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In Oscar derby, it's 'The Artist' vs. 'The Descendants'

academy awards won by Katherine Hepburn
cliff | flickr

The past couple of years, the annual race for the best-picture Academy Award has been a two-horse derby, with similar results each time. In both 2010 and 2011, early front-runners (“Avatar” and “The Social Network” respectively) were caught in the stretch and passed before the wire by two relatively low-budget upstarts (“The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech”). It looks like something similar is going to happen again when the winners are revealed at the Oscar ceremonies Feb. 26.

When it was released in November, the engaging, darkly comic “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney as a too busy Hawaiian real estate lawyer trying to re-engage with his two daughters when tragedy strikes his wife, looked like a natural for the best picture Oscar. It boasted Hollywood establishment power in the person of Clooney, one of the last of the classic movie stars and a fine actor to boot. At the same time, the other actors were, in the main, very talented but little known, and it had a certain offbeat indy charm in its cliché-averse direction by Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt”), skillful at using comedy to take the edge off more serious matters.

Then, in December, along came “The Artist,” an unheralded, virtually silent French film shot in black and white, “The Artist, set in Hollywood at the end of the silent era,” had mostly been seen at film festivals; wisely, the St. Louis International Film Festival chose to open its 2011 festivities with “The Artist.” Despite ecstatic reviews, audiences were reluctant to see it at first, but pretty soon comments like “the most fun I’ve had at the movies in years” got the crowds rolling in.

In mid-January, shortly before the Oscar nominations were announced, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced the Golden Globe awards, which have become considerably more respectable and reliable in recent years. (A major factor in decades past was which film laid on the most elaborate junkets for association members.) “The Artist” was named best comedy or musical, “Descendants” was named best dramatic film, so the two contenders were running neck and neck.

The Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 24, and “The Artist” led the field with 11 nominations. A week later, the director’s guild gave Michel Hazanavicius, director of “The Artist,” its top award. That award usually translates into best director and best picture honors at the Oscars. And “The Artist” has continued to win honors, most recently being dubbed best picture at the British version of the Oscars.

As for the acting Oscars, it is helpful to know that the Screen Actor’s Guild represents the single largest professional group in the Academy. The SAG awards are usually a good indication of which actors will win the Oscars. This year, at the end of January, the SAG awards went to:

Best actress: Viola Davis, “The Help.”

Best supporting actress: Octavia Spencer, “The Help.”

Best actor: Jean Dujardin, “The Artist.”

Best supporting actor: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners.”

Here are my own picks in the top Oscar categories. In a year that celebrated statistical analysis in chancy events (“Moneyball”), I do not stray far from the path of past performance. Of course, as the stockbroker ads say, more or less, you can’t necessarily predict the future by relying on the past.


Will win: “The Artist”

Should win: “The Artist”

Has a shot: “Hugo”


Will win: Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”

Should win: Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”

Has a shot: Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”


Will win: Jean Dujardin, “The Actor”

Should win: Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Has a shot: George Clooney, “The Descendants”


Will win: Viola Davis, “The Help”

Should win: Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Has a shot: Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”


Will win: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”

Should win: Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”

Has a shot: Max von Sydow, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”


Will win: Octavia Spencer, “The Help”

Should win: Octavia Spencer, “The Help”

Has a shot: Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”

A few other probable winners: Best Adapted Screenplay, “The Descendants”; Best Original Screenplay, “Midnight in Paris”; Best Cinematography, “The Tree of Life”; Best Foreign Language film, “A Separation”

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement