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Some Value Plays on the Oscars...By Hartley Henderson

On Sunday Night Jon Stewart will be hosting the 80th Annual Oscars. The event was in question as a result of the writer's strike, but with that settled all systems are go. There hasn't been much buzz about this year's Academy Awards, possibly because of the writer's strike and possibly because there were no blockbusters. Nevertheless there are some value plays which I will discuss. The following categories present no value whatsoever. Best Actor will go to Daniel Day Lewis for his role in There Will Be Blood. Lewis has won every award so far for this movie. The only thing that can beat him is if there is some unknown dislike for him in Hollywood. He was after all a massive favorite to win for his role in Gangs of New York in 2002, but lost to the longest shot, Adrien Brody for his roll in The Piano. Nevertheless, he should be a shoo-in. Similarly, The Coen brothers should win for Best Director after winning the DGA Award, and Javier Bardem is the quintessential lock as Supporting Actor for his role in No Country for Old Men. That leaves 3 possible upset categories - Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Best Picture

The one thing notable about this year's films is how little excitement they have generated. No Country for Old Men, the dark story about psychopathic drug dealers who try and chase down a man that steals drugs and money from them is by all accounts a terrific movie, but it clearly isn't Return of The King or Titanic. The 1/3 odds on the movie have more to do with what it's up against than what it offers. The challengers to No Country for Old Men include There Will Be Blood, about a prospector who finds oil in the early 1900s but deals with misfortune as a result of it; Juno, about a 16 year old smart-assed teen that gets pregnant; Atonement, the depressing story of a family torn apart when one sister accuses her sister's lover of a crime he didn't commit; and Michael Clayton, the story about a lawyer who fights a major case to save his job. When Michael Clayton came out it was heralded as the film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar. Unfortunately, the film was released earlier in the year, and as is the case with most films released early, they tend to lose steam come January. Consequently, the early favorite has become the mega longshot at odds of 40/1. Atonement won the Golden Globe award, but there has been little mention of it since and the general consensus of critics is that the movie is far from great. As well, it is clear from listening to interviews and reading articles leading up to the Oscars that Atonement is near the bottom of the list for most in the Academy.

That leaves 2 other real contenders to challenge No Country for Old Men. There Will be Blood has been given very high reviews, although some find the movie too depressing. Those that like There Will Be Blood, however, clearly rate it ahead of No Country for Old Men. Also going for the picture is Daniel Day Lewis. Lewis is pretty much a sure thing to win the Best Actor Oscar, and in the past there has been a high correlation between the Best Picture winner and the Best Actor winner. It's not surprising, therefore, that There Will Be Blood continues to see its odds stay close to 5/2 despite not winning many awards, losing the Golden Globe and losing the best cast ensemble at the SAG Awards. Ironically, when Million Dollar Baby beat The Aviator in 2004 the same thing happened. While most newspapers and websites essentially handed the award to The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby's odds never really moved until the final few days, when they dropped. Clearly there was an unknown backlash against The Aviator and the same could prove true for No Country for Old Men.

The dark horse could be Juno. The movie has grossed far and away the most of the five films and there is quite a bit of chatter about how much the Academy loved the film. As well, it's been in the top 10 ever since the release. The betting action on the film resembles Little Miss Sunshine's last year when that film opened at 25/1 and closed at just over 4/1 after the buzz around Hollywood was that it would pull off the upset. In the end, however, the Academy just wasn't prepared to give the award to a "teen movie."

As such, I'm looking to defeat No Country for Old Men for Best Picture. The main play will be on There Will be Blood with a smaller play on Michael Clayton, just in case there are enough disgruntled Academy voters who throw up their hands and decide to give the award to their beloved George Clooney.

