Thesps vie for maiden Oscar nom

As part of Variety’s look at some of the leading contenders in the Academy’s acting categories, here we put forward numerous thesps who have never been nominated for an Oscar. On page 76, we list likely nominees who have already experienced Oscar’s glow as winners or nominees. And on page 79 we examine the Oscar regulars, perennial nominees for their constantly good work. The following offers a look at the work that led them here, critical reaction and some of the variables that could lead to a maiden nomination.

ROBERTO BENIGNI

Since Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” has been greeted with the same kind of critical and commercial success as a previous Italian crossover hit, the Academy Award-winning “Il Postino,” the comedy/ drama stands an equally good chance of earning Oscar noms. The official Italian entry for foreign-language film, the pic also is eligible in all the other major categories and could wind up in the best picture slot. Benigni could be a multiple nominee in categories such as director, actor and original screenplay. “Il Postino” set the precedent, snaring nomination slots in several top categories.

At the very least, Benigni has a strong shot at a lead performance nom. The actors branch is hospitable to overseas performers, notes Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein: “We’ve gotten nominations in the past for Max Von Sydow in ‘Pelle the Conqueror’ and Massimo Troisi for ‘Il Postino.'”

Benigni recently won the European Film Award for his acting in the film, and “Life Is Beautiful” was a major prize winner at Cannes. But it’s the film’s popularity with audiences that is the real ace up its sleeve. In a rather indifferent year for leading male performances, Benigni’s work pushes all the right emotional buttons.

– Richard Natale

CATE BLANCHETT

Following in the footsteps of Judy Davis, another Aussie actress who radiates strength and intelligence, Cate Blanchett gained instant acclaim for her first major feature lead in 1997’s “Oscar and Lucinda.” But unlike her well-known compatriot, who took several years after her auspicious debut in “My Brilliant Career” (1979) to achieve breakthrough status in “A Passage to India” (1990), the stage-trained Blanchett has been working with international film talent from the get-go, co-starring with Glenn Close and Francis McDormand in last year’s “Paradise Road” and, this year, in Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth,” standing out in a cast that includes Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush and Sir John Gielgud. The role has been essayed by many a strong actress, including Bette Davis, who played Elizabeth in two films, and Glenda Jackson, who won an Emmy in 1972 as Elizabeth I in a six-part BBC series. In typically diligent fashion, Blanchett researched the part by going directly to primary sources.

“I read a lot of her letters,” Blanchett said the day she learned of her Golden Globe nomination. “And I was fortunate enough to see some of her actual handwriting. It’s really easy when you’re dealing with figures who lived in times so long gone that you can cease to remember that they lived and breathed and felt lust and revenge and pain and anger. … We have a tendency to put a layer of dust over the emotional lives of characters who lived then.”

Since “Elizabeth,” Blanchett has worked nonstop, having shot “Pushing Tin” with director Anthony Newell and co-stars John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton; the Oscar Wilde adaptation “An Ideal Husband” with Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore and Minnie Driver; and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” directed by Oscar winner Anthony Minghella with a cast that includes Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow.

– Steve Chagollan

JIM CARREY

Hollywood’s King of Comedy may be carrying Oscar gold back to his throne this year — but for a dramatic role. Jim Carrey, longtime ruler at the B.O. for his high-strung antics in “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” and “Liar Liar,” wowed critics and audiences this summer by showing his dramatic range as the naive Truman Burbank in Paramount’s “The Truman Show.” Early buzz has Carrey pegged for an Oscar nod for his portrayal of a man who discovers his entire life is a television show. Carrey already has earned a Golden Globe nomination as actor in a drama for “Truman” — he was nominated for “Ace Ventura” and “Liar Liar” — which bodes well for a date with Oscar.

Although Carrey says he was skeptical about whether audiences would accept him in a drama — his other comedic departure, the darkly rendered “The Cable Guy,” misfired — “The Truman Show” went on to make $125 million.

“I’m amazed,” Carrey says. “I never expected that kind of acceptance. It’s a different kind of film. It’s like an art film. For it to be accepted that widely is amazing to me.

“You’re in a creative war sometimes, trying to gain new ground,” he adds. “But it basically means that this area that I’ve stepped into is welcome territory.”

