I have a love-hate relationship with the Academy Awards. Love, because it's one of the few times of the year when people are actively discussing movies in terms of quality, rather than opening weekend box-office tally. Hate, because that damned statuette has rarely, if ever, been about said quality.
Still, people find themselves inordinately fascinated with trying to handicap the Oscar races. This requires getting inside the heads of the members of the Academy, to understand what makes them do the things they do.
There's actually a simple explanation: The Academy is attempting to promote a certain impression of the motion picture industry. Which is baffling in and of itself. Would we let the American automobile industry tell us every year which are the best cars a list that would be suspiciously lacking in non-American automobiles? Is it so surprising why this industry would select Crash (thus appearing safely anti-racism) over Brokeback Mountain (and potentially appear unsafely anti-homophobia)?
Nowhere have the Academy's tendencies been more apparent than in the lead acting categories. In fact, there is an almost mathematical formula for figuring out which of the nominees will win. If you'd participated in any "Oscar pools" over the past 25 years, you'd find a success rate of more than 90 percent with this formula. Simply award a point to a performance if it fits one of the following criteria:
1) Playing a real-life person. No single variable has proven to be more predictive of Oscar success over the years. There is a depressingly obvious reason for this: It requires no understanding of the art of acting whatsoever to see a performance, compare it to the genuine article, and say, "He/she looks and sounds rather like the person he/she is playing."
2) Adopting an accent or distinctive speech pattern also known as "the Rain Man rule." Superficial vocal tricks are, for some inexplicable reason, equated with great acting.
3) Physical transformation, or "glamming down." Clear a spot on that mantelpiece if you're prepared to put on or shed a lot of weight (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull; Adrien Brody in The Pianist). Same goes for actresses willing to look unattractive (Charlize Theron in Monster), sport a false nose (Nicole Kidman in The Hours) or otherwise refuse to wear makeup.
4) Struggling with mental illness or addiction. Oh, the colors you can play if you get to have a breakdown or go through detox (Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas; Geoffrey Rush in Shine).
5) Dying, or mourning over someone who has died. Death is gold for actors, whether you're on the gasping-for-your-last-breath side (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia) or the screaming-in-anguish side (Sean Penn in Mystic River).
6) Much-liked, previously winless veteran. Oscar voters love the chance to give someone a standing ovation after years of screwing them over in better performances (Paul Newman in The Color of Money; Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman).
Yeah, you've probably heard for months now that Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren were the favorites (see "This year's nominees"). Now you know why.
Using the equation, let's do the math. (Warning: This may involve spoilers where the subject of "death" is concerned.)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond: Accent + Death = 2
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson: Addiction = 1
Peter O'Toole, Venus: Veteran = 1
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness: Real Person = 1
*Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland = Real Person + Accent + Madness = 3
... and the actresses:
Penlope Cruz, Volver: Death = 1
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal: Madness = 1
*Helen Mirren, The Queen: Real Person + Death + Veteran = 3
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada: 0
Kate Winslet, Little Children: 0
* Largely viewed as Oscar favorite.