Remember last week, when I said the signs of who'll win at the Oscars this year are everywhere? They are, but that doesn't mean everything is a sign.
This week, for instance, CNN ran a story about the race in which it showed a picture of an Oscar statuette nameplate with Leonardo DiCaprio's name engraved on it. Sharp-eyed viewers thought that meant that the "Wolf of Wall Street" star had the Best Actor Oscar locked up. Actually, however, they make those nameplates for all the nominees and then attach them to the trophies if they win.
Still, people are grasping for excitement in the race wherever they can find it. On Monday, the Academy held its annual luncheon for the nominees at the Beverly Hilton. Usually, this is just a nice photo op, where costume designers and sound effects editors mingle with A-list stars and directors, where everyone is on their best behavior, and where Academy officials remind everyone to keep their speeches short on Oscar night.
But even the Academy Luncheon can be parsed for clues. Who didn't show? Should the Academy worry that they can't play nice with others? Does their absence mean that they're not campaigning any more? (Jennifer Lawrence was the only one of the four "American Hustle" acting nominees not present. Does that mean she's so adorable that she doesn't have to campaign, or is she acknowledging that "12 Years a Slave" red carpet darling Lupita Nyong'o is the favorite for Best Supporting Actress?)
This year, however, some of the no-shows had good reasons to stay away. Julia Roberts had a death in the family. Woody Allen wouldn't have shown up anyway, but these days, you can't blame him for not making public appearances, where the focus of the day would suddenly shift to his ugly war of words with Dylan Farrow.
As I suggested last week, if Farrow wants to turn the Oscars into a referendum on whether working with Allen is tantamount to endorsing child molestation, the results may not please her. Cate Blanchett's performance in Allen's "Blue Jasmine" is still the Best Actress frontrunner by a mile. But it's clear that when we're talking about the Allen/Farrow brouhaha's effect on the Oscars, or whether voters might disqualify Matthew McConaughey and "Dallas Buyers Club" because Ron Woodroof may not have been a straight homophobe in real life, or whether people are going to vote for "12 Years a Slave" only out of historical guilt (over both America's shameful racial history and Hollywood's), then we've come an awfully long way from whether these movies and performances deserve to win on their artistic merits.
Presumably, artistic merit was what mattered for the behind-the-scenes specialists who voted their own prizes over the weekend. The ACE Eddie Awards, given out Saturday for outstanding movie editing, spread the wealth. Best Edited Drama went to "Captain Phillips," Comedy to "American Hustle," Animated Movie to "Frozen," and Documentary to "20 Feet From Stardom." At the very least, these prizes suggest strong support for "Hustle" and "Phillips" in the Academy's Editing category (the other Oscar nominees are "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity," and "12 Years a Slave"); at most, it suggests broader Academy voter support for these movies in the other categories as well.
Similarly, this weekend saw the Art Directing Awards, divided among Contemporary Films ("Her"), Fantasy Films ("Gravity"), and Period Films ("The Great Gatsby"). Aside from whether they didn't get the Fantasy and Contemporary titles switched, the Art Directors suggested that the support in the Academy's production design category is stronger for those three movies than for "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave." It also suggests that the votes of the designers may cancel out those of the editors, and that "12 Years" doesn't have very deep support beyond the high-profile categories.
This coming weekend, the tea-leaf readers will cast their gaze across the pond to the BAFTAs, the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, to be given out Sunday at a star-studded ceremony in London. It used to be that the impact of the BAFTAs upon the Oscars was nil, but about 15 years ago, BAFTA organizers moved the ceremony up to take place well before the Oscars. That doesn't mean it's going to influence any votes on this side of the Atlantic (though the Academy does have a contingent of British members), but the BAFTAs have been an uncanny predictor of the American winner for Best Picture.
Over the past five years, the BAFTA winner has gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar every time. If that trend continues, then one of this year's BAFTA nominees -- "12 Years," "American Hustle," "Captain Phillips," "Gravity," and "Philomena" -- will take home the Oscar. Does that mean that "Dallas Buyers Club," "Her," "Nebraska," and "Wolf of Wall Street" have no shot, since they didn't get BAFTA nominations? Well, they don't, but they didn't even before the BAFTA nominations were announced. Neither, for that matter, do "Captain Phillips" or "Philomena." The Best Picture Academy Award category is still pretty much a three-way race among "12 Years," "American Hustle," and "Gravity."
The other thing to note about the coming week is that the Oscar voters receive their ballots on Friday, Feb. 14, and must return them by Feb. 25. So all that's gone on up until now -- all the gladhanding, backbiting, and second-guessing -- may well be forgotten by the time Academy members actually sit down to fill out their ballots. Let's hope they can set aside the chatter and noise and can remember that each category is full of deserving candidates, and that they can affix anybody's nameplate to those statuettes.