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In a season of underdog triumphs, Oscar contenders jostle for 'little guy' status

The history of the Academy Awards suggests that Hollywood loves a good Cinderella story. Will this year be any different?

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America was built on the notion of bootstrap success and punishes anyone who gets overconfident, says Mr. Silverstein. He points to one of the year's early underdog favorites, "Juno," a small film about a young girl's struggle to handle an unexpected pregnancy, which is beginning to suffer from "underdog" fatigue.

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Audiences, not to mention Academy voters who actually determine the Oscar winners, don't like being "spun," or told what to think about a movie by studio campaigns, he says. Americans have given their hearts and movie dollars to this year's "little film that could," (last year's was "Little Miss Sunshine"). Problem is, the small-budget film isn't all that little anymore. The movie has made more money at the box office than any of the other Best Picture nominees – more than $125 million so far – which has dimmed its dark-horse pallor a tad. And thereby, some of its Oscar chances, say a number of observers. "It's hard to go on calling it an underdog at that point," adds Silverstein.

The notion that gumption trumps money or class is deeply entrenched in the American story, says film historian Beverly Gray. From the birth of the country, we were the peons who defeated an empire. The symbol of the "little guy" permeates moviemaking from Preston Sturgess to Frank Capra to Woody Allen and Adam Sandler. This same love of keeping it simple has traditionally translated into a strong independence streak when it comes to the Academy voters, says Rosie Taravella, executive director of the Rochester High Falls International Film Festival, which is located in the New York city that birthed motion-picture technology at Eastman Kodak. "Academy voters defiantly vote for their favorite performances, sometimes in spite of the publicity blitz that may have been conducted by the studio that released the film."

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