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Prelude awards suggest best picture Oscar race is wide open

The race for the best picture Academy Award is now officially as unpredictable as Andy Dick in a nightclub.

Three bellwethers of Hollywood's biggest prize have now announced their choices of 2009's top movie (or cast, in one case) without agreement — only a week before Oscar nominations are announced on Feb. 2.

A week ago, the Golden Globes shoved Avatar into the competition with its best drama prize. (The best comedy/musical, The Hangover, may be an Oscar finalist, but comedies are historically passed over in the final tally.) Half of the best drama Globes winners of the past decade went on to win the top Oscar.

Saturday night, the Screen Actors Guild gave Inglourious Basterds its version of a best picture award, the show-capping best ensemble cast prize. Half of the previous 14 winners of that award went on to win the Oscar. It's also noteworthy that nearly one-quarter of all Academy Award voters are actors, so that's a bloc of support now leaning toward Quentin Tarantino's film.

Then on Sunday, the Producers Guild of America honored the brains behind The Hurt Locker as last year's top cinematic achievers. The producers' voting has foreshadowed 13 of the past 20 best picture honorees. Producers are also the people who accept best picture Oscars, so the backing from peers is a good sign.

That's three Academy Award signposts, each pointing in a different direction. How much attention Oscar voters could give them is — borrowing the title of a seeming also-ran — up in the air.

Only one more key awards show remains to possibly influence final Oscar ballots: the Directors Guild of America announces its winners Saturday. Only six times since 1948 has the DGA's best director not advanced to the Oscars podium, and that winner helms the best picture choice nearly 70 percent of the time.

While the best picture chase is scrambled, the acting Oscars appear nearly wrapped up, especially in supporting categories where Mo'Nique (Precious) and Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds) are proving unbeatable down the stretch.

Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) has emerged as the best actor favorite despite his movie still largely unseen. Crazy Heart opens Feb. 5 in Tampa Bay theaters. The slow rollout reminds me of the way Mickey Rourke's The Wrestler was synched with awards season last year, which is smart. Bridges is also playing the gracious winner better than Rourke, which is even smarter.

Sandra Bullock is now firmly positioned to win the best actress Oscar for The Blind Side, unless voters think Meryl Streep has waited long enough to claim her third Academy Award. Hard to believe that 27 years have passed since Streep's last Oscar acceptance speech, for Sophie's Choice. It could be time for an encore.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Prelude awards suggest best picture Oscar race is wide open 01/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 7:50pm]

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