Next up for Carrey is another drama, the Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon” for Universal. The buzz already is saying that perf may prove more Oscar bait. He then moves on to “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“I’ve done a couple of dramas,” Carrey says. “Now I can spend a little time in family land.”

As for the Oscar, “It would be great to be nominated,” Carrey says, “but winning would be incredible. Anything at this point is icing on the cake.”

– Marc Graser

JIM CAVIEZEL, ELIAS KOTEAS

With every A-list actor in town clamoring to take a part — any part — in Terrence Malick’s WWII epic “The Thin Red Line,” the key roles of Private Witt and Captain Staros were landed by relative unknowns: Jim Caviezel and Elias Koteas, respectively. The two have garnered some of the film’s strongest reviews, not surprising given that Witt and Staros represent the moral backbone of C for Charlie Company, a group of green recruits either sickened by fear or deadened by their capacity to kill.

Although not as prominent in James Jones’ earthy novel, Witt — who figured in Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” and was made immortal by Montgomery Clift in that 1953 film adaptation — becomes as much a Malick creation as a character from Jones’ pen. Part rebel, part hero, he’s given a kind of tragic serenity by Caviezel, who plays him as a man seemingly at peace with his impending death. Koteas, on the other hand, plays Staros, a man who will avoid placing anyone in his platoon in harm’s way at any cost, with sweetness and humanity.

What the actors share is an almost awestruck regard for Malick’s rigorous yet gentle approach to direction. “I think that he cast guys for their particular essence and what they could bring to the role that’s individual,” says Koteas, whose Greek heritage caused Malick to change his character’s name from Stein (in the book) and imbue him with a palpable spirituality.

Caviezel, imitating the director’s drawl, adds, “(Malick) often says, ‘Jim, do whatever’s real, whatever’s natural.’ There is a kind of controlled chaos, but within that chaos you have many real moments.”

Since Witt’s character is from Kentucky, Caviezel — who grew up in Mount Vernon, Wash., and “couldn’t speak a lick of Southern dialect” — spent time in Kentucky and the Black Hills, absorbing speech patterns. He also spoke to WWII vets. “One such man talked about the difference between killing a man with his own hands and using a weapon,” recalls the actor. “How kinesthetically different it is feeling somebody’s life leave their body as a direct result of your own actions. And each of them says, ‘Well, something in me died.’ “

– Steve Chagollan

JEREMY DAVIES, TOM SIZEMORE

A key virtue of “Saving Private Ryan” is helmer Steven Spielberg and casting director Denise Chamian’s astute choice of fresh faces to fill key roles, including Barry Pepper as sharpshooter Private Jackson and Giovanni Ribisi as Medic Wade. The performances that have gleaned the most critical attention, however, are Jeremy Davies’ Corporal Upham and Tom Sizemore’s Sergeant Horvath.

Ever since he shook the indie world with his nervy performance as Ray, the confused hero in writer-director David O. Russell’s “Spanking the Monkey,” major things have been expected of Jeremy Davies.

As the petrified recruit in “Private Ryan,” Davies has broken through to Oscar visibility in the kind of emotional performance sure to galvanize Academy attention.

As Spielberg has noted, and critics have been quick to pick up, Davies essentially plays Spielberg’s alter-ego in “Private Ryan’s” improvised, behind-the-lines platoon. New York magazine critic Peter Rainer ponders the Spielberg connection more deeply, noting, “Davies even resembles Henry Thomas in ‘E.T.,’ only grown up. It really is this director’s own worst self-image, but Davies does a fine job of delineating the character.”

And in an era that notably lacks the kind of stalwart, manly presence of previous generations’ war movies, Sizemore recalls for some the movie era when men were men. For Rainer, “He was effective, in a way that an actor in a traditional, old-fashioned World War II movie would have been.”

– Robert Koehler

KIMBERLY ELISE

The surprise for many viewers of Jonathan Demme’s film version of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is that the actress who seems to carry the film isn’t Oprah Winfrey, but relative newcomer Kimberly Elise as besieged daughter Denver.

