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Will Oscar surprise us?

Could Johnny Depp or Keisha Castle-Hughes pull off an upset?

Monday-morning quarterbacks claim that the Oscars are a tediously predictable ritual. And it’s true that it doesn’t take a psychic to guess that an unstoppable force like “Titanic” or “Schindler’s List” will sweep the awards.

But what about those jawdropping moments that confound conventional wisdom? For instance, Grace Kelly (“The Country Girl”) acing out Judy Garland (“A Star Is Born”) for 1954’s best actress — or Art Carney taking the 1974 best actor award (for “Harry and Tonto”) over Jack Nicholson (“Chinatown”) and Al Pacino (“Godfather II”).

Or that modest British film, “Chariots of Fire,” winning best picture (of 1981) over such blockbuster American contenders as “Reds” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? According to Damien Bona, author of “Inside Oscar,” the opening of the envelope that revealed “Chariots” as the big winner “caused an avalanche of obscenities uttered throughout Hollywood.”

Such out-of-the-blue prizes can seem to nullify all theories about how the votes are cast, how the studios influence the vote, and what sentimental/career factors will figure in the final tally. They can also lend suspense and excitement to a plodding awards show.

Adrien who?
Last year, about two-thirds of the way into the show, we got a lulu of a surprise: Adrien Brody winning best actor for his role as a Holocaust survivor in “The Pianist.”  In competition with Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage and Daniel Day-Lewis, this young and almost unknown actor seemed the least likely of candidates. Adrien who?

When Halle Berry announced his name, the show suddenly shifted gears. And when “The Pianist” went on to take the Oscars for best director (Roman Polanski) and screenplay adaptation (Ronald Harwood), it seemed that anything could happen. In the end, as expected, “Chicago” still took the best picture award, but it felt like the narrowest of victories.

In recent years, one or two upsets have almost become the norm at the Academy Awards. Maybe it’s because there are now so many awards shows, the Oscars traditionally arrive last, and the voters want to avoid rubber-stamping what other groups have done.

Whatever the reasons, a streak of independence appears to have surfaced, especially since the spring of 1997, when Lauren Bacall did not win the supporting-actress Oscar — and nearly every office pool in the country had been predicting she would take it for “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” A beloved Hollywood legend who had never been nominated before, Bacall looked stunned when the prize went to Juliette Binoche for “The English Patient.”

Binoche was so unprepared that she told the audience “I thought Lauren was going to get it, and I think she deserves it.” She was being too modest. Binoche gave the most vital performance in her movie, while Bacall couldn’t do a lot with a mediocre script.

The shocker of the 1999 awards show came last: “Shakespeare in Love” won over “Saving Private Ryan” for best picture. A year later, “The Matrix” took all the technical awards that had been expected to go to the “Star Wars” prequel. At the 2001 Oscars, Marcia Gay Harden, who had failed to win even a Golden Globe nomination for “Pollock,” provided the evening’s biggest upset by taking the supporting actress Oscar.

In each case, the voters were opting for what they clearly believed to be the fresher choice. “Private Ryan” had seemed almost anointed before it was even nominated for anything, while “Shakespeare” didn’t carry that aura of inevitablity. “The Matrix,” unlike the “Star Wars” prequel, was something the voters had never seen before. Harden must have struck a chord with her performance as a strong woman supporting a crazed genius.

Could Depp pull off an upset?So what looks freshest this time around?

Johnny Depp’s wild performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean” could provide an upset in the best actor category, especially if the voters are in a mood to reward comedy, as they were in the mid-1960s, when Lee Marvin (the drunken gunslinger in “Cat Ballou”) won out over widely praised dramatic performances by Rod Steiger (“The Pawnbroker”) and Oskar Werner (“Ship of Fools”). Depp’s strongest competition: Sean Penn’s grieving father in “Mystic River” and Bill Murray’s lonely movie star in “Lost in Translation.”

Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) obviously got the attention of the voters. They’ve never nominated a 13-year-old for best actress before, so they must feel strongly about this performance. The favorites appear to be Charlize Theron (“Monster”) and Diane Keaton (“Something’s Gotta Give”), but the former may be too grim, the latter too lightweight, leaving this unknown New Zealand actress in the dark horse position.

Renee Zellweger is widely regarded as a shoo-in for best supporting actress for her comic-relief role in “Cold Mountain”; this is her third nomination in a row. But Shohreh Aghdashloo, the first Iranian performer to be nominated for an Oscar, is in many ways the soul of “House of Sand and Fog.” She could have played Ben Kingsley’s long-suffering wife as a one-note martyr, but she consistently resists the temptation.

If any actor appears to have a lock on the Oscar this year, it’s Tim Robbins, who lends a melancholy depth to “Mystic River” that is essential to the movie’s success. If there’s an upset in the supporting-actor category, it’s most likely to come from Djimon Hounsou’s poignant work as a mysterious neighbor to the immigrants of  “In America,” or Alec Baldwin’s showy performance as a ruthless casino manager in “The Cooler.”

Guilds spreading the awards aroundOne reason for the surprises of recent years is that the usual omens have lost their reliability. The various guild awards, which used to be indicators of what would dominate the Oscars, have failed to provide that service lately. Three years ago, the Directors’ Guild gave its prize to Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), but the Oscar went to Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”). Last year, the DGA honored Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), while the Oscar was Polanski’s.

This year, the list of nominees submitted by the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild don’t line up very well with the Oscar-nominated actors and scripts. “The Station Agent,” with three SAG nominations, came up empty on Oscar nomination day. The Oscar voters nominated two foreign-language screenplays, “The Barbarian Invasions” and “City of God,” while the Writers Guild mentioned none.

Peter Jackson, nominated three years in a row by the DGA for his work on the “Lord of the Rings” series, finally won the best director prize earlier this month for the most recent installment, “The Return of the King.” Ordinarily, that would pave the way for Jackson and “Return” at the Oscars on Feb. 29.

But just a few days later, “Return” got stomped in the London Film Critics’ awards, which honored Clint Eastwood as best director (“Mystic River”) and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” as best picture. Could the Oscar voters be as bored of the “Rings” as the Brit critics appear to be?