Monitoring the fluctuations of Oscar fever has become a procedure as ritualized as the Oscar ceremonies themselves. Starting in January, well before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced its nominations, and through the following eight weeks, the entertainment media and Hollywood itself are as attentive as boiler-room stock traders: monitoring every blip, shiver and tremor that might signal a one-degree shift in the contenders' hotness.
With the fortunes of nine movies, five directors and 20 actors and actresses in play, the needles twitch and the graphs zigzag with every guild award, politically incorrect speech or minor event in the news cycle that might affect the nominees' relative chances.
With our thermometer placed firmly in Hollywood's orifice, here's a record of the course of this year's Academy Award febrile season, leading up to the moment when Dr. Oscar delivers his final diagnosis on Sunday night.
Jan. 12: The Golden Globes
Though the often-ridiculed GGs are picked by a mere 80 or so foreign journalists, and have no overlap with the roughly 6,000 voting members of the Academy, its high-profile TV show (which reached almost 21 million viewers this year) kicks off Oscar season.
Hot: American Hustle, which wins three, emerges as the main rival to 12 Years a Slave, which earns the best-drama prize. But Gravity weighs in too: Director Alfonso Cuaron walks off with a statuette.
Also hot: Four actors are established as front-runners in their categories: Cate Blanchett, who plays a former New York socialite brought low by her embezzler husband in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, is picked as best actress. Jennifer Lawrence wins for best supporting actress, as the hothead wife of a con man in American Hustle. Matthew McConaughey takes best actor as a Texas cowboy who overcomes homophobia to help fellow HIV-positive patients in Dallas Buyers Club; and Jared Leto, who plays a transgender woman in the same film, gets best supporting actor.
Feeling a chill: Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Phillips and All Is Lost, which were end-of-year critics' favourites, get little attention at the Globes. Star Robert Redford says All is Lost was poorly marketed by its distributors, and Inside Llewyn Davis's omission may have been due to a misjudged campaign by a relatively green distribution company (CBS Films). As for Captain Phillips, without enough best-actor buzz for Tom Hanks as a sea captain captured by Somali pirates, the campaign runs aground early.
Cooling: McConaughey and Leto. Morning commentators in The Advocate, Flavorwire, Slate and Salon slam both actors for failing to address the subject of AIDS in their thank-you speeches, and chastise Leto as flippant for his comments about his "Brazilian bubble butt."
Jan. 18: The Screen Actors
The 120,000 members of SAG-AFTRA include about 1,000 actors who are in the Academy – and who make up Oscar's biggest voting block. Though SAG has predicted the Oscar best picture only nine times in the past 18 years, its acting awards are usually a better indicator of Academy sentiment.
Hot: American Hustle takes best ensemble performance, the equivalent of the Oscars best-picture prize. The film moves up to No. 1 or 2 on many pundits' best-picture lists.
Reheating: McConaughey and Leto make sure to honour AIDS patients in their speeches this time. Blanchett now appears to have a lock on best actress.
Rising: Lupita Nyong'o beats Jennifer Lawrence for best supporting actress, and her poised acceptance speech seems bound to leave a positive impression on Oscar voters.
Cold: Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street, which could have gained big boosts from the best-ensemble award, are ignored. Wolf's excesses and Nebraska's understatement presumably don't appeal to Oscar's all-important thespian cohort.
Jan. 19: Producers Guild Awards
Just 24 hours after the SAG awards, the PGA (representing TV and film producers) juices the script. For the first time in its history, it gives a tie – to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.
Hot: Both films: The PGA's top award has dovetailed with Oscar for 17 of 24 years, including the last six.
Cooling: American Hustle's momentum falters, in what is now a too-close-to-call three-way race.
Cold: With the main guilds having weighed in, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Philomena and Her are out of the running for best picture, leaving them to fight for screenplay prizes.
Still hot: McConaughey wins best actor from the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association.
Jan. 22: Oscar nominations
Hot:American Hustle (10), Gravity (10) and 12 Years a Slave (nine) are well out in front.
Jan. 25: Directors Guild Awards
In 65 years, the DGA winner has predicted the Oscar best director 58 times, and has gone on to win best picture 52 times. This year, the directors fall for
Gravity.Red Hot: Gravity's Cuaron. But with each of 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity winning one of the major guild awards, the Oscar field for best picture is wide open.
After a low-key campaign for 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight begins running ads using the film's new slogan, "It's time," playing on the movie's title – and reminding Academy voters that a film about slavery, with a black director and cast, is overdue for Oscar recognition. The slogan creates a ripple of mixed commentary through the press and on the Web, but it seems to have done its job, reminding Academy members of the film's historical, and historic, importance.
Dylan Farrow's open letter to Woody Allen appears in The New York Times, reopening her accusations that he sexually abused her as a child. "What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?" she asks. Blanchett, feted at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, responds tactfully that she hopes the family can resolve the "painful situation." Pundits speculate the controversy may loosen her hold on best actress.
Getting warmer: Amy Adams (American Hustle) is now considered a Blanchett rival.
A number of articles appear suggesting that it's finally Leonardo DiCaprio's year to win best actor. Nominated for two Oscars – for producing and for starring in The Wolf of Wall Street – the 39-year-old works the media tirelessly. Also, Wolf has now earned $300-million at the international box office, and seems to have overcome December controversies raised by the protagonist's defrauded stockholders, and animal-rights and disability-rights groups.
Getting hotter: DiCaprio, who jumps to the status of contender – though he's probably not hot enough to beat McConaughey, whose hit new HBO series, True Detective, confirms his mid-career ascendancy.
Feb. 7: The Eddie Awards
American Cinema Editors name Captain Phillips the best-edited drama, an upset over Gravity; American Hustle is named best-edited comedy.
Cooling: Gravity. The editing prize is a reminder that in a match between jaw-dropping technical wizardry and old-fashioned accessible storytelling – Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker, Hugo vs. The Artist, and Life of Pi vs. Argo – storytelling usually wins.
Final Academy voting begins.
The awards ceremony of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – the last major kudos-fest of the season – takes place as Oscar voters are making their decisions. BAFTA has picked the same film as the Academy for the past five years. Gravity, a British-American co-production, cleans up in the technical categories; but 12 Years a Slave takes best picture, and its star, Chiwetel Ejeiofor, nabs best actor.
Staying warm: 12 Years A Slave appears to have held its first-place status, and serves as a reminder to Academy voters of a film that, released back in October, deserves their attention.
Hot: Eighty-four-year-old best-supporting-actress nominee
June Squibb (Nebraska) does a comic video as a guilt-tripping grandma who says she won't be angry if voters vote for one of the young, talented nominees: "Disappointed, yes, but not angry." The video goes viral, leading Variety to crown her the "poster girl" for Oscar campaigners.
Temperature rising: If the 30-year-old Nyong'o and 23-year-old Lawrence split the ingenue vote, Squibb's last-minute tactical strike could land her the prize.
Oscar voting ends.
The Academy Awards are broadcast live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.