And now, the moment that we've all been waiting for . . .
Never mind the Golden Globes, the Emmys and the Baftas, the awards that really count are the Oscars. Tomorrow night the great and the good of the movie world will assemble at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre to discover if The King's Speech really has swept the boards, as predicted, for the film world's pre-eminent awards ceremony.
The Academy Awards have been running for 82 years and are broadcast in more than 200 countries. But while winning an Oscar is still a career-defining achievement, the Academy members have been tinkering with the time-honoured formula to try and halt the slide in TV viewing figures.
Last year they reintroduced a 10-movie Best Film shortlist for the first time since 1944. This was an attempt to redress the imbalance whereby the biggest grossing films were never the ones that went on to win awards.
As a result films such as James Cameron's Avatar and Pixar's Up made the 2010 Best Picture Oscar list, but it was still a heavyweight and little-watched drama -- The Hurt Locker -- that won. And it's the same this year: although the extremely successful Toy Story 3 has been nominated, it isn't really a contender for the Best Picture gong.
The Academy has also been tinkering with its presentation. Traditionally a comic introduces the awards: Bob Hope did it 17 times, Billy Crystal eight. Last year they tried pairing Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. But although there was a slight bump in ratings, the Academy has decided to abandon middle-aged wise-crackers in favour of youth and beauty -- James Franco and Anne Hathaway are doing the honours this year.
Behind the scenes, though, nothing changes, and in 2011 the pre-Oscars lobbying has been as fierce as ever. The front runner this year is The King's Speech. That's no surprise when you realise that it's produced by the Weinsteins. Between 1992 and 2004, Bob and Harvey Weinstein's Miramax production company succeeded in getting 13 films nominated in the Best Picture category, one in every single year. It's a staggering record, and Lord only knows how they managed it.
This year a late run by the Coen brothers' True Grit might be the only thing to prevent them from a major Oscar sweep with The King's Speech. Recent Hollywood press ads have described True Grit as the "most honoured American movie" of the year, a clear reference to The King's Speech's foreign origins.
Elsewhere, fans of True Grit and other nominated movies have leapt on stories claiming The King's Speech has idealised George VI and his wife. In a recent article Christopher Hitchens described the monarch as a serial appeaser of Hitler who was against Churchill's elevation to prime minister, and much has been made of these claims in the Hollywood press.
Some lobbyists appeal more directly to the Academy voters, and last year producer Nicholas Chartier got himself in trouble for sending emails to Academy voters urging them to vote for his movie, The Hurt Locker, over Avatar. Chartier was banned from attending the ceremony, but The Hurt Locker won Best Film anyway.
At this stage, though, it's too late for any of those kind of shenanigans and, barring a major upset, The King's Speech looks set to dominate this year. Here's a look at the runners and riders in the main awards, and who we think might win.
Of the 10 nominees for this year's Best Picture Oscar, a number can be dismissed straight away. While terrific fun, Toy Story 3 is a kids' cartoon and as such a rank outsider, though it would be nice to see Pixar win Best Picture one of these years. Debra Granik's gritty independent drama Winter's Bone is too obscure, and both The Kids Are All Right and Inception are saddled with the considerable disadvantage of having been released in the middle of last year. That leaves 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, True Grit and The Social Network. Those last three are the realistic front runners, and though my heart would be with The Social Network, my money would be on The King's Speech.
The Best Director nominations are very much a case of the usual suspects. Joel and Ethan Coen are nominated for the umpteenth time, for True Grit; Darren Aronofsky is up for the brilliant and daring Black Swan; and David Fincher (The Social Network), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) and David O Russell (The Fighter) complete the line-up. Aronofsky's film is probably too esoteric for this award, and Russell's isn't good enough. The Coens swept the board in 2008 with No Country for Old Men, which would leave Tom Hooper and David Fincher as favourites. Fincher deserves it.
Javier Bardem earns his third Oscar nomination for a spellbinding performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful, while 2010 Best Actor winner Jeff Bridges is nominated again for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Jesse Eisenberg is up for The Social Network, and deservedly so, while James Franco (who's also hosting the awards) is honoured for his performance in 127 Hours. But if Colin Firth doesn't walk away with this Oscar for The King's Speech there may be a steward's enquiry.
Another shoo-in, I'm afraid. Nicole Kidman receives her third Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman who's just lost her infant son in Rabbit Hole, and newcomer Jennifer Lawrence is up for Winter's Bone. Annette Bening delivered her best performance in years as the dominant partner in a lesbian couple in The Kids Are All Right, and the ever-excellent Michelle Williams was extremely good in Blue Valentine. But Black Swan was Natalie Portman's equivalent of Raging Bull: she lost a lot of weight, trained as a prima ballerina and seems so brittle in Aronofsky's film that she looks as though she's about to break. Hollywood will be shocked if she doesn't win.
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale was the early front runner in this category for his nervy performance as a punch-drunk drug addict in The Fighter, but now he's neck and neck with Geoffrey Rush from The King's Speech. Rush is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having won Best Actor in 1996 for Shine, and he's very good as George VI's long-suffering voice guru. The other nominees are Jeremy Renner (The Town), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids are All Right) and John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) but it should be between Rush and Bale.
Best Supporting Actress
Australian actress Jacki Weaver was the surprise nomination here, but is very good as a monstrous criminal matriarch in Animal Kingdom. Melissa Leo plays another domineering mother in the boxing drama The Fighter, and is also up, along with Amy Adams, for the same film. Fourteen-year-old actress Hailee Steinfeld was terrific as avenging teen Mattie Ross in True Grit, but the favourite for this award is surely Helena Bonham Carter, who played Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon with such gusto in The King's Speech.
In the original screenplay category Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg are in with a shout for The Kids Are All Right, as is Mike Leigh for Another Year and Christopher Nolan for Inception. But then there's King's Speech author David Seidler to be reckoned with. And in the adapted category the Coens are worthy nominees for True Grit, but are sure to be pipped at the post by Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.