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Handicapping the 2009 Oscars...By Hartley Henderson

Last year we picked all the Oscar winners except best picture. Daniel Day Lewis and Javier Bardem were obvious choices but Marion Cotillard and Tilda Swinton provided juicy returns. This year there isn't likely to be any major upsets like Swinton, but perhaps we can find some value plays at decent returns.

First we'll throw out the guaranteed winners. Heath Ledger will win best supporting actor for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. That will happen, and the only question is who will accept the award on his behalf. Similarly, Slumdog Millionaire will win for best picture and best director and Wall*E will win best animated film. Going against any of those is only throwing away money. Supporting any of those is classic bridge jumping, like betting the 1/9 favourite to show in horse racing. Unfortunately despite being quintessential locks, it's hard to justify the risk for the reward.

Supporting Actress:

Best Supporting Actress is another story. Penelope Cruz is the obvious choice for her role in Vicky Victoria Barcelona. She won the BAFTA award in Britain as best actress and also won several critics' awards leading up to the Oscars. At the Golden Globes, however, she lost as the favourite to Kate Winslet in The Reader, and at the SAG Awards she lost to Winslet as well. Fortunately for Cruz, the Academy deemed Winslet's performance in The Reader a lead acting role rather than a supporting role as the SAG and Golden Globes had. However, the fact that Cruz doesn't have to go up against Winslet hardly makes her a sure thing. Many reports suggested that Cruz wasn't second on people's voting lists, and there is a bit of resentment towards her because of the circumstances in her previous relationship with Tom Cruise. Furthermore, the role itself was good, but Vicky Victoria Barcelona was one of those movies where all the acting came together to give Woody Allen his hit movie. Cruz herself was not the reason for the movie's critical acclaim.

Looking to beat Cruz are Amy Adams in Doubt, Viola Davis in Doubt, Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler. You can throw out Amy Adams because she wasn't as good as Viola Davis, so she will get few votes. Tarija P Henson was good, but her movie was all about Brad Pitt and she was hardly even seen much in the film after she adopted Pitt. Usually supporting actress oscars go to characters that make themselves stand out in the scenes they are cast. That leaves Viola Davis and Marisa Tomei. Davis was good in her role and her movie was tremendous. The problem she has is that Merryl Streep stole the show. Typically when one actor or actress is clearly the star of the show, the performance of others tends to be overlooked. Many voters will have their ballots cast for Streep and will ignore Davis. If that happens it leaves the award between Cruz and Tomei. Marisa Tomei is best known for her role in My Cousin Vinny, but she will also be remembered for her topless scenes as a stripper in The Wrestler. At age 44 she looks great and is every dirty old man's and young boy's dream. Furthermore, she and Rourke stole the show in the movie. One other thing going for Tomei is that she didn't already lose at the SAG Awards, because she wasn't nominated. That may sound odd, but many SAG voters who also have ballots for the Oscars will be looking where to put their ballot now that Winslet isn't a nominee and they may decide to go for the nominee that they didn't already vote against. At the SAG Awards they passed up Cruz, Henson, Adams and Davis once, so there is really no reason to suspect they won't do it again. At odds of around 6/1 Tomei is certainly worth a small play.

Leading Actor:

This is a two man show between Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Sean Penn in Milk. As good as Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and especially Frank Langella were, they unfortunately were cast in a year where 2 actors had standout performances. Mickey Rourke will get votes for 2 reasons: First, he was spectacular in his role as a has-been wrestler, but he will also get sympathy votes for turning his life around. The actor, who was essentially self destructing on alcohol, made some failed attempts at comebacks after 9 1/2 Weeks, but this movie is a triumphant return because essentially he was playing himself in real life. Rourke was rewarded as best actor at the Golden Globes. Sean Penn is nominated for his role as politician Harvey Milk who was the first openly gay politician to get elected into office in California. Of course this is the type of role that Hollywood loves. They gave the award to Tom Hanks for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, as well as his role in Forrest Gump. They gave the award to Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, Jamie Foxx for Ray, etc. The bottom line: the academy loves films where the actor playing the underdog is able to overcome his apparent shortcoming. Of course that bodes well for Rourke as well since he too is an underdog that is fighting demons in The Wrestler.

