Oscar Odds

If I Had My Way …
Las Vegas Review-Journal movie critic Carol Cling picks her favorites

Best Picture
"Slumdog Millionaire"
Best Actor
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
Best Actress
Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"
Best Supporting Actress
Penélope Cruz, "Vicki Cristina Barcelona"
Best Director
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

81st annual Academy Awards
5:30 p.m. Today
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"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
The overall nominations leader (with 13), this ambitious saga about the title character, who ages backward, ranks as an undisputed technical marvel — and it should clean up in those categories. As a dramatic experience, however, it’s overlong, overdone and frequently overbearing — the kind of movie that’s a lot easier to admire than to love. And with the lovable "Slumdog Millionaire" racing toward victory, "Benjamin Button" will need more than one miracle to prevail.

A textbook example of how to transfer a stage hit to the screen, this boasts terrific performances (and not just in the title roles), understated direction and a script that maintains the original’s dramatic core while expanding its cinematic vision. Yet in these embattled times, when Americans of all stripes (even Oscar voters) look to a new president for inspiration, revisiting a disgraced post-Watergate Richard Nixon seems like a case of deja vu all over again — and an even bigger case of bad timing.

What would Harvey Milk do? If there’s one movie with a chance to put the brakes on "Slumdog Millionaire’s" momentum, it’s this timely biopic about the pioneering — and martyred — gay politician, a pivotal public figure who still inspires, three decades after his assassination. If Oscar voters feel guilty over the passage of California’s controversial Prop. 8 (which outlaws gay marriage), they might treat the Oscar campaign as a referendum, leading to one last Harvey Milk victory.

"The Reader"
Some longtime Oscar-watchers believe there’s a permanent spot in the final five for Holocaust-themed movies. That’s one explanation for the unexpected strength of this provocative, time-tripping drama about the repercussions of a lawyer’s life-changing teenage affair, in post-World War II Berlin, with an enigmatic woman harboring more than one dark secret. Yet despite four top nominations, it’s tough to imagine any kind of happy ending for "The Reader" in this competitive category.

"Slumdog Millionaire"
Director Danny Boyle’s exuberant Bollywood fairy tale, about a Mumbai street urchin’s fateful path toward "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," is no one’s idea of typical Oscar fare. It’s not big, it’s not portentous, it’s not "important." Yet, of all the nominees, it’s the one that goes for the heart — and scores a direct hit. "Slumdog" has won every pre-Oscar award around, so there’s danger of a backlash, but not enough to stop this little movie that could from cashing in.

Richard Jenkins
Character stalwart Jenkins’ first leading-role performance — as a lost soul who finds himself where he least expects it — is the kind of subtle, heartfelt stunner that sneaks up on you. Unfortunately, that means Oscar voters probably will overlook it, given their general preference for in-your-face bombast, making Jenkins the longest of long shots.

Frank Langella
Broadway hits usually make the transition to Hollywood without their original stars. Luckily, this didn’t happen to stage legend Langella, giving us the chance to see, and marvel at, his uncanny, Tony-winning portrayal of ex-president Richard Nixon — which conveys the torment, and humanity, of one of U.S. history’s most reviled figures.

Sean Penn
Why is this man smiling? Maybe because Penn knows Oscar voters love actors who play real-life characters — characters, like "Milk’s" Harvey Milk, who fight for noble causes and die noble deaths. Oscar voters also love to demonstrate (and congratulate themselves on) their bleeding-heart political correctness, which makes Penn a favorite.

Brad Pitt
Pitt did give a great performance in 2008. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." (See "Burn After Reading" for proof.) Some Oscar voters equate heavy makeup with heavy emoting, but Pitt can’t quite convey the inner impact of his passive character’s amazing adventures — which makes him an inevitable also-ran.

Mickey Rourke
If there’s one thing Oscar voters love more than parading their bleeding-heart liberalism, it’s honoring an incredible comeback. Better still, Rourke’s powerhouse performance as "The Wrestler" — a battered has-been trying for one last triumph — has the kind of art-imitates-life authenticity that gives Rourke a once-in-a-lifetime Oscar shot.

Anne Hathaway
In "Rachel Getting Married," Hathaway sheds her proper-princess image, playing a maddening, mercurial screw-up who can’t stand being in the background, even at her sister’s wedding. Oscar loves young lovelies who ugly up to prove their acting chops, but the competition’s too rough this year for Hathaway to break through. She’ll be back.

Angelina Jolie
In "The Changeling," Jolie looks as though she just stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting, playing a ’20s mother battling the system to find her lost boy. It’s the kind of showy "look at me" performance that always attracts Oscar attention, but in a field this competitive, Jolie’s probably an also-ran. Besides, she has an Oscar — and a Brad.

Melissa Leo
A rare movie that’s more real than reel, "Frozen River" gains much of its power, and hardscrabble poetry, from veteran Leo’s fierce, fearless portrayal of a desperate yet determined single mother. Alas, this is one of those cases where the nomination is the victory; in this lineup, Leo’s a long shot — but just as deserving as the leader(s) of the pack.

Meryl Streep
Winner of two Oscars, Streep has a record 15 nominations, but it has been 26 years since she won for "Sophie’s Choice." Her "Doubt" portrayal of a no-nonsense nun — full of imperious authority and righteous indignation — ranks as her best shot in years. It’s also mannered and actressy — which, of course, makes it an Oscar natural.

Kate Winslet
Winslet scores her sixth nomination, not for "Revolutionary Road" (as many expected) but for "The Reader," which showcases her uncanny ability to reveal truths about a character who’s desperate to conceal them. It may be a supporting role (hey, so was Hannibal Lecter), but Winslet so dominates the movie — and is so overdue — it might not matter in the end.

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