Can the Oscars raise a smile?

Despite strikes, cancellations and controversy, the 80th Academy Awards aim to bring back the glitz, says Andrew Gumbel

Somewhere in the bowels of Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, a team of writers has spent the past few days frantically brainstorming for jokes and one-liners to give at least the appearance of jovial normality to this year's Academy Awards.

In any normal year, one not dominated by a writers' strike that came very close to overshadowing, if not actually sabotaging, the Oscars altogether, the team that writes the banter for the master of ceremonies – this year, the cult-status satirist and spoof newscaster Jon Stewart – would have five or six weeks from the time the nominations are announced until the big night.

Given the predictability of so many of the nominations, they could in fact have had even longer to try to be funny – even over distinctly unfunny frontrunner movies such as No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers' bleak Sophoclean tragedy about the inevitability of violence in modern America, or There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's portrait of a rapacious pioneering oil baron symbolising all the greed, amorality and, yes, violence, of modern capitalism.

This year, they're having to think quickly. As negotiations to end the strike were nearing their end, the producer of the Oscars show, Gil Cates, warned that he would need at least two weeks to get all the material ready. The return-to-work order came only on Wednesday of last week, giving Stewart and his team eight working days to come up with the concepts, do whatever funny footage edits or original video shooting they want to do, and have it all wrapped up and ready to go at 5pm on Sunday.

Stewart, though, is a pro. The Daily Show, his successful spoof newscast, has become very adept at taking items from that day's news, spinning comic sketches in the form of two-day interviews with a Daily Show "correspondent", and digging up footage to make fun of the politicians or news journalists who happen to have made idiots of themselves that day.

The Oscars are a little different, because Stewart has been hired not to lampoon the prestige output of the entertainment industry, only to take some of the serious edge off the furious studio campaigns on behalf of their nominated titles.

This year's Oscars are different all over again, because those campaigns have been muted by the strike. Until about five minutes ago, nobody was taking a serious look at the merits of, say, the cinematography on No Country for Old Men and on The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (both, incidentally, the work of the same director of photography, Roger Deakins).

Most years, the papers and television networks would have trotted out their annual canard that a Best Picture Oscar is worth as much as an extra $100m at the box office. (It's not true, by the way, on which more in a moment.) This year, though, the dollar figure everyone is focusing on is the $130m that the Academy Awards are estimated to be worth to the local Los Angeles economy.

Some of that money won't be generated this year because of a handful of high-profile cancellations – none more high-profile than the Vanity Fair after-party, usually the most reliable concentration of celebrity pounds per square inch on the planet but simply not happening this year. Most of it, though, has been spared. Not a big deal for your average movie star, but absolutely crucial to the legions of limo drivers, make-up artists, hair-stylists, dressmakers, caterers and – naturally – red-carpet weavers, for whom Oscars week is the equivalent of an end-of-year bonus for the average corporate stooge.

Let's not exaggerate: the strike never was about the Oscars, and its effect on the Academy Awards, one way or the other, was never more than tangential. The forecaster who came up with the $130m figure – Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation – also estimates that the strike, overall, has cost the entertainment industry and the rest of the economy about $1.5bn. At a time when the US is on the brink of a recession, that's a huge drain on the system.

Still, those tangential effects on the Oscars are not uninteresting. The usual studio approach is to see awards season as a magnificent promotional opportunity for worthy films that might not necessarily be box-office champions. (This year's crop of Best Picture nominees are no exception to the rule – only one, the feelgood teen pregnancy comedy Juno, has generated more than $100m at the box office to date.)

In fact, the key, from a marketing point of view, is not winning an Oscar so much as getting nominated. In a normal year, any box-office boost from the awards has usually been exhausted by the time the winner is announced. This year, though, the strike made that kind of marketing very difficult. Many of the chat shows where nominated actors, writers and directors would ordinarily do their rounds went dark because their own writing staff were out on the picket lines.

The films that have arguably suffered the most – or, rather, lost the most opportunities – are the ones that were least visible in the first place: films such as Away from Her, the independent Canadian movie starring Julie Christie as a woman whose ostensibly happy marriage comes under unexpected scrutiny when she lapses into senile dementia. Since Away from Her cost only $2.5m to make, it has been profitable. But one wonders if it might not have found a much wider audience in a year when Christie and the film's writer-director, Sarah Polley, snagged nominations, for acting and adapted screenplay respectively.

Some of Christie's friends suspect that she might not win the Best Actress Oscar, for which she is hotly touted – because the film has been little seen, and because her closest apparent rival, Marion Cotillard, is being promoted by the grand wizard of Hollywood awards alchemy, the redoubtable Harvey Weinstein. Cotillard, who does a knockout job playing Edith Piaf in the French biopic La Vie en Rose, beat Christie to the punch at the Bafta awards earlier this month, so there is certainly room for some doubt.

The bookmakers' money, though, is still very much with Christie, and with a pretty solid line-up of other winners. No Country for Old Men will probably win Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem). Daniel Day-Lewis is the hot favourite for best actor, as that oil baron in There Will Be Blood. Diablo Cody, the stripper turned screenwriter of Juno, is odds-on for Best Original Screenplay. All that leaves little room for argument, except perhaps over the worthiest recipient of the Best Original Score Oscar, and, of course, over the most unjustly overlooked non-nominees. (Fans of Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and the Romanian movie Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, both roundly snubbed, have probably been shouting the loudest, and with the most justification.)

That said, the Oscars usually provides a surprise or two, and we can only hope Stewart and his team come up with a memorable laugh or two, even about those grim Best Picture nominees. "The thing is," he told The New York Times this week, "they're not all about psychopathic killers. Only about 80 per cent of them."

The Oscars ceremony takes place on Sunday

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