A Strange Feeling

Dear Troy and Kim,

Don’t you find that this year’s Oscar run-up has a surprising amount of juice? Or is it just surprising that anything connected with the Oscars could have juice at all? Try as I might, I’m unable to summon the usual mix of prurience and ennui evoked by the prospect of four hours trapped in the Kodak Theatre with Renee Zellweger’s clavicles. God help me, I’m genuinely looking forward to the thing, and so are a lot of people I know. Maybe the writers’ strike was like a three-month fast that’s left us feeling scrubbed clean of grimy pop-culture residue. Or perhaps the drama of this primary campaign so weirdly rife with actual events—upsets, comebacks, endorsement shockers, lobbyist-bimbo eruptions—has reminded us that occasionally stuff really does happen, and not just in the Rumsfeld-ian sense.

A recent post on the Envelope, the Los Angeles Times’ Oscar blog, takes this Oscar-race-as-presidential-campaign logic even further, declaring the winter of 2008 “the season of upsets” and citing not only Obama’s surge but also the New York Giants’ jaw-dropping Super Bowl victory and the first-ever triumph of a humble beagle at the Westminster Dog Show. But the freshness of this year’s Oscar race has little to do with the question of who will win what. Most of the big awards are even more predictable than usual, and if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t take best actor and No Country for Old Men best picture, I will personally wash and fold your laundry for a year.

We can talk more about predictions later, but give me a second to explore this novel sensation of—what’s it called?—caring about the Academy Awards. The very fact that bodes ill ratings for the 2008 ceremony—that this year’s nominees are mostly dark and difficult movies that few Americans have seen—is a draw for those of us who really love the medium. The question of which is the greater film, There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men, is a debate I could see having with some of my smartest friends over dinner. Both are ambitious, disturbing works of art that seem to have sprung from an original vision rather than from a director’s resolution to finally get his goddamn Oscar already. (Scorsese and The Departed, anyone?) And even the less-highbrow offerings, the Michael Claytons and Ratatouilles, are terrific films.

I’m amazed that Sarah Polley isn’t the human-interest story of these Oscars: She’s a 29-year-old knockout who just made an astonishingly mature, critically lauded debut as a writer/director. Is it because Away From Her’s subject matter is so depressing (as opposed to the nonstop merriment of, say, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)? Is it a woman thing? A Canadian thing? Or is Polley just less savvy at self-packaging than, say, Diablo Cody?

One more refreshing feature of this year’s awards: There’s no middlebrow crowd-pleaser, no Forrest Gump or Crash that threatens to smite the more interesting films with its unvanquishable mediocrity. OK, Atonement is ultra-middlebrow, but it’s not populist enough to be crowd-pleasing. Its WWII setting and Masterpiece Theatre literariness may appeal to older voters, but it doesn’t seem likely to go home with much, except maybe the cinematography award for that show-offy (but admittedly impressive) five-minute tracking shot.

Finally, the last-minute resolution of the writers’ strike has given this year’s ceremony an endearing let’s-put-on-a-show feel, like an old Andy Hardy musical. Yesterday’s New York Times piece about Jon Stewart and his staff trying to write and rehearse the show in a mere eight days was a bracing ode to seat-of-the-pants stagecraft. All the pretaped bits had to be scrapped for lack of time! Broadway belter Kristin Chenoweth has been tapped to perform a song from Enchanted! John Travolta may do a waltz! Every year we complain that the ceremony is overscripted and unspontaneous, so let’s see what it’s like to do it vaudeville-style, just some showbiz hucksters working the crowd in front of a shiny curtain.

And to lower the tone, some random gossipy observations: I think even Juno-haters must want to see Diablo Cody win for best original screenplay because, come on, what better opportunity for live-blog heckling than during her Oscar speech? Cody, and possibly her muse Ellen Page, are also the most likely to wear vintage or camouflage or roller skates, a welcome subversion of the boring sparkly-mermaid paradigm that’s come to dominate female awards-show fashion. How pregnant will Jessica Alba and Cate Blanchett look? Who will be the first to mention Heath Ledger, and when the memorial montage goes up, how much more applause will Ledger get than Jack Valenti? (Daniel Day-Lewis’s SAG acceptance speech should stand as the last word in Ledger tributes: gracious, humble, and short.)

Can you guys give me a dose of bile to get me properly jaded by 8 p.m. Sunday? And how much do you want to bet somebody name-checks Obama at the podium?