The Academy Awards, Hollywood's ritual orgy of self-congratulation coming to a television screen near you in the early hours of tomorrow morning, seem destined to go down this year as the Oscars that time forgot.
Between the bruising three-month-long screenwriters' strike that ended just 11 days ago, and the looming threat of economic recession, and the thrilling, all-consuming distraction of Barack Obama's struggle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, nobody in the industry has seemed much in the mood to focus attention on themselves.
The parties have been sparse and ill-attended. The big nominated movies have not attracted much of an audience, in part because the usual Oscars season marketing push has been stymied by the industrial unrest. Advertisers – already alarmed that US network television as they know it may, like an ageing starlet, be fading away – are getting worried about their return on the $1.8m they've shelled out for each 30-second spot during the worldwide broadcast.
It doesn't help that this year's host, the television satirist Jon Stewart, presided over the worst Oscar ratings ever two years ago (less than 40 million viewers in the United States) and is hampered now because the writers' strike left him just nine working days to get ready. Expect the usual roster of superstar award presenters to be even scantier than the fashions.
It doesn't help, either, that the weather forecast is for chilly rain. Already, the red carpet on Hollywood Boulevard, bathed most years in glorious late afternoon sunshine, has been enclosed in a weird plastic greenhouse structure.
Ordinarily, this would be a shining year for British talent – we've racked up no fewer than 21 Oscar nominations, including best actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), best actress (Julie Christie), a couple of supporting acting mentions (Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton), two high-profile writing nominations (Christopher Hampton for Atonement and Ronald Harwood for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and a double nomination for British cinematographer Roger Deakins (who worked on both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford).
But it was hard to sense the excitement at the annual pre-Oscar tea party thrown by Bafta – usually a bustling, star-studded affair, notable this time for the absence of most of the high-profile nominees. It doesn't help that both Day-Lewis, the odds-on favourite for best actor, and Christie, ditto for best actress, are notoriously publicity-shy – they have tended to show up when they can support the films they are in, never just to play the diva for the cameras.
"Nobody cares about the Oscars this year," one entertainment industry veteran opined at the tea party. "They only care about Hillary versus Barack. Hollywood doesn't have anything this year to compete with that."
It's certainly true that the suspense level over the likely winners is unusually low. Conventional wisdom (which can, of course, be wrong) suggests No Country For Old Men is a cinch for best picture, and probably best director, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor (Javier Bardem) as well. The hit teen pregnancy comedy Juno, the only best picture nominee to have taken more than $100m at the US box office, will win for best original screenplay. Day-Lewis and Christie will take the main acting honours, and Cate Blanchett is hot favourite for supporting actress for her turn as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
The writers' strike, which focused on the question of compensation for internet downloads and other new media outlets, blew a $1.5bn hole in the southern California economy. Vanity Fair magazine chose to cancel its after-Oscars party, usually the most ostentatious and star-studded occasion of all, and others have followed suit.
Most working writers – along with agents and producers – are now in a frenzy to prepare television pilots, scripts for suspended sitcoms and dramas, and hustling on behalf of the unsolicited work they produced during the stoppage. Nobody has much time for self-congratulation. "This year's Oscars will mark the moment the industry gets back to normality," one agent-producer suggested. "People have families to feed and mortgages to pay, and they just want to get on with it."