Elise, trained in theater in Minneapolis (though, surprisingly, never on the Twin Cities’ premier stage, the Guthrie Theatre), came to movie attention opposite Queen Latifah in the paean to grrrl power, “Set It Off.” In “Beloved,” Elise’s Denver is no grrrl, but a tender soul who grows up.

Elise confesses that, in the Robert De Niro tradition, she never went out of character during the shooting of “Beloved”: “It made it easier to slip in and out of scenes, but because I never left my character, it was very hard psychically and spiritually on me, and I lost any sense of thinking my way through the performance. It gave me a great chance, more than anything else, to act non-verbally, which is the most difficult kind of acting.”

Even to someone who disliked “Beloved,” like “Entertainment Tonight” critic Leonard Maltin, “Elise was very good.” Adds Newsweek critic David Ansen, “Elise and Beah Richards were the two best things going for the movie, and Elise’s character is the movie’s heart and its arc.”

– Robert Koehler

JOSEPH FIENNES, GWYNETH PALTROW

“Shakespeare in Love” winks at the Bard as it plies its own comic romantic course with Joseph Fiennes as playwright William, who is inspired to write “Romeo and Juliet” by the 1593-vintage beauty played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

The nominations success of late-season Brit pics and their actors plus the having-its-cake-and-eating-it-too notion of Bard-ribbing without going lowbrow could appeal across all Academy lines and push these leads’ lively, sexy performances to the forefront of a Brit-crowded holiday season.

“I saw both of these roles as demanding,” says John Madden, director of the critically acclaimed film. “There are so many pitfalls in Joe’s role. But his ease with the language, his energy, intelligence and physical grace were just right, and more than that, he was able to make you believe that this man lives more in his imagination than in real life while also having an earthy comic deftness with wit and irony and intensity and passion.

“With Gwyneth, you had to believe that she could inspire him to write that play. Here, she has incredible physical presence and beauty and a slightly kind of spiritual, ineffable quality as a muse. The range of things she had to accomplish — the comic moments with the passionate intensity — was extraordinary. Plus, she got to play ‘Romeo and Juliet.'”

Paltrow already has received a Golden Globe nom for her performance, but Fiennes was overlooked in favor of co-star Geoffrey Rush.

– Jerry Roberts

BRENDAN GLEESON

Irish racketeer and thief Martin Cahill is portrayed in director John Boorman’s “The General” as a loving, compassionate family man as well as a brutal, brazen outlaw who was known as the Irish Al Capone. If the two-hours-plus, black-and-white film draws enough Academy attention, burly Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who was seen in “Braveheart” and this year’s “I Went Down” among other films, has a long-shot chance at a nom.

“It required enormous ability to encompass Cahill,” Boorman says. “He’s a complex man who’s brutal, humorous and has great will and is a loving husband. This level of acting reached here is in the territory of gift and mystery. I’ve seen a lot of very good performances. But Brendan did something extraordinary and rare, which you don’t see in films.

“He has the ability to enter a role and transform himself completely. You never see the acting. Other people with much bigger names called me when they heard I was doing the movie, but I stuck with Brendan.”

As for awards, Boorman copped the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and won the same prize from the Boston Society of Film Critics. The Beantown group also lauded Gleeson, for his perfs in both “The General” and “I Went Down.” More recently, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named “The General” runnerup for cinematography and best pic to “Saving Private Ryan.”

– Jerry Roberts

JANE HORROCKS

Although Sean Penn revives his stage performance in the film version of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” Jane Horrocks’ perf as the meek-turned-knockout LV in “Little Voice” is unique among Oscar favorites, since it’s a virtual recreation of her work in Jim Cartwright’s stage play “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.”

Horrocks’ gift for impersonating such divas as Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe inspired Cartwright to write the play for her.

In other words, without Horrocks, there is no “Voice,” little or otherwise.

The jury’s out on whether the British Horrocks — whose wry comic talents are known to American auds who saw her in Mike Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet” or as Bubble in the cult TV hit “Absolutely Fabulous” — is hurt or helped by Miramax’s curious ad campaign, which shows only the backside of her gowned body.

Benefiting from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s traditional favoring of English actors (and some “Ab Fab” fans in the group), Horrocks has earned a best actress (musical or comedy) Golden Globe nomination.

