Tables turned on conventional thinking

In Oscar handicapping, everything you know is wrong.

That became apparent Feb. 15 when the nominations were announced and immediately contradicted most observers’ predictions. Even in a year with few sure things, voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences managed to serve up a healthy helping of surprise.

“The Green Mile” and “The Cider House Rules” exceeded many industryites’ expectations, but “The Hurricane” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” were under-represented. Despite their absence on critics’ lists, Toni Collette, Sean Penn and Samantha Morton made the cut; Jim Carrey and Christopher Plummer didn’t.

But some truisms stick around, and many theories on Oscar voting are accepted as fact. Like devils citing Scripture, anyone can come up with a theory on how “they” vote and find stats to back it up –but there is always evidence to refute such theories.

Below are some Oscar-watcher maxims, and how they were shattered this year. And, to be perverse, we’re refuting our contradictions as well.

Academy voters are old, stodgy and sentimental.

While many media mavens write about the predominance of senior citizens in the Academy (the org refuses to give out demographics), it’s hard to imagine grumpy old men and women voting for “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Election,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and “Being John Malkovich.”

Conversely, these theoretically stodgy voters generally ignored a flood of pieces that, at least before they opened, would seem to be perfect Oscar fodder: “Angela’s Ashes,” “Anna and the King,” “Ride With the Devil,” “Man on the Moon” and “Cradle Will Rock,” to name a few.

Academy voters are adventurous.

Directly contradicting the above:

Voters pretty much avoided edgier stuff like “Three Kings,” “Dogma” and “All About My Mother.” In fact, no foreign-lingo film earned any noms outside of the foreign-language race.

It’s a popularity contest.

Big-grossing films like Julia Roberts’ two smashes — “Notting Hill” and “Runaway Bride” — got nothing. On the other hand, many of the Acad’s branches saluted good work in films that were generally shunned by critics and audiences: for example, Robert Richardson’s cinematography in “Snow Falling on Cedars,” Milena Canonero’s costumes for “Titus,” and Ren Klyce & Richard Hymns’ sound-effects editing in “Fight Club.”

The voters this year spread the wealth among a wide array of films. Counting documentaries and foreign-language offerings, a whopping 28 features grabbed at least one nomination each. And eight noms were enough to put “American Beauty” at the front of the pack, as opposed to past years when nomination leaders like “Titanic” took 14 and “Shakespeare in Love” took 13.

Academy voters shun controversy.

Many people predicted “The Hurricane” and “The Insider” would be hurt by negative publicity about the scripters’ bending of the truth. (These naysayers evidently think “Out of Africa,” “The Last Emperor” and “Braveheart” were rewarded with best film trophies because they scrupulously followed the facts.)

Academy voters are filmmakers, and tend to judge a film only as a film, not as a historical document. As it turned out, “Hurricane” got only one nom (for Denzel Washington), but “Insider” nabbed seven, including script, direction and best film.

The Academy always votes for its favorites.

Before their movies opened, several actors were touted as shoo-ins for nominations because they are favorites of Academy voters, including Jodie Foster (“Anna and the King”), Tom Hanks (“The Green Mile”), Susan Sarandon (“Anywhere but Here”) and Emily Watson (“Angela’s Ashes”). The voters instead favored a bevy of first-timers: The majority of producing, directing, writing and acting nominees are newcomers to the Oscar derby.

The Academy loves new faces.

Directly contradicting the above:

Composer John Williams nabbed his 38th nom. Meryl Streep is on mambo No. 12. The roster of vets this year extends throughout the categories: to cite a few examples, actor Michael Caine (“The Cider House Rules”), with his fifth nomination; makeup maven Rick Baker, his 9th (“Life”); Dennis Muren, visual effects (“Star Wars: Episode 1 — the Phantom Menace”), his 11th. (Muren is tied with Alan Menken as the most trophied living person, with eight previous wins .)

Critic awards and the Golden Globes are good Oscar barometers.

“The Sixth Sense,” “The Green Mile” and “The Cider House Rules” were nowhere on critics’ lists. For the second consecutive year, Globe winner Carrey ended up an also-ran in Oscars. The following won top prizes in the Globes and high-profile critics orgs, but failed to rate an Oscar nomination in their categories: films “Being John Malkovich,” “Topsy-Turvy” and “Toy Story 2″; directors Mike Leigh and Anthony Minghella; actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Malkovich, Plummer and Reese Witherspoon.

“It was great work, but not enough people saw it.”

People often fear that good work will be overlooked if it’s not in a box office blockbuster. However, there’s little correlation between box office and Oscars: With industry screenings, cassettes and passes to eligible films, it’s clear that a film can be widely seen by Academy voters without boosting B.O.

“The Insider” grossed $26.1 million in 1999, below the domestic grosses of such titles as “Baby Geniuses” “The Other Sister” and “Lake Placid.” And Oscarites embraced low grossers like “The Straight Story” ($5 million, domestically), “Boys Don’t Cry” ($4 million), “Sweet and Lowdown” ($2.5 million) and “Titus” ($1 million).

The Academy likes certain films, hates others.

Everyone talks about the Academy’s likes and dislikes as if all the members sit in a room and vote as a unit. They talk of Oscar “snubs,” as if Gwyneth Paltrow, Barry Levinson, Fay Kanin and 5,000 other voting members call each other and say, “Don’t vote for Jim Carrey! Pass it on!”

The truth is, by keeping the results secret the Academy is doing both the smartest and the most dangerous thing possible.

It’s smart, because no nominee would want to go down in Oscar history as the contender who only got three votes out of a possible 5,000. It would be better not to be nominated at all.

On the other hand, secret tallies make onlookers think everybody in the Academy voted for the five winning nominees and nobody voted for anyone else.

The secrecy gives rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories. Entertainment reporters theorize on what exactly KO’d a film, without realizing it may have been only a handful of votes short of the nomination.

After all, somebody has to come in sixth.

So, as we enter the final stretch toward the 72nd Oscar rites, it’s important to remember a few things.

First, with five nominees, a winner needs only 21% of the vote to triumph. That means that for most winners, it’s likely that they did not receive a majority of the votes.

Second, remember that just because your favorite didn’t win, it doesn’t mean that Hollywood didn’t like the candidate. He or she may have missed out by one or two votes.

Third, and most important: As you watch this year’s winners, remember that every theory you’ve ever heard about Oscar voting is wrong. Including this one.

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