HOLLYWOOD: The internationally themed 79th Academy Awards looks set to witness a photo-finish in the Oscars race for best picture here on 25 February, with a clear favourite yet to emerge for the coveted statuette.
As the streets around Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre prepare to go into lockdown before the stars descend on the red carpet, the guessing game over who might walk off with the biggest prize of the night has intensified.
Movie pundits are unanimous that veteran US filmmaker Martin Scorsese is finally going to be honoured with an Oscar for best director after being overlooked on no fewer than five previous occasions.
But it is by no means certain that Scorsese’s Oscar will be matched by a win in the best picture category for his slick thriller The Departed when the votes of 5,830 Academy members are totalled up.
“I don’t think people feel that The Departed was Scorsese’s best movie,” said Lew Harris, editorial director of the Movies.com website.
“He’ll win best director for the sympathy vote, but I don’t think that they’re going to give him best picture.”
Scorsese’s The Departed and independent feel-good movie Little Miss Sunshine were the bookmakers’ favourites, according to the latest odds, with Ladbrokes quoting them at evens and 9/4, respectively.
But analysts believe the multilingual drama Babel, the Golden Globe winner, and Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language war film Letters from Iwo Jima could yet pull off a victory on Oscars night.
Tom O’Neil, of the Los Angeles Times’ TheEnvelope.com awards show website, noted that although there was a broad tradition of the best director and best picture Oscars going hand in hand, the two awards had been split four times in the past eight years, which could spell trouble for The Departed.
“The best picture race is a three-pony contest,” O’Neil said. “Make that a three-pony toss-up. The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine or Babel can win.”
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, shot in four languages on three continents, could be viewed as representative of the cosmopolitan field at this year’s Oscars.
Nine nations — Australia, Benin, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the US — are represented in the acting categories alone.
There will also be a strong theme of diversity at the awards: a record five black actors are up for Oscars and are expected to win in three out of four categories, while this year’s host, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, is gay.
“Hollywood’s always claimed to be a liberal place, but this year it’s proving it,” O’Neil said, describing the prospect of black actors pulling off a near clean-sweep as “extraordinary”.
O’Neil said the fact that three films by Mexican directors — Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men — had amassed 16 nominations among them showed the Academy was trying to be inclusive “in an international way, not just domestically”.
While the race for best picture remained open, bookmakers in Britain had stopped taking bets on veteran Helen Mirren prevailing in the best actress category for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.
One bookmaker listed 61-year-old Mirren, who is poised for a clean sweep of the award season’s honours if she takes home the Oscar, at 1/66, while betting giants William Hill have started paying early on bets placed on her.
“If Helen fails to win, it will be the biggest upset in Oscar betting history,” Hill’s spokesman Rupert Adams said.
This year’s Oscars ceremony will be watched by a global audience estimated in the hundreds of millions.
US tax inspectors will also be keeping a close eye on proceedings — a fact that has helped end the tradition of $100,000 gift baskets crammed with luxury goods that used to be given to Oscars presenters.
“It seemed a little inappropriate to offer a gesture of thanks that then carried with it a tax obligation,” Academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger said when explaining the decision.
Final preparations for the awards are on in full swing, with authorities preparing to drape a steely security blanket across Hollywood.
All the main streets around the Kodak Theatre will be sealed off 25 February, with several hundred police manning barricades, conducting identification checks and searching cars, including celebrities’ limos.
“We’ve taken every measure that we feel necessary to protect such a high-profile event,” said Los Angeles Police Department Lieutenant Paul Vernon.
“This is a premier event for Los Angeles, Hollywood, all the eyes of the world are on us. We have never had a serious incident, but we are prepared to address any potential incident, however large or small,” he said.