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David Edelstein Warms Up for His Live Blog with Some Pre-Awards Handicapping

"THE HELP"

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Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) overhears the exchange between Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, center) and her friends in DreamWorks Pictures' drama, "The Help", based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.

©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.  All Rights Reserved. He's rooting for Streep, but thinks the deserving Viola Davis will take Best Actress

This morning I woke with something lurking at the back of my head that bothered me, which is often a flea but in this case was a question: How do I know that The Artistis a lock for Best Picture, Director, and a slew of other (undeserved) Oscars? I don’t live in Hollywood, I’m not an Academy member, I haven’t traded e-mails with my pal Lynda Obst as in years past. I read Vulture, of course, and one or two industry blogs on a very occasional basis. But I’m a critic, not an industry pundit, and in some ways I think it interferes with my job to keep up avidly with box-office trends and awards standings. You want a critic (at least I do) to judge works of art on his or her terms and not according to industry (or other) standards. To that extent, a critic should be pure to the point of arrogance.

I do pride myself on being able to read the taste of Academy voters and have won many an Oscar pool in the last two decades. But this is not a skill that warrants much respect — anymore than, say, winning at Family Feud, which Mark Crispin Miller once dubbed a “dope’s dream” for rewarding people who are good at thinking exactly the same way as the rest of the herd.

But I don’t know how I know The Artist will win… I have enormous faith in (if not respect for) Harvey Weinstein and his very able publicists to float such things in the air. It is a persuader’s art, for they must be at once obvious (Vote for our film!) and subtle. If they can make it seem that their films have a better shot than anyone else’s, they can play into members’ appetite for strategic voting. They know they could cast a vote for Glenn Close or Michelle Williams, but by doing so they wouldn’t play much of a role in the outcome, whereas they might tip the balance for Meryl or Viola. Bush v. Gore can’t help but enter into their thinking.

I am often asked — and I am popular this year, having graced the sets of many TV and radio shows — who will win vs. who should win. Here’s why I think The Artist will win. And recall for the umpteenth time that Hollywood voters think differently from normal moviegoers. I knew that, for example, that A Beautiful Mind would win an Oscar for its screenplay despite a barrage of attacks for its almost total inaccuracy not in spite of those liberties but because of them. The industry has little regard for “You took too many liberties!” charges leveled by journalists and academics. They appreciate liberties when the movie plays like gangbusters. 

As for whom I think should win, read my 10 Best list. Many of my favorite artists are not even among the nominees.

The big race is Streep vs. Davis and I hope Streep wins. Viola Davis is an amazing actress and has the potential to win ten Oscars but I don’t think her role in The Help taps a fraction of her talent, whereas Streep’s work in The Iron Lady transcends impersonation. I think Davis will win, though. Whatever one thinks of The Help (I’m mixed), she never goes soft on the character—her toughness is inspiring. On his TV show, Tavis Smiley tried to make case that winning Oscars for play maids was bad for the African-American community and Davis bit his head off. I think the point of the movie—unlike, say, Gone with the Wind — is that these maids should have more options besides housekeeping and that whites ought to try to see the world, and American history, through the eyes of their servants. It’s a good message, regardless of what you think of the film.

I’m pleased that Hell and Back Again was nominated — many people told me they’d never heard of it when it appeared on my ten-best list. I think Harvey’s Undefeated has the best shot but I admire the hell out of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and, come to think of it, all the other nominees. One of my favorite films of the year, though, Werner Herzog’s wrenching Into the Abyss, didn’t make the cut. (It wasn’t even a finalist.)

 The number of people (particularly women) who have told me they dislike The Descendants is staggering. I loved it but don’t expect it to do well tonight. I feel abut War Horse (and Tintin) in a way that reminds me of a twentyish fellow sitting in back of me at show I was 13. I’d gone to see Cheech and Chong but the lead-in act was Loggins and Messina, and in the middle of some endless squealing instrumental this spectator rose up and, dismayed by how few people were setting themselves on fire in crazed reverence (they were lighting up joints instead) screamed “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THIS CROWD???!!!!!!!!?????” I thought the crowd was appropriately tolerant but I envied this man’s passion. Doubtless there are many who think I’m smoking something, too, but none of the complaints I’ve read against either film have made a dent on my certainty they are great works of popular art. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THIS CROWD???!!!!!???? And why didn’t they support Beginners?

I do know last year’s pairing of the Ann Hathaway and James Franco as hosts turned out to be such a nonevent (to say the least) that maybe Billy Crystal and his shtick won’t seem so boringly safe. Maybe he’ll riff on the idea he’s old, out-of-date, passed over for peppy kids—like the hero of The Artist. Could that have been in voters’ minds when they cast for their vote for that homage to the forgotten idols of old Hollywood? Place your bets tonight on the aging and one-time underdogs. Prepare yourself by reading Bobby Finger and the Fug Girls. E-mail me at filmcritic@nymag.com. And then come back for my live blog tonight here on Vulture, and we'll see how right I am together.

Photo: null/DreamWorks