'Million Dollar Baby' A Favorite

This Sunday night, Hollywood hands out its highest honor at the 77th Annual Academy Awards. So in Friday's Weekend Marquee The Early Show resident entertainment insider and People Magazine senior editor Jess Cagle gives co-anchor Harry Smith a preview of the festivities, along with his Oscar picks.

People magazine has been watching Chris Rock closely. There has been some controversy about him as Oscar host. According to the Comedy Store in L.A., where Rock has been trying out his jokes, he hasn't toned down his act. He pokes fun at everything, Cagle says, pointing out the magazine printed some making fun of Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe.

"He was very funny and very raw," Cagle says but notes, "He was not happy that we printed his jokes."

Cagle mentioned that the 25 top nominees will be getting a phone from Motorola that's not yet on the market. Less certain is which nominees will get the coveted golden statue, Cagle offers the following forecast:

Best Actor:

Jamie Foxx had better prepare his speech. His victory seems a sure bet.

In fact, Paul Giamatti of "Sideways," who was not even nominated, probably has as much of a chance of winning as the other actors in this category.

This is to take nothing away from Don Cheadle's portrait of quiet heroism in "Hotel Rwanda," or Johnny Depp's wide-eyed innocence in "Finding Neverland," or Leonardo DiCaprio's tic-filled embodiment of Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," or Clint Eastwood's stalwart turn as a boxing coach in "Million Dollar Baby" (the best shot at a surprise upset here).

Each is a fine performer, deserving of his own first-time acting Oscar (all but Cheadle have a single prior nod). But each will, no doubt, applaud politely during the triumphant Foxx trot to the Kodak Theatre stage. Blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime role in "Ray," Foxx pulled off the tricky feat of subsuming himself, body and soul, into the character of music legend Ray Charles, and picked up the majority of critics' awards, not to mention the Golden Globe.

Don't worry, Mr. Foxx. Oscar'll be good to you.

Best Actress:

Before the nominations were announced, all the talk focused on "Million Dollar Baby"'s Hilary Swank and "Being Julia"'s Annette Bening, who competed against each other five years ago. (After Bening picked up the SAG Award for "American Beauty," Swank landed the Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry.")

But once "Vera Drake" earned nods in three top categories, its star, Imelda Staunton, suddenly rose to the level of possible winner. If reviewers were voting, she'd probably take home the statue, having won 13 critics' prizes to Swank's nine.

Although it's possible to win this prize for indie films (see Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, and Swank), it's tough when the movies in question haven't even topped $5 million in box office, as is the case for both "Vera" and "Julia."

Kate Winslet of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and Catalina Sandino Moreno of "Maria Full of Grace," meanwhile, can boast bigger theater receipts, but quieter buzz.

So after this awards season's final round, expect many puns about Swank landing the knockout punch.

Best Supporting Actor:

Last year, this category was a done deal, with Tim Robbins of "Mystic River" sweeping all three of the most reliable pre-Oscar awards. But Broadcast Film Critics winner Thomas Haden Church, Golden Globe victor Clive Owen, and SAG Awards favorite Morgan Freeman have proved that this year won't be so predictable.

Two things are for sure: After checking off Jamie Foxx's name for Best Actor, voters aren't likely to do so again for "Collateral," and with his limited screen time, Alan Alda of "The Aviator" isn't likely to score an Oscar to rest next to his five Emmys.

So who will break the deadlock?

Owen gave a star-making performance as a furious cuckold in "Closer," but the film doesn't have much overall support.

"Sideways" sidekick Church is the most appealing story of the bunch, having evolved from sitcom star to missing person to Oscar nominee, but it's rare for a comedian to emerge victorious.

Our money's on Freeman, who earned his fourth nod for his measured turn in "Million Dollar Baby" and should finally reach the stage for the first time.

Best Supporting Actress:

Winning an Oscar for supporting actress is all about the role. It must be substantial enough to make a strong impression.

Talented as they are, Sophie Okonedo and Laura Linney are both saddled with smallish "wife of" parts in "Hotel Rwanda" and "Kinsey."

Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman plays against type as a stripper in "Closer," and voters like to reward young ingenues who stretch a little (think Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted" or Mira Sorvino in "Mighty Aphrodite"). But she didn't even get a SAG nomination.

Virginia Madsen downs her juicy monologue about wine and life in "Sideways" with understated gusto, but portraying a siren of a certain age may not seem like such a hard sell.

So in a very, very tight contest, voters may rally around a showbiz-oriented role (think Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago"). And in "The Aviator," Aussie chameleon and critical fave Cate Blanchett daringly embodies another great Kate very familiar to the Academy, four-time winner Katharine Hepburn.

Best Director:

This year's race for best director is just that: A race.

Yes, Mike Leigh wowed voters with his collaborative work on "Vera Drake" and Taylor Hackford captured the essence of a music legend in "Ray." But repeat after us: It's an honor just to be nominated.

Alexander Payne also wrested strong performances out of his wine-tippling ensemble in "Sideways," but his visual stylings aren't flashy enough to take the top prize.

That brings us back to two of the elder members of Hollywood's old guard. By all rights, Martin Scorsese should have a golden guy (or several) on his mantel after four previous directing nominations. His work on "The Aviator" is characteristically strong, epic even - the latest departure from the maverick, indie sensibility that originally won him acclaim in the '70s.

But the Academy has long had a soft spot for actor-directors, and Clint Eastwood's multifaceted work on "Million Dollar Baby" (he even wrote the score!) is gaining steam as a contender just when it matters most, as the finish line approaches.

Best Picture:

Could this be the year when all the pre-Oscar prizes end up signaling nothing?

First, "Sideways" and "The Aviator" took home Best Picture honors at the Golden Globes, followed by "The Aviator"'s win at the Producers Guild Awards and "Sideways"' best-ensemble victory at the SAG Awards.

So why do we think the Oscars' big winner is likely to be "Million Dollar Baby"?

One word: momentum.

With the latest wide-release date of the nominees, it's the movie most voters are discovering right now. And they're not just discovering it; they are loving it. Though its final plot development has stirred controversy among some activist groups, the backlash may only strengthen Academy support.

Thanks to "Sideways"' impeccable performances and "The Aviator"'s technical mastery, both should see substantial vote totals. "Finding Neverland" and "Ray," meanwhile, will bring up the rear.

But the years have proved that when it comes to deciding between two or three Best Picture nominees, Academy members vote with their hearts, not their minds.