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Why I was wrong about best actress

March 9, 2006 | 10:01 am

When sizing up the Oscar chances of the star of "Walk the Line," I didn't take seriously enough the "below the line" factor.


"If just actors, writers and directors were voting, sure, Felicity Huffman would probably win," a few Hollywood insiders told me as we dished the Felicity versus Reese Witherspoon matchup before the best actress envelope was opened. "But those below-the-line guys will never vote for Felicity!" they warned.

Those below-the-line guys are the film editors, cinematographers, visual effects wizards, and sound mixers who comprise a big chunk of the academy electorate and tend to be straight chaps who presumably prefer to embrace babes in the best actress race over a 43-year-old star deglamming herself to portray a misfit guy in a dress.

It's harsh to accuse them of putting prettiness above performance, but I'm quoting experts who track the Oscars professionally and they really believe in the Babe Factor I've written about here in the past.

It's obviously true that most recent winners have had youthful beauty in common: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hilary Swank and Halle Berry. Throughout this year's race I kept hearing from reputable sources that the "below the line" factor was the chief worry of Harvey Weinstein, distributor of "Transamerica."

I worried about it too. Women over age 40 rarely win, but when they do they tend to prevail for emotionally showy roles like Kathy Bates in "Misery." They dominate screen time like Jessica Tandy in "Driving Miss Daisy" or have a high cool factor within the industry like Susan Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking").

Felicity had all of that going for her plus the Last Movie Seen theory (Harvey shipped out the "Transamerica" screener last to 10 academy branches — including "below the line" — so it'd be fresh in voters' minds) and she underwent a radical physical transformation like Charlize Theron ("Monster"), Nicole Kidman ("The Hours") and Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry," "Million Dollar Baby"). By predicting Felicity would win for a new theatrical release, I thought all of that would trump Reese's supporting role — with no plastic cheekbones or noses, thank you very much — in a film that seemed like old news.

Besides, Felicity campaigned aggressively and gave a poignant acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Meantime, Reese mostly stayed home with her kids and hubby Ryan Phillippe and bored us to tears while at the podium at the Globes and SAG. She didn't even bother to attend BAFTA where she won. However, Felicity, who wasn't even nominated, was there in the audience beaming winningly.

Whenever I voiced my best actress argument to many seasoned Oscarologists, I kept hearing, "You're forgetting the 'below the line' factor, Tom. It's bigger than you think."

Ah, well. I wanted to pick one Oscar long shot this year. Too bad I didn't stick with the one I ballyhooed so early in the derby — that "Crash" could win best picture. Next time when the "below the line" factor comes into play, I suppose I will have to walk the line.

Photo: At Oscars ceremony in 1991, Kathy Bates pulled off a best actress upset over Anjelica Huston ("The Grifters"), Meryl Streep ("Postcards from the Edge") and Julia Roberts ("Pretty Woman") for portraying an off-putting character who dominated screen time in "Misery."
(Columbia Pictures)