Tom O’Neil on possible Oscar upsets

Nothing in Hollywood goes according to script, especially at the Oscars. In past years, for example, just when most of the award pundits made up their minds that Viola Davis (“The Help”) and Julie Christie (“Away from Her”) would win Best Actress of 2011 and 2007, Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady“) and Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”) pulled off jaw-droppers.

This year the pundits polled by Gold Derby say “Lincoln” will win Best Picture, Director (Steven Spielberg), Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones). Best Actress is believed to be between Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook“) and Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty“) and it’s widely presumed that Anne Hathaway (“Les Miserables“) has Supporting Actress in the bag.

Pundit support for “Lincoln” is bolstered by the fact that it leads with the most nominations (12), which usually translates into victory in the top race. However, let’s recall that “Hugo” had the most bids last year and “The Artist” took Best Picture.

“Lincoln” does have a few other things going for it. Historically, voters have demonstrated that they like big, epic biographies like “The Last Emperor” (1987) and “Gandhi” (1982). Also, it’s important that a film have a compelling story behind the story it tells on screen. Last year’s victory by “The Artist” signaled a triumphant return of silent movies just as the current film biz copes with the advent of 3-D and the internet. “The Departed” (2006) won because the academy wanted to make up for past snubs to Martin Scorsese.

You could argue that Spielberg hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated by Oscar voters. Hollywood’s most revered director has only won Best Picture once: “Schindler’s List” (1993). He’s received the directors’ trophy twice (“Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 plus “Schindler’s List”), but he’s got one less Best Picture than Milos Forman (“Amadeus” in 1984, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975) and Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby” in 2004, “Unforgiven” in 1992). That hardly seems fair.

Lincoln” has been a box office hit ($162 million) praised by film critics (91 score at Rotten Tomatoes), which is usually a winning Oscar combination, but it’s vulnerable in this derby. While voters admire it, enjoy it and respect it, there’s actually more passion and gushing love for “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” according to my own personal survey of academy members. Passion usually cinches victory.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, “Argo” doesn’t have that corresponding nomination for Best Director that’s usually essential to victory, but that may actually help its chances. Many academy members I’ve spoken to want to rally to Ben Affleck‘s wounded side. If they vote for “Argo” or “Silver Linings Playbook” for Best Picture, they feel like they can still give Spielberg the director’s gold and take good care of him too.

Personally, I’m betting on “Argo” to win Best Picture. I think voters like its back story of Hollywood saving the world (or at least saving the U.S. during in the Iran conflict back in the 1970s) and it is, arguably, the best movie of 2012 according to film critics. Of all Best Picture nominees, it’s got the highest score at Rotten Tomatoes (97). But don’t rule out a surprise by “Silver Linings Playbook.” It’s bursting with heart and look who’s driving its Oscar campaign – Harvey Weinstein – who won Best Picture the past two years (“The Artist” and “The King’s Speech”).

Nobody can trip up Daniel Day-Lewis in the Lead Actors’ race or Anne Hathaway in the Supporting Actress contest, but upsets are possible for Best Actress and Supporting Actor. I agree that Jennifer Lawrence or Jessica Chastain will probably snag the ladies’ laurels, but watch out for Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour“) and Quvenzhane Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild“). Their ages make them extremely different from other contenders and being different is often key to victory. If there’s one apple in a bag of oranges at any award’s competition, the apple often wins in an upset. Riva has other things going for her (art house appeal, respect for her venerable career) and so does Wallis. Voters adore little girls and have showered Oscars on them in the past (Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal, Patty Duke) despite their youth.

The battle over Best Supporting Actor is a toss-up. If “Lincoln,” “Argo” or “Silver Linings Playbook” wins Best Picture, Tommy Lee Jones, Alan Arkin or Robert De Niro may go along for the ride. Curiously, this category is filled with five past winners – that’s never happened before. Those three chaps are beloved veterans, which helps. Voters often turn this category into a Veterans’ Achievement Award. Personally, I think De Niro will take it this year.

But Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”) and Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained”) are serious rivals. Arguably, they have lead roles secretly slumming it in Oscar’s supporting contest. Size matters, especially in Hollywood. Other factors: Hoffman has the support of snooty cineastes, Waltz has the backing of wags who like to vote for other rascals.

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