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Can Amy Adams really pull off an upset at the Oscars?

February 10, 2009 |  3:02 pm

When Tariq Khan makes a bold Oscar prediction, take heed. He's one of the savviest Oscarologists I know and this year he's going where no other guru dares: out onto a thin, shaky limb for Amy Adams ("Doubt") for supporting actress. Interesting call! That category, after all, is where most Oscar upsets happen.

Tariq has one of the best Oscar prediction rates every year. Check out the forecasts he made last year for Fox News — he scored 100%. Earlier this derby season he was one of the first pundits warning us that Kate Winslet might be nommed for "The Reader" instead of "Revolutionary Road."

Below, Tariq makes his argument for Amy Adams, building his Oscar case carefully by citing past award trends and issues at play this year. I dare to disagree with him, though. I think the two points he's not giving enough due are the Babe Factor and the fact that, while, yes, Amy Adams has the most screen time, she doesn't have the big impact scene emotionally that, say, her costar Viola Davis has or even front-runner Penelope Cruz. The Babe Factor boosts Cruz hugely, I think, and it's a trump card that shouldn't be downplayed. Over the last two decades the largely male academy has turned the lead and supporting actress winners' circles into a beauty pageant.

But Tariq has proved me wrong often in the past. Just for Gold Derby readers, he's written out his case below.

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I know that most pundits seem to think that Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is ahead in the supporting actress race. However, I am going to make a bold prediction: Penelope Cruz will lose to Amy Adams in "Doubt."

I'll admit that I'm not certain about this, the way I felt certain last year that Julie Christie in "Away From Her" would lose to Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose." Still, there are some key historical voting patterns that suggest an upset victory by Adams over Cruz may be likely. Allow me to explain.

An Oscars upset usually happens when two factors are in place: support for the presumed front-runner is softer than people realize and support for another nominee is stronger than people realize.

First, let's take a look at reasons why support for Cruz may be weaker than we think it is.

1.) She lost both the Golden Globe and SAG Awards. True, she lost to Kate Winslet in "The Reader," who isn't competing in this category at the Oscars. But how can one really be a front-runner without winning at least one of the two awards? In the previous 14 years (since the inception of the SAG awards), only nine out 56 nominees have won an acting Oscar without a Globe or SAG win. They are Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects," Juliette Binoche in "The English Patient," James Coburn in "Affliction," Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock," Denzel Washington in "Training Day," Adrien Brody in "The Pianist," Alan Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine" and Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton." That's a 16% Oscar success race for those with neither a Globe nor SAG victory. It's true that the other four supporting actress nominees this year face the same odds -– but they're the same odds faced by Cruz.

2.) Her film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," is up for no other awards. Remember the one-nomination wonder factor I used when dismissing the chances of Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There" and Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" last year? Well, I'm using it again here. Over the past 15 years, only four actors have won Oscars for films not nominated for any other awards. They are Jessica Lange in "Blue Sky," Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted," Charlize Theron in "Monster," and Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland." That's four out of 60 nominees, just under 7%. And Jolie, Theron and Whitaker were all both Globe and SAG champs, while Globe winner Lange only lost the SAG race to Jodie Foster in "Nell" because no one had seen her long-shelved "Blue Sky." (The film played in just a handful of theaters for about a week.)

3.) She has limited screen time in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The past 15 years, 10 of the supporting actress victors won for roles that could be considered leading or semi-leading (they were part of the central action of their films, though not necessarily the focal points.) I'm talking about Anna Paquin in "The Piano," Mira Sorvino in "Mighty Aphrodite," Juliette Binoche in "The English Patient," Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted," Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock," Jennifer Connelly in "A Beautiful Mind," Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago," Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain," Rachel Weisz in "The Constant Gardener," and Jennifer Hudson in "Dreamgirls." The other five that won for true supporting performances were Dianne Wiest in "Bullets Over Broadway," Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential," Judi Dench in "Shakespeare in Love," Cate Blanchett in "The Aviator" and Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton. All but Wiest were in best-picture nominees (and at least her film was nominated for six other awards.) Based on this theory, an actress has just under a 7% chance of winning a supporting Oscar if she has a smaller-sized role in a non-best picture nominee. Cruz clearly falls into this category. (She doesn't even appear until halfway into the movie.)

