Predicting the Oscars

I remember the very first time I watched the Academy Awards. It was 1978, and I was just a child in a small town in southern Illinois. Hollywood must have seemed like a million miles away.

"Star Wars" was a best picture nominee that year, and my science fiction-addicted older brothers tuned in to see if it would clean up the awards, and I watched along in excitement.

As the film swept the technical categories, I boldly proclaimed that it would lose the award for best movie. "It was OK, but not that great," I think I told my siblings.

When Jack Nicholson opened the best picture envelope and announced "Annie Hall" the winner over "Star Wars," I cheered. My brothers were furious — and chased me around the house while I exclaimed "I told you so!" (The two have boycotted the Oscar telecast ever since, vowing only to watch if the Academy agrees to give "Star Wars" a retroactive award for best picture.)

I, however, began a long tradition of watching, analyzing and predicting the Academy Awards.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve never missed a show — even all those years when I was far too young to see the mostly R-rated nominated films. I’ve become pretty good when it comes to forecasting the outcome, even calling upsets like "Chariots of Fire" for best picture, Kevin Kline ("A Fish Called Wanda") for best supporting actor and Anna Paquin ("The Piano") for best supporting actress.

I’ve had the opportunity to cover the Academy Awards a few times and interview the nominees and the winners. And as much as I’ve learned to use my knowledge of Oscar history to make predictions, I always feel that I learn something new every year.

So three decades after my first date with Oscar, here’s what I’m expecting to happen on Sunday night.

Best Picture: "No Country for Old Men"

I wish that I could boldly predict an upset here, but I just don’t see it happening. Support for "No Country" isn’t as strong as some think it is. It’s dark, violent and visually less impressive than the sweeping costume dramas and historical epics that have so often won in the past.

Nonetheless, its long list of Oscar pre-cursor awards and that its opposition votes will likely be split among three different films ("Michael Clayton," "Juno" and "Atonement"), make it the probable winner.

Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"

Even if "No Country" somehow loses best picture, the Coen brothers will still win the directing prize. The two have a large base of support in the Academy, and the sentiment in Hollywood is that this is their year. (They won an original screenplay Oscar for "Fargo" 11 years ago.)

Finishing a second close in the race will be Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." There’s been talk that Schnabel could pull off an upset like Roman Polanski did for "The Pianist" five years ago — but that film emerged as a major Oscar contender while "Diving Bell" isn’t even in the best picture race.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"

He’s an absolute lock, having virtually swept the critics, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. George Clooney ("Michael Clayton") will get votes from those who found "There Will Be Blood" too violent — but nowhere near enough to topple the highly regarded Day-Lewis.

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"

Most Hollywood pundits are predicting an easy win by Julie Christie for "Away From Her" — forgetting a very important Oscar rule: Subtle, nuanced performances almost never win. When they do, it’s usually because they’re in a best picture nominee with widespread support, or the nominated thespian is considered long overdue for an award.

Neither is the case here, as "Away From Her" is a smaller-than-small indie film and the respected but not loved Christie already has a best actress trophy for 1965’s "Darling." Cotillard, who portrays legendary French singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," has the same type of dramatic, transformative role Oscar voters love (think Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot," Hilary Swank in "Boys Don’t Cry" and Charlize Theron in "Monster.")

True, foreign-language performances rarely win — but reaction to Cotillard’s work at Oscar screenings has been thunderous. As for Ellen Page in "Juno," it’s highly unlikely that a comedic performance by an extremely young and relatively unknown actress can win over enough of those highbrow Academy members, especially after Page came up empty-handed at the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"

Like Day-Lewis, Bardem is a virtual lock. His frightening work in "No Country" has been universally praised, and he’s been an awards darling the entire season. That won’t stop on Oscar night. Veteran Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild") will pick up some sentimental votes, but nowhere near enough to catch up with Bardem.

Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"

Historically, this has been the most unpredictable category at the Academy Awards. This year is no exception. In fact, it may be as wide open as 1993 when Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny") was named the winner in front of a shocked audience.

The general feeling has been that the race will come down to Cate Blanchett for "I’m Not There" or Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone." Either one could win, but they have some huge negatives.

oth are one-nomination wonders — their films aren’t up for any other awards. Blanchett just won this category three years ago for "The Aviator," and she may be a victim of her own talent. Since people have come to expect nothing but great work from her, they’re less impressed by her accomplishments.

Meanwhile, Ryan is an unknown actress playing an unsympathetic part in a difficult movie to watch. Sure, she has plenty of big, showy scenes that Oscar voters love — but she suffers from what I call the Brenda Blethyn in "Secrets and Lies" syndrome: Since voters don’t know her, they have no way of knowing how different she is from the trashy character she plays.

Having said all of this, I predict that Blanchett and Ryan will almost evenly split the vote, paving the way for a win by Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton."

Academy members are fond of the classy "Clayton" and will want to vote for it somewhere: This is probably the best place. If Blanchett and Ryan split the vote and each gets 25 percent, all Swinton needs is 26 percent to win. I think that she just might get it.