I get a fair number of emails from Academy members, but most of them don't scare me.
The one that arrived last week, though, stopped me cold.
"I agree with you about the number of nominations," wrote a member after I wrote that I expected seven Best Picture nominees, "although I do disagree with your pick for best picture."
The member went on: "I believe there will be exactly seven nominations, and 'The Help' will be the Best Picture."
My first reaction was that there was no way that could happen – that the movie, while admirable on a number of counts, was too bland and too sappy, and just not what the Academy looks for in a Best Picture winner.
I felt, in other words, exactly the same way I felt when I first heard the suggestion that Sandra Bullock could win Best Actress for "The Blind Side."
Obviously, I was wrong about that one.
I'm not ready to admit that I'm wrong about this one; for now, at least, I'm sticking with my early-September prediction that "The Descendants" will take the big prize.
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But I also think that this is an unusually unsettled year, and one in which all of the presumed frontrunners — including "The Descendants," "The Artist," "War Horse" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" — are either films with significant vulnerabilities (the first two) or unseen wild cards (the last two).
And it makes me wonder if there isn't some truth in the notion that "The Help" could actually win, even though not a single expert polled for the GoldDerby chart is predicting it to do so.
And I wonder the same thing about Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (also picked to win by none of the experts), and David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (picked by a whopping four percent).
Even though none of the three are sure nominees by any stretch, here's how those crazy things could happen.
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When "The Blind Side" got a Best Picture nomination two years ago, and Sandra Bullock actually won the Oscar for a film largely dismissed by critics, it was a sign that populism can still work with Academy voters — that even after a string of tough, uncharacteristic Oscar winners ("The Departed," "Slumdog Millionaire," "No Country for Old Men," "The Hurt Locker"), sentiment and corn still played to that group.
And "The Help" plays squarely to those people as well. And it gets a boost for addressing the Civil Rights movement and another, perhaps bigger boost for being a showcase for what is by far the Academy's biggest branch, actors.
Sure, it divided critics, but it also pleased audiences — and Oscar voters certainly proved that they're still fond of audience-pleasing movies when "The King's Speech" beat "The Social Network" last year.
Also read: 'The Help' Gets Help from Academy Audience
"The Help" will need to be listed in the top spot on a lot of voters' nominating ballots to land a nomination — but if enough of the year-end contenders prove to be disappointments, as they often do, it can probably turn the trick.
The Academy's preferential system of vote-counting, which rewards a small but passionate following in the nomination round, looks for a consensus favorite in the final vote. That could benefit "The Help," which could conceivably ride to victory by being less divisive than some other nominees.
Plus, once the nominations are out and the race enters the homestretch, some contenders could be hampered by the fact that Academy campaign rules now limit each person who worked on a nominated film to two post-screening Q&As. With its huge cast, "The Help" could keep those special screenings coming for as long as voters still have ballots in their hands.
I still don't think it's going to happen, because "The Help" is unlikely to rank anywhere near the top of the ballots from voters who opt for edgier contenders. But I have to admit that the member who proposed the idea isn't completely nuts.
"Midnight in Paris"
While "The Help" could be a consensus movie boosted by the actors branch and by its subject matter, Woody Allen's surprise hit is in many ways the purest feel-good hit of the year. And it's certainly less divisive than "The Help," which is more of a consensus favorite if it gets to the final round of voting.
We also know that the Academy has always loved to give Oscars as de facto lifetime achievement awards — and while Allen isn't long overdue the way Martin Scorsese was when he finally won for "The Departed," some voters (particularly those of retirement age, not a small faction within the Academy) will no doubt be awfully tempted to honor a man who made the top-grossing movie of his career at the age of 75.
Also read: For Woody Allen, 'Midnight in Paris' is No. 1
On the other hand, that 75-year-old never cared much for the Oscar game when he was younger, and Allen certainly won't be one to wage a high-profile campaign even if Sony Classics has the incentive and the finances to launch one. The famously frugal studio division always has plenty of Oscar contenders, but its best track record comes in the Foreign-Language and Documentary categories, where it's more about showing your film and less about the array of events that make up the Weinstein-world Oscar campaign.
The bottom line: Allen's reluctance may make this a non-starter, but you can't completely discount sentiment, the old-folks vote and the fact that a whole lot of people really like this movie.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
On paper, "Dragon Tattoo" is not Oscar bait at all. It's David Fincher's genre exercise, his version of a property that has already led to three monster bestselling books and a trio of well-received Danish films. It is, Fincher told Vogue, "an interesting, specific, pervy franchise."
And let's face it, the Academy isn't much for pervy.
Also read: 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' Trailer Lights Up the Internet
And yet I can't shake the feeling that this film could be a more serious contender than people think. Fincher, after all, is a virtuosic filmmaker with few wrong turns on his resume. And there's an exhilarating charge that comes from a dark, serious adult film that also becomes a commercial hit.
"Dragon Tattoo" wouldn't be a typical Oscar winner, of course — but "The King's Speech" was really the only typical Oscar winner of the past six years. This would be "The Departed" or "The Silence of the Lambs" all over again.
You could also call it the revenge of "The Social Network," last year's critical darling but Oscar also-ran — though who knows how much stomach Fincher and Sony Pictures would have for another full-court press after mounting one last year and falling short.
Yes, it would be a shock if the film muscled its way into serious contention. But hey, Fincher is a smart guy, and just listen to the comparison he's choosing to make:
"I think 'The Godfather' is a pretty good fucking movie. You can start with a supermarket potboiler, but it doesn’t mean you can’t aim high.”
And you know, this might just be a pretty good year to take an unlikely film and aim high.