A few years ago, I completely changed my way of handicapping the Oscars.
I used to talk to journalists and academy members and pay attention to rumors, but I found that most journalists know about as much as I do (zilch), that rumors are false (and sometimes deliberately started) and that talking to academy members is pointless unless you know voters in a variety of demographics.
Instead, I've found that the best way to predict the Oscars is to examine historical trends, because, curiously enough, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has maintained the same institutional personality for more than 80 years.
Other institutions change. In 1880, the Democrats were the conservative party and the Republicans were the liberal party, and yet long before 80 years were up, they had switched places. But since 1929, the academy has chosen the same kinds of films (big and expensive) and performances (chameleonic). Academy members are mortal, but the academy's predilections are eternal.
So let's zoom in on the big categories:
Traditionally, this is the worst category, in which the academy has honored films that are huge, boring, artistically safe, socially or politically liberal (so long as the sentiments expressed can't offend anyone) and expensive. Often the winning film is the worst of those nominated, and the choice is perplexing. By all these measures, Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" would seem to have the inside track.
However, this is the one category in which historical trends do not necessarily apply, for the simple reason that the voting method has changed recently. Now there are nine nominees ("Hugo," "The Tree of Life," "The Descendants," "Midnight in Paris," "War Horse," "The Artist," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help" and "Moneyball") and ranked voting is used to determine the winner. That means it becomes possible, by ranking your votes, to, in effect, vote against something even as you're voting for something else. "The Hurt Locker" and "The King's Speech" are the two Best Picture winners since ranked voting began, and they are reasonable choices. They don't conform to the bloated-epic pattern of so many previous winners, and they're not movies that inspire hatred. They don't make people want to vote against them.
Without ranked voting, "Avatar" would have beaten "The Hurt Locker," just as "Hugo" would win next Sunday. But I predict the winner will be a movie that people are passionate about but that no one seems to hate. The winner will be ... "The Artist."
The Screen Actors Guild chose Viola Davis ("The Help") in a surprise win that made her the automatic Oscar front-runner in most people's eyes. But the role she played was not so far from her own personality as to be a complete transformation, and it's those chameleonic performances that have traditionally caught the academy's eye. The other performances in this category -- Michelle Williams ("My Week With Marilyn"), Glenn Close ("Albert Nobbs"), Meryl Streep ("The Iron Lady") and Rooney Mara ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") -- are chameleonic. One of them will win.
Not Mara. Not Close, who is up against two blockbuster chameleons who have the added advantage of playing real people (also an academy favorite). So it comes down to Streep and Williams. Streep has the advantage of being amazing as Margaret Thatcher, but she has the disadvantage of always being amazing. What's more, people don't love the character she played and don't love the movie. Plus, there is the sense out there that Streep hardly needs another Oscar. If Shakespeare came back to life, would you give him the Pulitzer Prize for drama? What would be the point? Everybody knows he's a genius. Well, same with Streep.
Also, this is hardly fair, but Streep is the wrong age. Best Actress winners are almost always young -- 11 out of the past 13 were younger than 35. Williams has all of Streep's advantages without any disadvantages. And she played a lovable character in a better movie. So the winner will be ... Michelle Williams.
Because chameleonic performances always beat what I call apotheosis-type performances -- roles in which an actor plays some fully realized version of his own personality -- an actor such as George Clooney is always at a disadvantage. He can give the year's best performance year after year ("Michael Clayton," "Up in the Air") and keep losing. Usually, such actors don't win an Oscar until they give a bad performance (see Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman").
But this year Clooney has a shot. He was great in "The Descendants," and he has the good fortune of being up against a completely non-chameleon field. I suppose one could call Gary Oldman's turn in "Tinker Tailor
Soldier Spy" chameleonic, but Oldman is a character actor, and this character looks reasonably close to what we might reasonable imagine to be Oldman's normal demeanor.
Also in the running, there's Brad Pitt in "Moneyball," who is fine, but his work pales next to Clooney's emotional work in "The Descendants." And Demian Bichir's nomination for "A Better Life" is on the order of You Were Great, Thanks for Playing. No chance there.
No, Clooney has one competitor and one competitor only: Jean Dujardin in "The Artist." At first I thought the notion of a modern actor playing a silent-film star might seem fairly chameleonlike to Oscar voters, but Dujardin took that advantage off the table when he won the Golden Globe: He was so exuberant and happy that he seemed exactly like the guy he played in the film. No, Dujardin's real and only advantage is that he is so charming and delightful in the movie that he makes you just want to vote for him.
This is why I think Clooney is in trouble: He is my favorite of the American actors, and if you put me on truth serum, I'd probably say his performance in "The Descendants" is the best by an actor this year. But if I were voting, I'd still pick Dujardin, because his performance has stayed in my head in a way that Clooney's has not. Dujardin's performance is like this beautiful thing you can keep returning to, and maybe that's a form of being the best, too. So the winner will be ... Jean Dujardin.
And Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer will win in the supporting categories. They can't be stopped.
(Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. Email mlasalle(at)sfchronicle.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
From the San Francisco Chronicle.