For weeks before Sunday night's 74th annual Academy Awards broadcast, pundits predict who's going to take home the Oscar. Don't listen to them.
Because the only opinions that count are those of the 5,732 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And they're a cranky crowd.
Their dirty little secret is that they take too much into account when filling out ballots. Was that actor on his best behavior too little? Did that actress appear topless too often? Did that director have an easy time because of a too-lucrative studio deal? These are the criteria that matter to the membership instead of the quality of a picture or a performance. The Oscars are their payback time, pure and simple.
Here is how they think -- and how they are likely to vote:
Best supporting actress
This is the category where the voters try to demonstrate they're not just the media's pawns. It's also where old scores are settled, ingénues anointed and plain idiotic decisions are made. For instance, Lauren Bacall has been a disliked figure in Hollywood for seemingly eons, so the academy ignored the critics who touted her as a sure thing in this category and refused her an Oscar for "The Mirror Has Two Faces."
Or take Mira Sorvino: Given her lousy taste in roles and even lousier on-set behavior, voters may be ruing their encouragement of her for "Mighty Aphrodite." And how Kim Basinger won for "L.A. Confidential" when the voters could only judge her on at most a dozen lines of dialogue is nonsensical: They apparently felt bad for her because she was married to that train wreck, Alec Baldwin.
This year, voters see Kate Winslet and Marisa Tomei as actresses who each had high-profile starts but then became nonpersons. Besides, Tomei and Maggie Smith already have Oscars. Which is why this race is between Helen Mirren and Jennifer Connelly.
The academy likes actor's actors of "a certain age." On the other hand, Mirren's still best known in this country not for movies but for the TV series "Prime Suspect." Sorry, but they see TV as declassé.
Which is why Connelly will win. Not only is she gorgeous and grateful, but more important, she has handled herself appropriately while campaigning on Leno et al. As ridiculous as it sounds, that counts for a lot to the Academy.
Best supporting actor
Forget Ethan Hawke -- he's already lucky to have Uma Thurman as a wife, in the view of voters. And discount Jon Voight because the Academy will be blaming him for years for having been responsible for that hell-on-wheels Angelina Jolie. Though Ben Kingsley gave the year's best supporting performance, it doesn't matter: To voters, he will always be that guy in the diaper.
So now it's down to Ian McKellen and Jim Broadbent. Surprisingly, McKellen isn't given much credit for being openly gay. But everyone knows he was robbed in 1998 when he should have won for either "Gods and Monsters" or "Apt Pupil." But even voters were impressed by the way he elevated "X Men" with his portrayal of Magneto.
McKellen would be a sure thing if it weren't for Broadbent's appearance in this category as well. Voters and critics fell all over themselves to reward "Enchanted April" and "Topsy Turvy," two films where Broadbent excelled. And the Academy clearly loved "Iris" because, for this mostly geriatric membership, a movie about Alzheimer's hits close to home. It's almost a dead heat, but Broadbent wins.
David Lynch is not just the dark horse in this category; the voters barely know who he is. And Ridley Scott's nomination comes on the heels of his sweep last year for "Gladiator." Although Peter Jackson is now on the radar of the voters, they won't reward him for the first movie in a three-film series: too risky, since it's still possible that No. 2 or No. 3 could be stinkers.
Which leaves Robert Altman and Ron Howard. Altman has the Bacall problem: He pissed off a lot of industry people in his very long career, and that haunts him even now. In a fair world, Altman would win. But this is Hollywood, a more vicious version of high school. The voters will compromise with Howard: Even though he's the class president and football quarterback, he's still liked by them because he's bald.
But if Howard doesn't win, then the membership is sending him the same message they sent Steven Spielberg for years: Surprise us with a departure from your usual saccharine directing style. Howard has yet to make his "Schindler's List."
According to one of her minions, Renée Zellweger has been AWOL during this Oscar campaign because she convinced herself she couldn't win. Too bad, because the voters really like her. Nicole Kidman could have milked her "this was a really awful year for me personally" status but didn't, so Academy tears have dried for her. Besides, they resent the fact she's now loaded thanks to Tom Cruise divorcing her.
More Academy members have told me they've voted for Judi Dench in "Iris" than anyone else in this category for the same tasteless Alzheimer's joke I made before. Could signal a trend. But then again, Dench won an Oscar too recently.
That leaves Sissy Spacek vs. Halle Berry. Both want it, both campaigned like heck for it and both will be appropriately humble. But Spacek is too much of a loner: She lives with her family in a place that's not Hollywood or New York and hasn't been around to suck up to Academy members.
Berry is considered too new, too beautiful and too white (yes, that matters to the Academy if you're a black actress). That car accident didn't help, nor did the announcement that she's the next Bond girl. Still, she'd have been the shoo-in if she'd only dressed up in the movie like a man. But she's paid so much homage to Oscar these past weeks that it's impossible for the academy to ignore her. She wins.
Every year, it seems, the academy honors Sean Penn with a nomination, and every year he doesn't win. This is a case where they love his work but hate him. Few voters sat all the way through "Ali," so Will Smith never had a prayer. And Tom Wilkinson is still unknown to the Academy, so he's out of contention as well.
The membership already has called several strikes against Russell Crowe: He won last year, he behaved badly at the British Academy Awards (pushing around people, though apologizing for it), and he dumped that darling Meg Ryan -- though perhaps after her noisy role in "Kate and Leopold," they forgive him now.
But Crowe is the new Brando, warts and all, and the voters can't deny talent.
That, too, is true of Denzel Washington, who is Crowe's only competition. He may mouth off about race much too often for the Academy's comfort, but this year's Oscar nominations show it's cool to be black. So Denzel has an edge on Crowe there. But Crowe will pull it out in the end because he's got the ultimate Oscar sucker punch: He plays -- sniff, sniff -- a man with a terrible infirmity. Unbeatable.
"In the Bedroom" went into Oscar's early contest with the usual Miramax hoopla. But now voters have had time to see the movie and decide it didn't live up to the hype. "Gosford Park" also suffered from viewing; it wasn't quite as much fun as everyone in the Academy had been led to believe.
"Lord of the Rings" was not as familiar to voters as it was to moviegoers; the advanced age of the Academy's membership meant they did not have Tolkien on their must-reading lists as teens. That Baz Luhrmann was aced out of a best director's nomination has actually helped "Moulin Rouge" win voter sympathy in these final weeks of Oscar campaigning. But the critical response to the movie was mixed, and the Academy is wary of such nonuniformity.
That wasn't the case with "A Beautiful Mind," which received lots of rave reviews -- though naysayers complained that it was an untruthful biopic.
Still, more times than not, one movie sweeps the Oscars, and that's a likely possibility for "A Beautiful Mind." If it doesn't, then the voters really were swayed by all the rival studio backbiting against "Mind" in the media and on the Internet.
But I still don't think the choice will be the epic "Lord of the Rings" or the flashy "Moulin Rouge." The Academy is a sap for simple stories that say something about the human spirit. So "Mind" wins.