The vote will be very close, but I have to go with Sean Penn for 3 reasons. First, he was the critic's choice in almost every vote leading up to the Golden Globes, and he was pegged for the award from the time this year's crop of movies were really being discussed. Rourke really wasn't even mentioned early on and came up as a contender out of the blue. Those who chose Penn early on they likely won't change their minds. Second, the academy loves Sean Penn. He is apparently the darling of Hollywood and has already won best actor for Mystic River. There are some in Hollywood who apparently dislike Rourke for his antics where he left acting because he said it was somehow destroying him. The third, and perhaps most bizarre reason, is that a vote for Penn will somehow be seen as a vote for gay rights. I was left scratching my head when I saw an interview on one of the morning shows where someone said that films like Milk need to be recognized if a bill like Proposition 8 is ever to pass again. The argument is ludicrous, but unfortunately there are a lot of people with strange viewpoints that vote at the Oscars. Furthermore, Penn beat Rourke at the SAG Awards, which as mentioned earlier is often a precursor to determining who will win the main award. At odds of around 2/1 he is a good bet.

Leading Actress:

Finally, the last category to examine is best actress. Forget Angelina Jolie or Melissa Leo, as they weren't good enough to win. Anne Hathaway is a head scratcher. She along with Merryl Streep and Kate Winslet were always deemed the three that were going to battle it out for the award. Hathaway played Kym in Rachel Getting Married and won 3 critics' awards leading up to the SAG awards. Other than that I know nothing about it, as it's the type of movie I would have to be dragged to kicking and screaming. I assume many in the Academy are in the same boat because the movie hardly got great numbers at the box office. At the Golden Globes the 3 actresses were about the same odds when the Golden Globe website posted Hathaway as the winner of the Award. Betting went berserk on her and sportsbooks were left licking their chops when Winslet was announced as the winner of the award. Nevertheless, the error was somehow seen as an achievement for Hathaway and her odds continue to stay low. She lost at the Globes, lost at the SAGs and doesn't seem to be picked by any film experts to win the award. So at odds of around 5/1 it's a mystery why she is getting so much support. She certainly is an outsider.

The two that will battle it out are Merryl Streep and Kate Winslet. Had Winslet been nominated for Revolutionary Road, as she was at the SAG Awards and Golden Globes, Streep would win hands down. However, Winslet is nominated for her role in The Reader, where apparently she was much better. Again, The Reader isn't a movie I would pay to see, but all accounts say she was very good. The problem Winslet will have is that she was obviously just one of many actresses in the film, and the fact that she was up for best supporting actress at the Globes and the SAG Awards is an indication she didn't even have the biggest role in the movie. As well, The Reader, despite being nominated for best picture, was hardly a critic's or fan favourite.

Merryl Streep, on the other hand, was the star of Doubt. She played the very strict principal at a Catholic school and had a performance that the Academy loves - i.e. lots of fire and emotion. As well, the other actresses were all clearly supporting actresses to her role. She won the SAG Award and no doubt many who voted for her there will still vote for her at the Oscars, despite the fact the Oscars chose Winslet for a different role. Further, Streep is greatly appreciated by the Academy and some will see this as a bit of a reward for her role in The Devil Wears Prada, where they wanted to give her the Oscar but couldn't because Hellen Mirren was just too good in The Queen.

After winning the SAG Award Streep dropped to as low as 5/2 odds to win the Oscar, but now has crept back up to around 4/1 odds. At those odds she represents great value.

If any sportsbook offers other categories, watch for The Dark Knight to win its share of awards. The movie was highly regarded and had the highest gross ticket sales ever for an opening weekend. As well, many at the Academy will want to reward the film for more than just Heath Ledger. To most people The Dark Knight was far more deserving as a best picture nominee than Frost/Nixon or The Reader.

Hartley Henderson

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