Critics are divided over the effectiveness of the unusual performance.

“She is a good actress who’s here doing a gimmick performance,” says Vogue critic John Powers. “I suspect it’s only thrilling to see this meek little woman burst forth onstage.” Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum concurs: “I would imagine that Horrocks performs better onstage, since this is about a woman taking the stage.”

“Entertainment Tonight’s” Leonard Maltin disagrees that what Horrocks does is a stunt: “It’s the plot, the script, that is the stunt here, not her performance.”

– Robert Koehler

ANGELINA JOLIE

In “Playing by Heart,” a multiple-character, Robert Altman-styled picture filled with recognizable stars — Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Sean Connery, Anthony Edwards, Jay Mohr, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands and Madeleine Stowe — the early buzz for standout performance honors centers on Angelina Jolie.

The actress, who made a marked impression as the titular 1970s supermodel in last year’s HBO feature “Gia,” stars as the love-seeking Joan, mostly opposite Ryan Phillippe. Joan is an extroverted, sexy, aggressive yet vulnerable nightclub crawler and is the youngest major character in writer-director Willard Carroll’s film about several generations’ lifestyles through six days and nights in contemporary Los Angeles.

“She was my first and last choice for the role,” Carroll says. “I saw her in a movie on an airline showing ‘Hackers’ and was impressed by her. I subsequently saw 200 other actresses and kept going back to her. She had the right look and unusual beauty and the right energy for the part.

“I think this is a real star-making sort of performance. It’s an intense role, and the emotional center of the movie. There’s a real talent there that explodes in this movie.”

– Jerry Roberts

IAN McKELLEN

While director Bill Condon was touring the country touting his film “Gods and Monsters,” the question he was asked most frequently was whether Ian McKellen would be nominated for best actor. “But it was said in such a way that everyone already knew the answer was yes,” he says.

Thus far, several critics’ organizations have chimed in, including the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics — further improving McKellen’s chances of snaring an Oscar nomination.

The role of Hollywood director James Whale, Condon points out, is the kind of part that brings an actor’s entire career into focus. A nomination would be a way of recognizing McKellen’s body of work as well as this particular performance. Despite some strong perfs in recent years, in films such as “Bent” and “Richard III,” Mc-Kellen has thus far received no Academy recognition. He could also be helped by the praise heaped on his “Apt Pupil” performance earlier this year.

Having two back-to-back highly regarded pieces of work in a given year can only improve McKellen’s chances.

It helps that it has been a rather haphazard year for male performances. The only real shoo-ins thus far are Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” and Roberto Benigni for “Life Is Beautiful.” That leaves three seats open at the best actor table, one of which seems to have McKellen’s name on it.

– Richard Natale

FERNANDA MONTENEGRO

Since winning the actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival for her deeply etched performance as Dora in Walter Salles’ “Central Station,” revered Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro has been quietly gathering support that could be leading to — at least — an Oscar nomination. With nods from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. as well as a Golden Globe nom as actress in a drama, Montenegro’s stock is climbing.

This may be all the more remarkable considering that her character initially is unsympathetic, a con artist who writes letters for Rio’s illiterate poor, taking their fees but never mailing the letters. Moreover, performances tend to be overlooked in foreign-language films, especially those from outside Europe.

But Montenegro’s dominant work, admired even by detractors of “Central Station,” may buck the odds. “This was the best female performance I saw all year,” declares New York magazine critic Peter Rainer, while disputing the movie’s champions on a key point: “The film is being compared to the neo-realist work of (Vittorio) De Sica, but I don’t go along with that at all. I think the movie’s being confused with her performance, which is right in the De Sica humanist tradition. I could see her working with him.”

Leonard Maltin of “Entertainment Tonight” cites Montenegro’s unexpected work, noting, “We in America particularly aren’t accustomed to having our actresses play unsympathetic characters. So it’s always interesting to see a fine actress like this do that. The movie leads you to expect something more sentimental, but her work brings a different color than that, making it all the more effective.”

