Only four horses really in Best Picture race

Oscar’s best picture candidates number nine for the first time in the 84-year history of the Academy Awards.

But there are only four in real contention: Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Tate Taylor’s The Help.

Nothing else is considered even close, not Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball nor Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The unlikely French contender — Hazanavicius’ charming romance — is a black-and-white silent picture, not counting two brief lines of English dialogue heard at the end. Yet it remains the odds-on favourite. This is an unusual year indeed.

For two years, the nomination list had been at 10, a doubling of the five that was standard for 65 years. The “lost” nominee this year did not get named on a minimum of five percent of the ballots, so it was jettisoned. It does not really matter. The race has narrowed anyway for Sunday’s ceremony, to be hosted by Billy Crystal at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.

• If polls are correct and The Artist wins as best picture, it will be the first silent film to take this prize since William Wellman’s Wings (1927). The former American air ace’s WWI romantic action film was a critical, artistic and commercial success in 1927-28. At the first Academy Awards ceremony held at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel 83 years ago, in May 1929, Wings won what was later re-named best picture. The same year, another silent film, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, won the parallel category of best artistic production. But Wings was retroactively selected as the first “official” best picture winner and the “artistic production” category was dropped after only that one year.

• If The Artist wins as best picture, it will be the first French production to take top honours since Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). That film — a holocaust tale shot primarily in the English language in Germany and Poland — was a co-production of France, Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Polanski is based in Paris. The Artist — filmed silently in Los Angeles, Burbank and Pasadena — is a co-production involving France and Belgium. Hazanavicius was born in Paris.

• If The Artist wins as best picture, it will be the first romantic comedy to triumph since Shakespeare in Love (1998). It will also become the first film about filmmaking ever to win.

• Hugo would have to score in every one of its 11 nominated categories to tie the all-time record for most Oscars. That record is shared by William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Of those, The Return of the King is the only one to run the table on all of its nominations.

• Hugo already shares something bizarre with The Return of the King. Despite an impressive 11 nominations in each case, no actor was nominated.

• Hugo would have to lose everything to tie a dubious record of having the most nominations without a win. Only two films have ever suffered so: Herbert Ross’ The Turning Point (1977) and Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985).

• No film from 2011 can take what Oscar historians cite as The Big Five in Academy Awards: best picture, actor, actress, director and screenplay — because the nominations are just not there. Closest contender is The Artist with nominations in the best picture, actor, director and screenplay categories. But the leading lady — Berenice Bejo, the Argentine-French actress who is married to Hazanavicius — ended up in the best supporting actress category. Only three films have ever done The Big Five sweep: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The last time a film was even in the running was seven years ago with Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004). It won only three of the five — plus one in another category — for a total haul of four.

• All you have to do is win best picture to be remembered. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech emerged with the prize a year ago and people rejoiced. Yet the film earned only four Oscars out of its 12 nominations. Win big and you go home happy. Even when you are the record loser, too, for the same year.

— BRUCE KIRKLAND, Sun Media News Services