Politics and the Academy Awards, they go together like Bonnie and Clyde. Bogart and Bacall. Leo and Kate. Think back to a simpler time when presenters said “and the winner is…” before that was deemed too emotionally damaging for insecure actors to hear that they were losers and was changed to “and the Oscar goes to…”

At the Oscars, as in life, there are winners and there are losers. And to the victor go the spoils – at least a couple hundred seconds in front of a microphone to the world.

Think back to the roaring golden age of the political Oscars in the 1960s and ’70s. Some winners were the picture of class – their moment rather than their mouth illustrating the gravity of the scene: rabidly anti-war “Hanoi” Jane Fonda striding to the stage in the hindsighty, twilight days of Vietnam, everyone braced for what turned out to be a surprisingly gracious, low-key statement of thanks; Sidney Poitier awarded the Best Actor prize at the media height of the Civil Rights Movement months before the “I Have A Dream” speech, the “anti-competition” George C. Scott politely abstaining from the awards and Dustin Hoffman winning in person and noting humbly that he didn’t consider his art in a contest with anyone’s.

Consider the wild ones, the less classy: Michael Moore ripping President Bush after winning the documentary prize for Bowling For Columbine; Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather up in 1973 in his stead with a weird message about the treatment of Native Americans in film – maybe it would have been a bit more convincing if Littlefeather didn’t decide to pose for Playboy and wasn’t labeled by Roger Ebert as a non-Indian actress in Brando’s obituary; Vanessa Redgrave denouncing “Zionist hoodlums” and pledging to continue her fight against fascism and anti-Semitism in 1978, which in turn spurred screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky to call for an end to the politicizing of awards.

This year, Mickey Rourke had to be considered the frontrunner early in the year, winning the Golden Globe and appearing on every talk show to expound upon his stunning artistic revival. But his career may be catching up to him – a series of high-profile role refusals and more than his share of public gaffes have prognosticators wondering if the Academy will welcome him into the fold.

He lost the Screen Actor’s Guild award to Sean Penn, who, though he won recently for Mystic River, looks even better this year under the hated shadow of Proposition 8. California’s constitutional brawl over banning gay marriage is the newest cause célèbre, and juxtaposed with Rourke, whose recent gay slur may increase the slide of his stock, Penn’s turn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to hold major elected office in the country, is the kind of role that has always been appealing to an Academy that has long lavished artistic recognition on progressive causes deemed lagging in public opinion and the polls (Midnight Cowboy, Bowling For Columbine, Dead Man Walking, The Cider House Rules, Traffic). Of course, awarding an Oscar to Mickey Rourke would be a political and cosmic statement of its own, the ultimate prodigal son coming back home.

The Academy is making a big deal of its new changes this year (after all, they’ve had five hosts in the past six years), most notably the decision to not announce the presenters until the ceremony. If ABC executives are worried about the precipitous decline in ratings and can’t directly influence the truest indicator of viewership, the box office success of the nominated films – all-time box office champ Titanic brought in the largest audience in 30 years in 1998 with 55 million viewers, while last year was the lowest ever at 32 million and only one significantly-nominated film, Juno, made over $100 million – they’ll try anything.

But secret starpower is no answer for intrigue. That’s politics, baby. Have McCain and Obama, both big Batman fans, present the supporting award in honor of Heath Ledger. Now that’s an Oscar for the ages.