Unpredictable Academy leaves many scenarios

Guessing the nominees for the original-score Oscar in advance — an annual parlor game for the town’s many music-savvy observers — is always a lot easier than predicting the winner.

It’s not all that difficult to anticipate the preferences of the 233 members of the Academy music branch. The lineup is usually drawn from a handful of usual suspects and the occasional impressive newcomer. And that’s the case this year.

What’s harder to gauge is the degree to which the other 5,577 voting members respond to, and recall, music in a movie:

  • Will they remember how important music was in the dialogue-free first half of the hugely popular “Wall-E”?

  • Will they hark back to a time when the epic with the most noms (this year, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) always won the score award?

  • Will they respond to the relatively short bits and pieces of the “Milk” score that add up to a powerful whole?

  • Will they choose an orchestral score that features a leading classical artist and accompanies a Holocaust movie (“Defiance”)?

  • Or will they remember the radio-friendly sounds, and very prominent mix, of music and songs in “Slumdog Millionaire” and vote it the Oscar?

“Slumdog” has the general momentum and an advantage on three fronts: composer A.R. Rahman is Indian, and 11 of the last 15 dramatic-score winners were not born in the U.S.; the score has a definite world-music vibe, and five of the past eight winners featured exotic sounds; and the big Bollywood-style finale is so striking that it may be the one musical moment from 2008 films that everyone recalls.

On the other hand, if Acad voters remember a song and vote for it, they may choose to reward a different film in the score category. Songs and score from the same film were nominated five times in the last decade, but only once (for the last of the “Lord of the Rings” films) did both win.

So don’t count out French composer Alexandre Desplat’s elegant work on “Button,” which charted the title character’s life and loves around the world and throughout the 20th century. The composer’s characteristic 3/4 time signatures (see “Birth,” “Girl With a Pearl Earring”) linger in the mind long after the film is over.

Thomas Newman is nominated in both song and score categories. Because the title character in “Wall-E” basically doesn’t speak, music speaks for him. “Wall-E” marks Newman’s ninth and 10th bids, making him overdue for a win.

“Defiance’s” James Newton Howard has a pair of advantages: a major classical soloist (violinist Joshua Bell) contributing to the soundtrack (“The Red Violin” had Bell solos and won), and a huge promotional push over the last six months — for another film, “The Dark Knight,” which was initially disqualified then reinstated before falling short of the final five.

“Milk” is the real wild card. Danny Elfman’s score — his third for a Gus Van Sant film, and second to be nominated — is supportive, never showy. Yet Elfman has paid his dues with 24 years of Hollywood scores and, because the movie has such ardent fans, this could very well be his year.

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