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Oscars will have old-style look this year

Relive history with a veteran host, odes to old Hollywood

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Black-and-white silent film 'The Artist' is poised to win big, with nominations for best picture, best actor in a leading role, best actress in a supporting role, best cinematography and best directing.

The 84th Academy Awards will reflect movie history both recent and the distant past Sunday in Los Angeles. Two love letters to cinema's past, "Hugo" and "The Artist," enter the evening with 11 and 10 nominations, respectively. And former Oscar fixture Billy Crystal will shepherd the proceedings, singing, dancing and mugging his way through the evening, just like old times.

Though Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" received the most nominations, the majority were in the technical categories. The noted film historian's animated feature will ironically play second fiddle to French director Michel Hazanavicius' black-and-white paean to Hollywood's silent past.

Following an awkward and highly criticized James Franco-Anne Hathaway tag-team last year and Eddie Murphy's abnegation of hosting duties under embarrassing circumstances this year, the Oscar team went to the bullpen (or is it the graveyard?) of former Oscar hosts to snag Crystal.

"Actually, I am doing this so that the young woman in my pharmacy will stop asking me my name when I pick up my prescriptions," Crystal said.

Hey-o!

If the nine-time Oscar host's shtick feels old, it's only fitting for a show that honors films based on the voting of mostly aged, white men. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that nearly 94 percent of Academy voters are Caucasian, 77 percent are male, and 86 percent are older than 50. Keep those numbers in mind while trying to predict the winners.

Crystal, and his presumptive musical montage, won't be the only song-and-dance routine tonight. Cirque du Soleil will present an exclusive, one-time performance in the middle of the evening's proceedings. Expect that little bit of stage craft to extend what is already historically a very long night.

Below we take a look at what to expect (and what we hope happens) when the envelopes are opened.

Best Picture

Will win

"The Artist." Director Michel Hazanavicius transported audiences with his homage to silent cinema. The pace hummed in this visually captivating black-and-white film that surprised with a simple elegance that was seamlessly constructed. The film has been an awards season juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing.

Should win

"Take Shelter." Oh, Jeff Nichols' film didn't receive a nomination? Then I will happily settle for "The Artist." It might be hard to wrap our minds around an aging and self-pitying actor deserving the unconditional love of a beautiful starlet, but the well-crafted silent film sweeps you into a blissful suspension of disbelief. With great set design, acting, direction and score, "The Artist" is a delightful confection, irresistible to even the most jaded moviegoer. Bonus points for Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who gave the best animal performance of the year, followed closely by Cosmo from "The Beginners." "The Tree of Life" comes whispering in at a close second on my ballot.

Best Actor

in a Leading Role

Will win

Jean Dujardin. Best picture notwithstanding, this is the easiest prediction of the night. Dujardin has played the charming, calmer version of Roberto Benigni all awards season, and he will have another chance to woo the world with his arched eyebrows and halting, accented English.

Should win

Michael Fassbender ("Shame") or Michael Shannon ("Take Shelter"). Ah yes, there was no Academy love for the Michaels. Among the actual nominees, it's not even close. Dujardin deserves the trophy for carrying "The Artist." He's Cary Grant meets Charlie Chaplin. With his rubbery limbs, expressive face and dashing good looks, the French actor conjured images of larger-than-life stars of a bygone era who could captivate without saying a word.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Will win

Meryl Streep. Despite her record 17 nominations, it's been almost 30 years since the queen of modern acting took home an Oscar. But with her victory at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards earlier this month, Streep may have put a little distance between herself and Viola Davis ("The Help"). Streep brought pathos to a thin screenplay, narrowly edging out Michelle Williams for Best Actress in a Weak Movie.

Should win

Kirsten Dunst ("Melancholia") or Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene"). But I digress. Rooney Mara deserves the little gold man. This may be the toughest category in which to pick the best performance. Interestingly, not one of the characters portrayed by these contenders was wholly original, all having been adapted from a previous work or a historical character. Streep and Williams delivered note-perfect mimicry of famous women; Davis and Mara portrayed women from novels, and Close reprised her character from a play. Noomi Rapace's performance in the original Swedish version gave Mara a helpful blueprint, but the stunningly beautiful Mara delivered a bolder performance in David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Mara gave ferocity, complexity, tenderness and pain to bruised warrior Lisbeth Salander. Her performance rocketed her to the top of the list of women to watch in Hollywood.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Will win

Octavia Spencer. It's hard to imagine anyone upsetting the woman who has a truckload of trophies, including honors from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTAs. Spencer brought rich humanity to her portrayal of the fiery and aggrieved Minny Jackson.

Should win

Jessica Chastain gave a stronger performance in "Take Shelter," but she was not nominated for that role. Bérénice Bejo deserves the honor here. Lithe yet steely, the guardian angel of "The Artist" warmed hearts and left millions of men longing to hear the sound of her voice. She could single-handedly bring the cloche (hat) back in fashion, and her cropped hairstyle will probably be seen all over come summertime.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Will win

Christopher Plummer. The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes have honored his work for "The Beginners," and Plummer should waltz to victory at the Oscars. I can't imagine it will even be a contest. The man who has earned seven Emmy nominations dating back to 1959 finally gets the recognition he deserves .

Should win

Christopher Plummer. Bursting with heart and never straying into sentimentality, the 82 year-old Plummer delivered a performance that might well be the best of his esteemed career. Charming, vulnerable, proud and funny, Plummer's Hal Fields is the gay grandfather

you never knew you wanted.

Best Directing

Will win

Michel Hazanavicius. People better get used to pronouncing this Frenchman's slippery name (ha-zahn-a-VISH'-us) because we will probably be seeing much more of him. Though Dujardin has been the face of "The Artist," it was Hazanavicius' vision and audacity that led to the unique gem first uncovered in Cannes and now praised the world over.

Should win

Terrence Malick. Dismissed by some as pretentious and confounding, Malick's "The Tree of Life" is a moving prayer, both utterly grounded and fancifully abstract. The Austin director has long received deserved praise for the ethereal beauty of his aesthetic, but "The Tree of Life" proved he is equally adept at giving the space and direction that lead to amazing performances. Brad Pitt, Chastain and the child actors all delivered amazing performances against Malick's astounding backdrop. Malick's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should also take the statuette for cinematography.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

84th Annual Academy Awards television coverage