As we head into Sunday night's Oscars telecast, the drama of pulse-quickening, lung-bursting horse races between well-matched competitors is in short supply. There's a sense that the major contests are foregone conclusions. Coming close on the heels of the new year's guild awards, the Oscars feel like a ceremonial rubber stamp reaffirming those earlier votes.
If you ask your manicurist, a random Pizza Hut driver and that jogger who lives down the street whom they like for this year's best actor, they will say, "It's a lock for Colin Firth." Who doesn't assume that Natalie Portman will blink back tears as she accepts the best actress statue for going bonkers in "Black Swan"? Since the early best picture momentum swung from "The Social Network" (dark, smart, utterly of-the-moment) to "The King's Speech" (prestige-y, uplifting, with a cameo by Hitler), the big match has felt pretty much settled.
Perhaps. But California is the land of earthquakes. Remember when Jack Nicholson, presenting the award for 2005's best picture, opened the envelope and said "Whoa"? As surely as "Crash" skunked oddsmakers by trouncing "Brokeback Mountain," Academy voters have a way of making conventional wisdom look foolish.
These are the folks who in 1993 decided that the talents of Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, Judy Davis and Miranda Richardson paled beside the unforgettable "My Cousin Vinny" performance of champion actress Marisa Tomei. In 1996, after "Apollo 13" swept all the major guild awards, "Braveheart" won the top Oscar.
Two years later, Roberto Benigni showed Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, Edward Norton and Nick Nolte what a real best actor looks like. One never really knows what Hollywood insiders are thinking. Or whether they're blackout drunk.
Assuming some Grammy-style upsets are possible, which races might produce the biggest surprises? Here are five races in which dark horses just might come charging up the middle after all.
• "The Fighter" for best picture. It's the longest of long shots. "The King's Speech" has vacuumed up every important guild award and cleaned up at the BAFTAs, Britain's answer to the Oscars. It has the most nominations, and Best Picture candidates with the most noms almost always take the top prize. But the dodgy math of the 10-picture voting field might yield a surprise victory. Back in the day (from 1946 until last year) Academy members put a check mark beside the name of their favorite movie on a list of five. The one with the most votes won, nice and simple, even though a winner could emerge with just 21 percent of the vote. Nowadays, through an instant-runoff voting scheme, the 5,800 members rank their choices from 1 (favorite) to 10 (hated it). Unless a film wins an outright majority (unlikely) the last-place contender is dropped and its voters' second choices are redistributed among the nine titles still in the running. Rinse and repeat as necessary. As "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right" drop out of contention, their supporters' second-favorite films get a boost. If the likable "Fighter" gets the right mix of first- and second-choice votes, it could pull a "Crash."
• Tom Hooper of "The King's Speech" for best director. David Fincher was the presumed front-runner for taking a difficult subject to dramatize-a dialogue-heavy account of the genesis of Facebook-and bringing it to the screen with dazzling rigor and momentum. Hooper's work is more conventional, a classic Rolls-Royce to Fincher's Lamborghini. But there's a lot to be said for a filmmaker who can turn the King of England into an underdog, and make a period English story about elocution lessons that doesn't conjure "My Fair Lady." Hooper pulled an upset last month at the Directors Guild awards, so now the odds favor him to repeat the trick tonight. Only six times in the 62-year history of the guild awards has the winner failed to take home the directing Oscar.
• Hailee Steinfeld of "True Grit" for best supporting actress. Seasoned trouper Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") has campaigned for this award tirelessly, and she has momentum going into Sunday's ceremony, after recent wins at the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes. But history might repeat itself for the veteran actress: Front-runner Lauren Bacall won both awards for "The Mirror Has Two Faces" in '96 but lost to Juliette Binoche ("The English Patient") on the big night. In Steinfeld's favor: a strong, layered character, effortless ease with flowery dialogue that would tongue-tie many an adult, and a part that's really a leading role. Also: youth. Oscar voters have a soft spot for rookies in this category. Tatum O'Neal won at 10 for "Paper Moon"; Anna Paquin was 11 when she won for "The Piano." Steinfeld just celebrated her 14th birthday. The Academy loves out-of-nowhere Cinderella stories; they might have a nice belated present for Hailee up their sleeve.
• Wally Pfister of "Inception" for best cinematography. After nine Academy Award nominations but no wins to date, master cameraman Roger Deakins ("Kundun," "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Reader") has become the Susan Lucci of Oscar hopefuls. He was expected to be a shoo-in for his starkly beautiful lensing of "True Grit," whose look ranges from a sort of picture-book stylization of its young heroine's memory, to moody low-light interiors, to classic, melancholy Western vistas. Then Pfister took home top honors, beating Deakins at the American Society of Cinematographers awards. Pfister's elaborate, densely layered images are vastly impressive. Maybe Oscar voters will reward him for dreaming big.
• Geoffrey Rush of "The King's Speech" for best supporting actor. This one looks carved in stone for first-time nominee Christian Bale, whose speed-freak jabber, pinwheeling eyes and manic body language make his character, real-life boxer-turned-junkie Dicky Eklund, an indelible rascal. Bear in mind, though, that Academy members vote for characters they like, not just performances that leap off the screen. Oscar-winner Rush, with his soothing, resonant baritone and genial manner, makes King George VI's speech therapist, Lionel Logue, a delightful fellow to spend a couple of hours with. Older academy voters who love "The King's Speech" may well vote the whole ticket.