A bellwether of the Oscars

The Baltimore Sun

HOLLYWOOD -- It's one of the most reliable bellwethers of the Academy Award for best picture. The Golden Globes? Hardly. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures? Not a chance. Perhaps the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award? Wrong again.

If you are really interested in who has their fingers on the pulse of Oscar voters, you need to travel to north Texas and canvass the 35 members of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. In the past five years, they correctly have foretold the best picture winner four times - missing only Crash, a movie everybody underestimated.

For all the media and studio attention lavished on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, its 88 Golden Globe voters reliably celebrate films that don't go on to repeat their wins at the Oscars. Last year, even with 10 films short-listed for best picture (the Golden Globes are handed out in two categories, drama and musical/comedy), the group didn't manage to nominate eventual Oscar best picture winner Crash.

The last time the Globes correctly presaged the winner of the top Academy Award was with 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. None of the best picture Globe winners in the past two years - Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line, The Aviator and Sideways - repeated its triumph at Oscar time.

Philip Berk, president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, takes that as a compliment, proof that his organization thinks independently.

"The stereotype of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is that we are the friends of the studios and we are easily manipulated," Berk says. "But we have a lot of new blood. Over the last 20 years, our members are less star-struck and less interested in pleasing the studios.

"And there is no attempt by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to use the Golden Globes to predict what will happen in the Academy Awards."

Although the Globes bypassed Crash, Berk points out that five other top Globes winners repeated with wins at last year's Oscars - Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee, Capote star Philip Seymour Hoffman, Good Night, and Good Luck's George Clooney, Walk the Line's Reese Witherspoon and The Constant Gardener's Rachel Weisz.

Another equally small award group with an outsized profile actually has a poorer Oscar prediction track record.

In each of the past five years, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures gave its best picture award to a movie that didn't win the best picture Academy Award. This year, the obscure group of film professionals, educators, students and historians handed its top honor to Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima.

And even though some Oscar prognosticators and consultants say the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble award is critical - SAG singled out Crash last year, after all - its reliability is less than perfect.

Although SAG's ensemble acting award winner has gone on to win a best picture Oscar three times in the past five years (Crash, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Chicago), the prizes SAG bestowed on Gosford Park and Sideways did not translate into best picture wins.

The Directors Guild of America makes pretty accurate forecasts; its top filmmaker choice has gone on to collect the best picture Oscar in each of the past five years except last year (when it picked Brokeback's Lee, not Crash's Paul Haggis).

But it's the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, a group of online, print and broadcast journalists that isn't even on most people's radar, that seems to nail it most often. Like the Directors Guild, the group missed only Crash over the past five years, picking Brokeback Mountain instead. Every other time, its top film also went on to grab the Oscar.

"It's gotta be a coincidence," says Todd Jorgenson, critic for Texas' Denton Record-Chronicle and president of the group. "It's certainly not anything we try to do. But our members are good about seeing everything and making sure the voting is as thorough as possible."

This year, among the group's choices are: best film, United 93; best actor, Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland); best actress, Helen Mirren (The Queen); best supporting actor, Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children); best supporting actress, Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal); best director, Martin Scorsese (The Departed); best foreign-language film, Letters from Iwo Jima; best documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

The Directors Guild announces its nominees Jan. 9.

"The DGA is the powerhouse," says Oscar consultant Murray Weissman. "The correlation for the DGA is just enormous. They are numero uno in our book."

So why do the Globes enjoy so much attention? "They create such a publicity stir," Weissman says, an opinion shared by fellow consultant Dale Olson. "There are three things that influence Oscar voters. One is the Golden Globes. Two are the collected critics' Top 10 lists. And three is box office. Ideally, you get all three."

John Horn writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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