erik lundegaard

Silver on Oscar Gold

One of the sites I turned to regularly, desperately, during the recent presidential campaign was Nate Silver’s In the run-up to the election, some friends felt that Silver leaned left too much, but, as it turned out, he didn’t lean left enough. He predicted 338 electoral votes for Obama, who wound up with 365.

Silver started out as a stats-head for one of my loves, baseball, and now he’s entering another: movies. Specifically: the Oscars. New York magazine asked for his predictions on the six major categories and he obliged:

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire (99% chance)
Director: Danny Boyle, SM (99.7%)
Actor: Mickey Rourke (71%)
Actress: Kate Winslet (67.6%)
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger (85.8%)
Supporting Actress: Taraji P. Henson (51%)

For most of these, of course, you don’t exactly need to build statistical software and use logistics regression. But his choice, or his software’s choice, for supporting actress is intriguing. I read deeper but the rationale didn’t make much sense:

Penélope Cruz, who won the BAFTA for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, would seem the logical default. But computer sez: Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson! Button, which looks like a shutout everywhere else, is the only Best Picture nominee with a Supporting Actress nod, and Best Pic nominees tend to have an edge in the other categories.

Except we’re not talking about the other categories, we’re talking about this category. And in the last 10 years, say, how often has a supporting actress winner been the sole best-pic representative in her category? Once. Ten years ago, when Judi Dench won for “Shakespeare in Love” and none of the others had best-pic cred. And how often has the winner not come from a best-pic nominee when a best-pic representative was available? Five times: Angelina Jolie for “Girl, Interrupted” in 1999, Marcia Gay Harden for “Pollock” in 2000, Rene Zellwegger for “Cold Mountain” in 2003, Rachel Weisz for “The Constant Gardener” in 2005, and Jennifer Hudson for “Dreamgirls” in 2006.

So why is the best pic nomination for “Button” a trump card for Henson? I don’t get it. If anything, this category has always read as the “babe” category:

1999: Angelina Jolie, “Girl, Interrupted”
2000: Marcia Gay Harden, “Pollock”
2001: Jennifer Connelly, “A Beautiful Mind”
2002: Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Chicago”
2003: Renee Zellwegger, “Cold Mountain”
2004: Cate Blanchett, “The Aviator”
2005: Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”
2006: Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls”
2007: Tilda Swinton, “Michael Clayton”

The question for this category isn’t “Who’s in a best picture nominee?” but “Who do the mostly old, mostly male members of the Academy want to fuck this year?”  Talent aside, that’s why most of us are guessing Penelope Cruz.

Of course crunching fuckability into an algorithm may even be beyond the scope of the man who predicted such a sure victory for Obama.

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Wed. Feb 18, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars  
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