Best Actress

At first glance, Julie Christie looks like a lock for her role in Away From Her. She's winning almost all the awards and has been heralded for her work in the film. Aside from her Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA wins, she also has an Oscar win back in 1963, so this could be the "feel good comeback" story. However, there is a very good reason to go against Christie, namely that an older Actress won last year - Hellen Mirren in the Queen. Looking at the winners in the 2000s it is clear that the Academy prefers to give the award to up and coming sexy actresses. Aside from Mirren, the ten winners before her were Reese Witherspoon, Hillary Swank twice, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Helen Hunt and Frances McDormand. Without question, the Hellen Mirren and Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) wins were the exception to the rule. Add to that the fact that Mirren only won last year and the upset is there to be had. The only question is, who? Forget Laura Linney or Cate Blanchett. If anyone is to beat Christie it will be either Marion Cotillard for her role in La vie en Rose or Ellen Page for her role in Juno. Cotillard is without question the hot young actress that the Academy loves to vote for. As well, by all critical accounts her acting in La vie en Rose was at least as good as Julie Christie's and she has the "bling" to show for it, including a Best Actress win for a comedy or musical at the Golden Globes. Again, as was mentioned with There Will be Blood, Cotillard's odds have actually stayed fairly constant, and in the last couple of weeks have dropped. Insiders must know that there is a good chance Cotillard could pull the mild upset. Ellen Page is the dark horse and by all accounts put on the most spectacular show of all the nominees. Unfortunately for Page, she is young. It's one thing for Academy voters to go gaga over the young actresses, but not a teenager. In fact no one under 21 has ever won a Best Actress award, and the only young Supporting Actress to win was Tatum O'Neal who won in 1973 for her role in Paper Moon. For anyone who saw that movie, O'Neal was spectacular and should have been nominated for Best Actress. The movie, after all, was about her and her father Ryan O'Neal trying to survive in the depression, so which actress she was supporting is questionable. Nevertheless, it is hard to go against a trend where something has never occurred, so the only real choices for this category are Christie or Cotillard.

My money will be on Marion Cotillard to pull the upset over Christie at odds of 5/2. Mirren got the older vote last year. This year they'll revert to the young, pretty up and comer again.

Best Supporting Actress

The Best Supporting Actress category is all about the longshot. Every few years there seems to be a no name actress that surprises at double digit odds. In fact in 1996 when Juliette Binoche won, Lauren Bacall's odds were as low as 1/20 at British sports books. The sure thing was beat by a 15/1 shot that was given little chance. Marcia Gay Harden and Rachel Weisz were also big surprises in their wins. Cate Blanchett is the favorite for this award, but many wonder why. By all accounts this wasn't her best role, and in fact paled in comparison to her winning role just 3 years ago in The Aviator. The only logical conclusion as to why she is the favorite is name recognition, along with the fact that the Academy loves her. There is also the possibility many feel she will be given the award to make up for her guaranteed loss in the Best Actress category. That said, she presents no value whatsoever at 6/5 odds. Ruby Dee won the SAG award for her role in American Gangster, but that was because fellow actors clearly wanted to give some glory to the 83 year old (as they did to Bacall when she won the Supporting Actress award at the SAGs, only to lose the Oscar). It is highly unlikely that the majority of voters will hand out an Oscar to the old lady for a role that by all accounts wasn't that great. That leaves 3 upset possibilities - Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone, Tilda Swinton for her role in Michael Clayton and Saoirse Ronan for her role in Atonement. Of those 3, Ronan can probably be eliminated. She has won nothing so far and her name never seems to come up at all when web sites, insiders and critics discuss the category. Because of the type of film Atonement is, Ronan's role seems to get overshadowed. Amy Ryan is the logical choice to beat Blanchett, and at odds of around 2/1 she presents a bit of value. Prior to the SAG Awards Ryan was given a huge chance to win, but lost some steam after Dee's victory. It was reported that a large percentage of those who voted for Dee at the SAGs had Ryan as second choice. Without question the role is the type that Academy voters love, i.e. a woman who is overcome with grief. In Gone Baby Gone, Ryan plays a mother who has to search for her baby in the streets of Boston after she disappears. While I haven't seen the film, by all accounts Ryan was superb. Tilda Swinton is the dark horse. Her odds have been steadily dropping and now she rates anywhere from 6/1 to 12/1 despite being as high as 25/1 just last month. Swinton plays the lawyer who takes on George Clooney in Michael Clayton. Her role was heralded from the time the movie was released, but dropped off as the December movies came out. In the last few weeks however, her name has been mentioned again. One good reason that Swinton could pull off the upset is that the Academy loves George Clooney, but in reality Michael Clayton, which is up for 7 awards, has little chance of winning any other award. This could be the token award for a movie that was beloved by most when it was released earlier in the year.

So to sum up, the main plays for the Oscars are There Will Be Blood for Best Picture, Marion Cotillard for Best Actress and Tilda Swinton for Best Supporting Actress. Minor plays are on Michael Clayton for best Picture and Amy Ryan for Supporting Actress. If the major plays all win that represents 116/1 as a parlay. It's certainly worth a shot.

Hartley Henderson

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