Keeping Mama Hot

As the country prepares for a mysterious war and slogs through an unending recession, who can blame us for looking forward to the entertaining and comforting elbow-throwing that precedes our nation’s annual Academy Awards pageant. Now that’s a battle we can understand-one fought with advertising offensives and public-relations espionage.

And yet, if you’ve noticed, the jockeying, spending and melodramatic inter-studio feuding that should be giving us succor has been strangely muted.

It’s not that the movies are bad or few in number. On the contrary, 2002-at least in its last month-turned out to be a good year for fine films. “This is a year where there has not been a really clear front-runner,” said Far From Heaven producer Christine Vachon.

The thing is, they’re not really a feel-good bunch. Producer Scott Rudin told The Observer that his movie The Hours stood out as “irony-free” in “an era of mostly fluffy or postmodern tricky movies.” But in truth, many of last year’s finest practically beg for a Wellbutrin prescription, dealing as they do with suicide ( The Hours ), closeted homosexuality and bigotry ( The Hours and Far From Heaven ), bloody Civil War–era Manhattan (Gangs of New York) , America’s troubled foster-care system ( Antwone Fisher ), naked Kathy Bates ( About Schmidt ), self-loathing writers ( Adaptation) , an evil, soul-sucking trinket ( Lord of the Rings ) and-oh, yeah-the Holocaust ( The Pianist ).

No wonder the exuberant, big-breasted musical Chicago is at the top of everyone’s Oscar list.

But the depression factor isn’t the only thing tamping down the spirit of the Oscar horse race. So far, it lacks the increasingly bitter infighting-usually involving Miramax and DreamWorks-that peaked last year over the biographical authenticity of A Beautiful Mind .

Maybe last year just tuckered everyone out, left too many Hollywood suits bloodied.

Or maybe it’s that this year, one of the alpha dogs doesn’t need to attack. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein is sitting as prettily as he ever has. He’s not the underdog that he was in 1999, when he shepherded Shakespeare In Love to victory over Saving Private Ryan . Four years later, he’s armed to the gills. Miramax’s lead picture, Chicago , is seconded by Gangs of New York , and those two movies are supported by a phalanx of backups that Mr. Weinstein could have used in a pinch: Frida, The Quiet American and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind . There’s not a Chocolat in the bunch.

Mr. Weinstein even has a stake in his biggest competition: Paramount’s Scott Rudin–produced picture, The Hours , which may have something to do with his quietude as of late.

These movies, along with Far From Heaven , are part of 2002’s unprecedented weight on the East Coast end of the Hollywood seesaw. Sure, California stalwart DreamWorks is in the game, with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg on their books for Catch Me If You Can , but with none of the glitzy steam of past years. Disney, outside of its stake in Miramax, is out of the Oscar picture; Paramount is only around thanks to Mr. Rudin and his gang of smarty-pants intellectuals; even Universal is represented by its New York–based division, Focus Features. The former USA Films released Far From Heaven and The Pianist , and is co-headed by bowtied Columbia University professor James Schamus.

If you haven’t noticed, virtually all of the films nursing an Oscar buzz were released in the fourth quarter of 2002. The classic Hollywood timeline has been in flux for several years, in no small part because of Miramax’s habit of hoarding its “quality” pictures for December. But this year’s Oscar December crush seemed more lopsided than ever, and the result has been the nearly complete exclusion of other well-regarded films from earlier in the year. What happened to Bebe Neuwirth’s Best Supporting Actress buzz from the box-office dud Tadpole ? And what about The Road to Perdition , a movie that in other years would have its tux pressed and ready to go, but was unwisely unspooled in July?

This year, the end-of-the-year slate was so logjammed that even Frida and Far From Heaven -released in late October and early November, respectively-have seen their Oscar chances suffer because their “early” openings left them forgotten in the deluge of great movies premiering in the final weeks of December.

They’re not the only ones who could feel shafted, either. George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind had good reviews, proven Hollywood glamour (Clooney! Roberts! Barrymore!), a rising star (Sam Rockwell), and a quirky pedigree ( Gong Show host Chuck Barris), but died on the vine, never generating the slightest bit of interest, Oscar or otherwise.

In this mean season, the smallest stumble can spell doom for an Oscar hopeful. “There are now so many prognosticators on the Web,” said Nancy Utley, the head of Fox Searchlight’s marketing department, which faced disappointment this year with Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher . “With everyone handicapping the race, it’s hard to account for the elements of mystery.”

The Observer ‘s heat index attempts to quantify the unquantifiable-the buzzy paths of Oscar’s leading contenders. After canvassing the studios, marketers and public-relations generators, we chose the 10 films that have taken their long, strange trips from the days of pre-release excitement to the crashes or crescendos that followed their premieres. We factored in box office, press, critics’ awards like the Golden Globes, and local word of mouth.

Based on our calculations, put your money on Chicago , but don’t count anyone out yet. Just this week, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that Miramax was boosting the box-office takes of Confessions and Gangs of New York by piggybacking the films with free “sneak previews” of Chicago , which is in limited release around the nation.

Suddenly, it feels like February.