What the 2011 Oscars really mean

We parse the significance of this year’s likely winners.
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Aren’t they just the movies the Academy liked most? Every year, pundits parse the Oscar winners for hidden messages about who’s hot, who’s not and what Hollywood thinks of itself. The Hurt Locker beating Avatar was seen as a triumph of Hawksian storytelling over technical innovation, while Shakespeare in Love toppling Saving Private Ryan confirmed that Miramax could vanquish a titan like Steven Spielberg. Below, we tease out the significance of this year’s wins.

Best Picture
What it means if The King’s Speech wins Crowd-pleasers have an advantage over downers. While it’s impossible to imagine The King’s Speech inspiring the fevered conversations that greeted The Social Network, it sends viewers out happy, and uplift is a powerful emotion. Also, master Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein, left for dead after ditching Miramax in 2005, is apparently back.
What it means if The Social Network wins It’s payback time. Surely a few Academy members were embarrassed that David Fincher’s Zodiac received zero nominations and then went on to make best-of-decade lists. And his new movie hits several sweet spots: It’s classically structured but edgy in subject matter; it’s penned by a respected writer; and, in its own way, it’s a 19th-century novel, with Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker in the role of the rake. In a sense, the Academy would just be voting for a different sort of costume drama.
Prediction The King’s Speech. Last year’s switch to ten Best Picture nominees inaugurated a ranked-ballot system for this category, and that makes this guess tough. If Academy members place The Social Network as high on its best lists as critics did, it’s a lock. But when most of the major precursor awards go for The King’s Speech, the king’s math wins.

Best Actress
What it means if Natalie Portman wins All that strenuous ballet practice paid off. At a certain point in a star’s trajectory, winning an Oscar is just part of a career narrative.
What it means if Annette Bening wins The Academy has tired of passing her by. It was kind of sad that she lost for American Beauty, only to see Hilary Swank, who beat her, win again just five years later.
Prediction Portman. As good as Bening is, Portman’s performance is showier. She’s already had her “breaking in” nomination, for Closer. And it’s hard to imagine this factoring into the voting, but someone at the Oscars loves putting pregnant women on TV.

Best Actor
What it means if Colin Firth wins That it’s hard to lose playing a monarch or a dictator. (See also: Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Forest Whitaker.)
What it means if James Franco wins Hollywood is engineering a great TV moment: It’s the first time since Paul Hogan hosted in 1987
that a show’s emcee has been up for an Oscar. (Yes, “Crocodile” Dundee was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.)
Prediction Firth, whom many considered to have been snubbed last year for A Single Man.

Best Documentary
What it means if Exit Through the Gift Shop wins Those L.A. types love their street art. Also, they want to see what will happen if Banksy shows up. Also, they will have correctly chosen the year’s best documentary.
What it means if Inside Job wins Academy members want to be politicians. Charles Ferguson’s look at the financial crisis takes a complicated subject and makes it lucid—which is more than most elected officials did.
Prediction Bank on Inside Job.

Watch the Oscars Sunday 27 at 7pm on ABC.

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