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The biggest night in Hollywood, marked by Burger Est Mark

by Mark Burger

This Sunday marks the 81 st annual Academy Awards, and although I’m not as obsessed with the Oscars as I used to be — Titanic winning 11 of them will do that to you — I definitely retain some affection and respect for the Academy. Gene Hackman and Michael Caine each have two Oscars, so they’ve gotten some things right. (An argument could be made that Hackman should have three, but I seem to be the only one still arguing that point, 20 years later.) Come Sunday night, with Hugh Jackman hosting, Slumdog the underdog just might take the Oscar for best picture, and I’m all for it. I liked Frost/Nixon a bit more — it was my favorite film of 2008 — but Slumdog Millionaire is a one of a kind. So is its director, Danny Boyle, whom I’ve interviewed and found to be enthusiastic and energetic, the real deal. Here’s a guy who loves making movies — and it shows in his work, which is incredibly varied and, in some cases, quite risky. The best actor category is uniformly strong. They may be long shots, but it would be fun if first-time nominees Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) or Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) pulled off an upset. I thought Brad Pitt was fine in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but he’s got Angelina Jolie so that’s reward enough. Besides, I don’t want another reprise of 1994, when Forrest Gump swept the board. For all of its merits (and it does have them), Benjamin Button is, to a great extent, Gumped Again. In all likelihood, it’s a two-man race: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) and Sean Penn (Milk). Penn has been winning awards left and right leading up to the Oscars, so he probably has the edge to take home his second statue in four years. Besides, Rourke is a loose cannon. That’s what makes him Mickey Rourke, after all, but it’s very true that Hollywood loves a good comeback, and Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler undoubtedly qualifies. Meryl Streep has 14 Oscar nominations and two wins, but hasn’t won in 25 years. Kate Winslet has five nominations and no wins. This year, one of those streaks is going to end with an Oscar for best actress. Both Winslet (The Reader) and Streep (Doubt) again proved why they’re among the best in the biz. Angelina Jolie (The Changeling) — she’s got Brad Pitt so that’s reward enough. For Melissa Leo (Frozen River), the nomination’s enough. That leaves Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), who’s the only major threat to Winslet and Streep. She might sneak in there. As is more often than not, best supporting actress is a toss-up. The only previous winner in this category, Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler) can attest to that — having been the upset winner in the same category for 1992’s My Cousin Vinny. Her competition this year: Amy Adams and Viola Davis (both for Doubt), Taraji P. Henson (Benjamin Button) and, apparently the favorite, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona). Then there’s the matter of Heath Ledger, nominated as best supporting actor for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, which (in case you didn’t know) was the biggest hit of last year. It was released by Warner Bros., a Time Warner company. Since Ledger’s untimely death from an overdose of prescription drugs in January 2008, the coverage in the media has been inescapable. Entertainment Weekly has devoted at least two cover stories to Ledger, and numerous articles, regarding the possibility that he could win a posthumous Oscar for his performance — almost since Day One. And they’re still doing it, to such an extent where one can’t help but wonder if the publication has a vested interest in an Oscar win. (By the way, Entertainment Weekly is a Time Warner publication, a coincidence of some curiosity.) Let’s get this straight: I thought The Dark Knight was a good movie, and I thought Ledger’s performance was fine. I also think he was a good actor with a potentially spectacular career in front of him. But if he hadn’t died, regardless of the circumstances (and I won’t get into that), we wouldn’t be talking about an Oscar, much less a nomination. I think he’ll win. I don’t think he deserves to. But, this year, the supporting-actor category isn’t quite the powerhouse it often is. That’s not to disparage any of the nominated performances, but it doesn’t seem likely that Robert Downey Jr. will win for Tropic Thunder, nor Michael Shannon (who steals Revolutionary Road), nor Philip Seymour Hoffman, a great actor, who was great in Doubt but won best actor a few years ago for Capote. Having played George W. Bush to surprising acclaim in Oliver Stone’s W, Josh Brolin scored his nomination playing another politician, Dan White, the man who shot Harvey Milk, in Milk. A varied selection, to be sure, but Ledger may be a lock. There’s even an outcry from fans to “retire” the Joker character from subsequent Batman movies out of respect for Ledger. (I think I read about it in Entertainment Weekly.) Have no fear, fans: If the franchise is ever in jeopardy, they’ll resurrect whomever or whatever they need to, respect be damned — because that’s show-biz.

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com

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