ArtsATL > Film > Steve Murray’s picks: Will Oscar reward smart “Social Network” or sappy “King’s Speech”?

Steve Murray’s picks: Will Oscar reward smart “Social Network” or sappy “King’s Speech”?

Here’s what we can predict about the Academy Awards broadcast on Sunday night: It will be way too long, not as savvy or funny as it thinks it is, and co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway will lose some hipness cred while still managing to retain their dignity. If Banksy shows up, it’ll at least be a moment of unexpected theater.

As for the winners of the little gold man? Some categories seem easier than others to predict — especially Colin Firth, the closest thing to a shoo-in for the Best Actor statuette as the stuttering-cursing-singing monarch in “The King’s Speech.”

When it comes to the Best Actress award, while Natalie Portman (above), as the crazed ballerina in the incredibly silly but incredibly committed “Black Swan,” has long been seen as the front runner, I’d throw out a few of words of caution. First, “Swan” is a divisive movie; people tend to love it or loathe it. (I kind of did both, which, granted, undercuts my theory.) Portman has been nominated before, as Best Supporting Actress for her soulful stripper in “Closer,” so she’s no Oscar rookie. Still, she’s not even 30.

Meanwhile, Annette Bening (left) has been Oscar-nominated three times before and never won. As the woman who tamed Warren Beatty and gave him four children, she’s gone from sex kitten (hello, naked hallway scene in “The Grifters”!) to Hollywood royalty. Plus, she’s pretty damn great in her nominated role in “The Kids Are All Right,” a movie that happens to be the sort of safely progressive/retro indie flick (lesbians! landscaping! Joni Mitchell songs!) that Oscar voters can get behind without actually supporting something truly edgy. So it’s probably down to the wire between Portman and Bening.

Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress? Hell, who knows? These are the Oscars’ traditional WTF categories. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Tatum O’Neal, Mira Sorvino and Cuba Gooding Jr.) Also, I’m handicapped here, because of the 10 Best Picture nominees, “The Fighter” is the only one I haven’t seen. Which sucks, since the best buzz has it that Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, as a cracked-out son and his adoring mother, are the lead contenders.

Fine by me. Christian Bale seems like a giant jerk, but he’s a talented giant jerk. And ever since I caught her in “21 Grams,” Leo can do no wrong in my eyes. (She was spectacular in her Oscar-nominated role in “Frozen River.”) On the other hand … if aging sentimentalists in the voting ranks give “The King’s Speech” a massive push, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter could walk home the winners as the wily speech therapist and the nurturing Queen Mum.

That leads me to the Best Picture race. The top contenders appear to be “The Social Network” (above) and “The King’s Speech.” I far prefer the former, director David Fincher’s film about the rise of Facebook and the decline of real-world, interpersonal civility. Two decades from now, whether or not anyone remembers Mark Zuckerberg’s online Goliath, the movie will depict a big cultural turning point in the early years of the 21st century. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s blistering script is a welcome throwback to the literate, smart screenplays of the early 20th century. (“His Girl Friday” comes to mind.) But I know that a lot of people find “Network” chilly and alienating. It doesn’t matter when I point out that: That. Is. The. Point.

As for “The King’s Speech” (above) — the tale of a scrappy underdog who sits on the throne of England but, despite all the dreadful advantages life has thrown his way, learns to stop stuttering — forgive me, dear friends, when I feel obliged to say that the movie is crap. Oh, cloissoné-coated and jewel-encrusted crap, but crap. The kind of crap that Oscar voters swarm around like ravenous flies. After honoring tough numbers such as “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hurt Locker” with the top prize in recent years, it would be a shame to see the Oscar voters retreat to the same comfort zone that saw them give “Gandhi,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Ordinary People” and “Shakespeare in Love” the Best Picture award.

But it could easily happen Sunday night. Even worse, though, would be if the academy overlooked Fincher’s cool, smart, rigorous work in “Social Network” (not to mention his track record with “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac”) and handed the Best Director statue to TV miniseries veteran Tom Hooper for his safe, competent, lethally dull work in “King’s Speech.”

No matter how funny or lame co-hosts Hathaway and Franco turn out to be, the real entertainment and suspense of Sunday’s show will be seeing whether the academy has actually learned from its past, safe mistakes or whether the voters will once again enshrine a twee little movie your mother (and grandma) could love. Sigh.

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