4.) It's a contemporary comedy. It's not impossible to win for a funny performance, but it's harder –- especially in a contemporary comedy. The ones which have done the trick in recent years (Alan Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine," Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in "As Good As It Gets") have benefited tremendously by being featured in best picture nominees. Never mind the fact that Cruz's one-note performance may strike many as less than Oscar-worthy, regardless of how memorable it is.

5.) Voters may not want to give Harvey Weinstein the satisfaction of two acting wins. With a Kate Winslet win for the Weinstein Company's "The Reader" looking more and more likely, will voters want to give a second acting award to the same studio? Especially if the man behind that studio is Harvey Weinstein?

Now, let's look at reasons why support for another nominee may be stronger than we think it is. When Academy members are considering the five names in the supporting actress category, there's good reason to believe that they may be drawn to Amy Adams.

1.) She has the largest role in this category. As I explained above, size does matter. Adams is the only one in this category with a semi-leading role. She has plenty of dialogue and good dramatic scene work, managing to more than hold her own while acting opposite Meryl Streep for much of the film. Don't think that voters won't take that into account. And while the much talked about brief performance by Viola Davis might have a greater impact, many will feel that it's just too brief to deserve an Oscar. Even veteran Ruby Dee lost for her small role in "American Gangster" last year, despite winning the SAG award just a few weeks earlier. If Dee couldn't win, there's probably no way that Davis can.

2.) "Doubt" is nominated for four acting Oscars. Over the past 15 years, 16 films have earned three or more acting nominations: "Michael Clayton," "Brokeback Mountain," "Million Dollar Baby," "The Aviator," "Mystic River," "Chicago," "The Hours," Adaptation," "In the Bedroom," "Iris," "Shakespeare in Love," "As Good As It Gets," "The English Patient," "Pulp Fiction," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "In the Name of the Father." All but four of them  ("Brokeback Mountain," In the Bedroom," "Pulp Fiction" and "In the Name of the Father") won at least one acting Oscar. That breaks down to 75% of films with three three or more acting nominations winning at least one of them. Of those same 16 films, the only one to scored four acting nods was 2002's "Chicago," in exactly the same categories as "Doubt" — best actress, supporting actor and two for supporting actress (which produced a win for Catherine Zeta-Jones). In fact, over the past 40 years, only 11 films have received four or more acting nominations ("Chicago," "Terms of Endearment," "Reds," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Coming Home," "Julia," "The Turning Point," "Network," "The Godfather Part II," "The Godfather" and "The Last Picture Show"). Except for "The Turning Point," they all won at least one acting trophy. That breaks down to an astonishing 91% of all films with four or more acting nods winning at least one of them. That bodes extremely well for "Doubt." With Meryl Streep expected to lose to Kate Winslet and Philip Seymour Hoffman getting clobbered by Heath Ledger, the supporting actress race is all that's left. Adams has far more screen time (not to mention name recognition) than her co-star Viola Davis. A win by Adams over Davis would be similar to the win by Catherine Zeta-Jones over Queen Latifah for "Chicago."

3.) She's the rare actress who can do art house and pack the house. She was a virtual unknown when nominated in this category for 2005's "Junebug." She then proved her box office draw with the 2007 smash "Enchanted." This summer's "Night at the Museum" sequel, in which she plays Amelia Earhart, has the smell of another blockbuster. She'll then appear opposite Meryl Streep again in "Julie and Julia." Talent, beauty and box office –- how can Oscar voters not find themselves tempted?

4.) She de-glams for the role. True, it's not as dramatic as Charlize Theron in "Monster" or Nicole Kidman in "The Hours." But going from Princess Giselle to Sister James follows the example of many a beautiful actress who hid her looks for a juicy role, and later earned awards recognition.

5.) She's the girl next door. Tom O'Neil has often talked about the Oscar "huggability" factor –- how Academy members vote for the person they most want to hug. How could that not be in Adams in this category? She's incredibly likable, attractive to men without being threatening to women.

Again, I don't think that Adams is a slam dunk by any means. Cruz could still prevail, as could Viola Davis or Marisa Tomei. But if Adams does become the latest in a long-history of supporting actress surprises this month, you won't have to ask why.

Photo: Miramax

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