In the name of Meryl, our Oscar ballot guide
So you're going to an Oscar party this year. Not the kind where disappointed celebrities gather to envy the winners, but the kind where disappointed viewers gather to criticize this year's host. Since Billy Crystal can't help but improve on James Franco's postmodern stoner breakdown of last year, the real highlight of this year's Oscar party may just be the Oscar ballot pool.
Don't even think of skipping it! Nothing brings more satisfaction at the end of a long, grueling night of acceptance speeches and dull tributes than winning the Oscar pool. Don't worry if you haven't even seen all -- or any -- of the movies that were nominated this year. All you need is this handy cheat sheet, and that pile of cash (or laundry quarters) is yours!
The first important rule for filling out your Oscar ballot: Quality is beside the point. You are not choosing the films, directors, thespians, costume designers and sound mixers with the most talent, vision and artistic integrity. Cast aside that fantasy right now, because it'll lead to a world of disappointment and a ballot covered with more angry red X marks than The Situation's high school remedial math tests. No. In order to predict the Oscar winners, you must predict the behavior of Academy voters, a group that is as predictable as a sack full of hungry squirrels. Let's call it The Squirrel Supremacy. Becoming an Oscars scholar requires entering the mind of an enraged, hyperactive rodent.
You must think the way the squirrel thinks.
Will a squirrel embrace the novelty of "The Artist"? (Don't those curious squirrels adore novelty?) Or will they go in for the men-have-feelings-too Alexander Payne-lovable edginess of "The Descendants"? (Aren't squirrels lovable and edgy?) Is this another year in which mainstream fare like "The Help" or "War Horse" (see "Chicago," "Titanic") wins? Or are those twitchy rodents less easily manipulated by such standard entries these days? Perhaps this is a good year for a lyrical, bizarre-but-brilliant film like "Tree of Life"? (Squirrels do adore trees.)
Since I'm a firm believer in keeping your expectations so low that hope becomes an extremely uncomfortable emotion, let me remind you that squirrels are even dumber than they look. If you give a squirrel a list of Best Actor nominees, he's likely to start nibbling on it immediately. After he's eaten half the page, he'll look down and see the name Jean Dujardin and remember the time that nice little foreign man named Roberto Benigni climbed over the seats at the Oscars to receive his award. Foreign men can be so grateful when they win! Then he'll see the name Clooney and imagine that handsome face winking at the audience with a gold statue in his hand. So charming! It's a known fact that squirrels love George Clooney more than Italian spokesmodels and "Dancing With the Stars" heroines combined.
But this younger generation of squirrels prides itself on how lightning-quick and unpredictable it can be. Unlike old-timey generations of squirrels, who were content to quickly select a name like Sally Field or Meryl Streep off any list and resume nibbling on dried seeds, this generation of squirrels likes to zig when you think it's going to zag.
Do you know how many times Streep has been nominated as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress in the past 33 years? Seventeen. Basically, every time she's in a movie, she's nominated. Do you know how many times she's won? Twice. Incredibly enough, the last time Streep won was in 1983 for "Sophie's Choice." That's right, Streep hasn't won an Oscar since you were (pick one) 1) running around in pajamas with feet; 2) curling your bangs and humming "Gloria" by Laura Branigan; or 3) signing divorce papers from your first husband while humming "Don't Let It End (This Way)" by Styx.
In the past, oh, three decades, people like Helen Hunt and Sandra Bullock have been winning Best Actress Oscars instead. Do the squirrels seriously believe Bullock is a superior actor to Helen Mirren? Is it right that Hilary Swank should have the same number of Oscars as Meryl "I Will Become Her" Streep? Also: Natalie Portman? I loved that scene in the bathroom stall from "Black Swan" too, but in retrospect, isn't it obvious that the most brilliant thing about Darren Aronofsky's directing was how he managed to cut away every time Portman started to revert to her usual comatose state? Apparently none of these squirrels have seen "The Other Woman," in which Portman appears challenged by scenes that require walking and talking at the same time, or "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," in which Portman offers up her best imitation of a root vegetable. But squirrels, like Academy voters, seem to know little about non-Oscar-nominated films.
This younger generation of squirrels clearly believes in thwarting our expectations too. They don't want Streep to win anything precisely because it's so obvious that she's the best actress in any group of actresses. Should the best actress really need to be awarded a prize? She already knows she's the best, doesn't she? Even though squirrels are stupid and confused, they don't like stating the obvious. Plus, a Streep win would make those Academy-voting squirrels look like conformists. Never underestimate how self-conscious your modern squirrel can be about the appearance of conformity.
This aversion to conformity and predictability also suggests "The Artist" really could win Best Picture. While "Tree of Life" is way, way too strange to ever win, "The Artist" is just strange enough. It's the sort of small movie that'll make those squirrelly voters feel proud of themselves.
Other picks that will make squirrels proud
• Octavia Spencer ("The Help") for Best Supporting Actress: A vote for Spencer basically means you support pooping in the baked goods of racists. Since squirrels have long been known to poop on the heads of racists, preferably on their way to a fancy racist ball, this one is a no-brainer.
• Rooney Mara ("Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") for Best Actress: If you're feeling slightly embarrassed voting for someone in a feel-good movie like "The Help," chances are you'll opt for Mara in the Best Actress category, because she sported a nose ring and a strange haircut, which means she's hip and edgy, which means that if you vote for her, you're hip and edgy too. This is a New Generation of Academy Squirrels' vote if there ever was one.
• Christopher Plummer ("Beginners") for Best Supporting Actor: Even young squirrels always choose an old person if they think it might be his last chance to win an Oscar. Plus, Plummer plays a gay man in an adorable indie film. Today's squirrels are as big fans of "adorable-indie-gay" trends as yesterday's squirrels were of "adorable-studio-mentally-handicapped" trends.
• Alexander Payne ("The Descendants") for Best Adapted Screenplay: Payne is exactly the right flavor of clever to win this one, just as he did for "Sideways" in 2005. Squirrels may be idiots, but they love clever almost as much as they love appearing Edgy and Not Racist.
• Michel Hazanavicius ("The Artist") for Best Director: This one falls under the stupidity rule. Even if you feel strongly that squirrels themselves aren't stupid and it's insulting to describe them as such, you know perfectly well Academy voters are. Stupid people feel smart when they vote for someone whose name they can't spell or pronounce. They also love foreigners because, again, they assume that all foreigners who win awards will end up dashing around the auditorium, hugging people and acting delightfully foreign like Benigni or kissing hot ladies onstage like Adrien Brody (who stupid people think is foreign because he has an interesting nose).
So, there are your picks for Oscar night, brought to you by the squirrel scientists here at espnW. Please be sure to send us our 10 percent cut of your Oscar pool profits. We're going to need that money to pay off our Oscar debts, since we're sure to screw up our ballots by choosing the films, directors, thespians, costume designers and sound mixers with the most talent, vision and artistic integrity.
Yep, some of us will never learn. (We love you, Meryl. We love you like the dismissive prime-minister Mum we never had.)
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness."