time that, respectively, a native Spanish speaker or a black director wins an Oscar in this category.
Cuaron won the Golden Globe and the DGA Award this year, and the look of “Gravity” was both stunning and revolutionary, so he should likely win again Sunday night.
Best Picture: There have been 23 times during the Oscars’ 86-year history, including last year, when the Best Director winner hasn’t won Best Picture as well. While Cuaron might seem the favorite for Best Director, “Gravity” is in for a much more difficult fight for Best Picture.
While “12 Years A Slave” has won almost universal acclaim (and the Golden Globe), reaction to “Gravity” has been a touch more mixed.
Usually, Academy voters -- including the Americans -- tend to be a little biased in favor of British productions, and there’s a strong British flavor to “Slave” (McQueen and stars Ejiofor, Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch are all Brits); however, because “Slave” is a distinctly American story, what’s known as the “Masterpiece Theatre” effect in voting is neutralized.
From a technical standpoint, nothing is better than “Gravity,” and the look Cuaron achieved on screen is pretty remarkable, as was Bullock’s performance. But the ambiguous nature of the story turned some people off.
By contrast, “American Hustle” has proven to be a crowd-pleaser, especially among those who remember the real-life events of Abscam during the 1970s. Being the latest-released of the three top contenders also gives the movie a bit of momentum. But it hasn’t broken through in any major Best Picture category among any other year-end awards.
So, when picking your Oscar pool, you may want to roll the dice and write “12 Years A Slave” on your ballot. It has the feel of being a Best Picture winner.
Or don’t. Remember, nobody knows anything about Hollywood.
Phillip Ramati is a writer for The Telegraph and was a finalist for the 2002-03 Disney/ABC Screenwriting Fellowship. Contact him at 478-744-4334.