Perennial Hollywood hunks Brad Pitt and George Clooney are known to be pals. But their friendship, like that of many men, seems to thrive on a generous amount of teasing, ribbing and bomb-throwing. Clooney has been known to deflect airport paparazzi by pointing out Pitt's whereabouts (at which point the nettlesome photographers run off in hot pursuit), and he showed up onstage at the recent Golden Globes using a cane, an obvious jab at the limping Pitt. For his part, Pitt once answered an interviewer's question about when he was planning to marry Angelina Jolie by saying he would do so only when it was legal for Clooney to marry a man.
With friends like these, you probably need a publicist.
And what would test a friendship more than facing off on Oscar night with the Academy Award for best actor at stake? Clooney has been nominated for "The Descendants," in which his character's unfaithful wife is on life support, his daughters are insufferable and his family is about to sell 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian real estate.
Pitt has been nominated for "Moneyball," in which he gives the performance of a lifetime as Billy Beane, the algorithm-embracing general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a team that only math can save from the cellar.
Unfortunately for the Pitt-Clooney coalition, they have a nemesis in France.
"I don't think Pitt is a factor," said Dave Karger, Entertainment Weekly's Oscar maven. "It's Clooney vs. Dujardin, plain and simple."
Karger, also the academy's official red-carpet greeter on Oscar night, is referring, of course, to Jean Dujardin, the star of "The Artist," and, at the moment, the presumed favorite.
"Dujardin's SAG and BAFTA wins are a great sign," he added, referring to the Screen Actors Guild and British Academy of Film and Television Arts. "But I personally have talked to more voters who are going with Clooney."
So, it's Clooney. Or ... Dujardin?
"I'm still puzzling that out," said Mark Harris, who writes the Oscarmetrics column for the sports and pop culture website Grantland.com and is the author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood." "I seem to be the last guesser around who still thinks Clooney might win, but yes, I guess Dujardin is the favorite."
And yet ...
Poor Demián Bichir. This little-known star got a best actor nod for "A Better Life," an earnest drama about the American Dream and a Mexican gardener. Having only a slightly better chance is the estimable Gary Oldman, whose George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is a masterpiece of understatement, the only thing celebrated less on Oscar night than undocumented landscapers.
No, it's Pitt, or Clooney. Or Dujardin. But if it's Dujardin -- and this is nothing against a wonderful star and his wonderful movie -- it may be because Pitt and Clooney split the vote.
There's nothing Hollywood likes better than to reward a career that makes them all look good. Clooney and Pitt both qualify. Neither actor is close to the top 10 among industry moneymakers, but that's partly because they generally choose thoughtful projects. (On the other hand, they both rank as high as they do thanks to "Ocean's Eleven," and "Twelve" and "Thirteen.") They have longevity. Personality. Generosity -- both have contributed time and money to various causes, like relief to the besieged African region of Darfur. They are probably the most glamorous of male movie stars, and recall an era, and an aesthetic, that will be remembered affectionately by the many gray eminences among the academy membership. They seem like nice guys. And the "career achievement" aspect can never be counted out.
Heart over smart
But as Tim Appelo of The Hollywood Reporter says, "In the Oscar race, heart tends to trump smart. Last year, Colin Firth's heartstring-fiddling performance beat Javier Bardem, Jeff Bridges, Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco because their roles and their movies, at least as emotionally affecting, were also too smart."
This year, he said, Pitt is great and Clooney is even greater, but both films are perilously smart. "Dujardin and 'The Artist' are hardly dumb," he said, "but they're much simpler, and so is the emotional message. So I'll bet Dujardin wins. And if it winds up being a race between Pitt and Clooney, Pitt will lose because his movie is about, and for, even smarter people than Clooney's is."
Putting aside Dujardin, which no one seems prepared to do, and counting out Bichir and Oldman -- which everyone seems prepared to do -- the choice here is Pitt, with a qualifier: It's a choice made, as usual, with the heart rather than the head. Which is why we never win the Oscar pool.
Hunk vs. hunk for best actor
BREAKOUT ROLE Dr. Doug Ross in "ER" (1994-99)
THE DEAL Has long proved he can handle both comedy and drama with Cary Grant-like aplomb.
OSCAR NOMINATIONS 7
GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS 12
BREAKOUT ROLE J.D. in "Thelma & Louise" (1991)
THE DEAL "Moneyball" finally took emphasis off Pitt's looks, put it on his acting.
OSCAR NOMINATIONS 4
GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS 5