– Robert Koehler

BILL MURRAY

“Saturday Night Live” veteran Bill Murray, always a performer of unusual stripe, goes deadpan in “Rushmore,” in which he plays Blume, a wealthy philanthropist with a case of ennui, until he vies with an enterprising teenager, Max, for the love of a second-grade teacher.

Murray’s supporting performance has been accruing critical kudos since the one-week Academy-qualifying run of writer-director Wes Anderson’s quirky, bittersweet film prior to its February release.

“You have to thank all concerned for giving that great minimalist, Bill Murray, his first good role since 1993’s ‘Groundhog Day,'” critic Richard Schickel wrote in Time. “It’s oxymoronically difficult to get laughs out of clinical depression, but as Blume, an industrialist driven to despair by his wealth, his wife and his ghastly children, Murray does it brilliantly.”

Murray’s penchant for lively supporting work in films that don’t ride on his name — as in “Tootsie,” “Ed Wood” and “Mad Dog and Glory” — combined with the oft-argued adage that comedy is harder than drama, just might register strongly enough with the Academy to get him a nom.

– Jerry Roberts

JASON PATRIC

In writer-director Neil LaBute’s exploration of the nasty side of infidelity among six men and women in “Your Friends and Neighbors,” Jason Patric delivers what critics have called his most mean-spirited and most accomplished performance yet, as a devious and sexually insatiable rake.

“Patric’s monologue about raping someone in high school is far scarier than anything in ‘Scream,'” writes Leah Rozen in People magazine, calling the film “‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ (1969) for a nastier, uglier age.”

The critical reception to the movie, however, has been polarized, which doesn’t help Patric’s chances. Admired for seeing its immoral characters for the louts they are but reviled for portraying them in the first place, the pic’s ruthless people are not exactly the Academy’s cup of tea. Kenneth Turan in the L.A. Times called it “the celluloid equivalent of a round-the-clock news station offering all jerks, all the time.”

The raft of big names being pushed in the male acting categories by the big studios also works against Patric’s chances in the Gramercy release.

– Jerry Roberts

OLIVER PLATT

Oliver Platt has had a busy year, what with prominent roles in “Dangerous Beauty,” “Bulworth,” “Dr. Dolittle,” “Simon Birch” and “The Imposters.” For a guy who started out on the periphery of the Brat Pack — he played a med student in “Flatliners” and the fourth Musketeer in “The Three Musket-eers” — Platt is in high demand and, unlike his previous cohorts, has become an A-list character actor.

As the hyperactive campaign aide and speechwriter Dennis Murphy to writer-director-star Warren Beatty’s liberated senator Jay Billington Bulworth, Platt has received some of the best reviews of his career. Newsweek’s David Denby called his political lackey “terrific,” while the New York Times’ Janet Maslin called Platt’s supporting turn “one of the funniest performances of the year.”

Platt found Beatty’s direction, which stems from the sensibility of being an actor first, stimulating. “While he’s extremely rigorous, he’s also somebody who really understands the fluidity of the medium,” Platt says. “You’ve heard that phrase ‘catching lightning in a bottle?’ Well, people talk about how Warren does all these takes and about his sense of perfectionism. But I found it’s a very collaborative process for him. The first few takes start out with his idea going in, but he quickly gets turned on by what everybody else is doing.”

As for being labeled a “character actor,” Platt harbors no complaints. “The good thing about it is often you have better roles coming your way — the more interesting roles,” he says. “And in terms of the whole, I’m a ‘white male character actor.’ That is the most employable subcategory in Hollywood. I can’t tell you if I’m going to work too hard to be anywhere else.”

– Steve Chagollan

CHRISTINA RICCI

Christina Ricci graduates to adulthood in “The Opposite of Sex,” along with Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo 66.” She is shedding her teens and trying to tackle leading roles. “She’s a very adult child, so it’s a natural transition for her,” says “Opposite” director Don Roos.

Like Winona Ryder, who first came to attention in such offbeat comedies as “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” Ricci’s early claim to fame was as the endearingly downbeat Wednesday in the two “Addams Family” feature films. (In fact, Ricci made her feature film debut playing Ryder’s younger sister in “Mermaids.”)

Like Ryder, who graduated to adult roles and Oscar nominations with films such as “The Age of Innocence” and “Little Women,” Ricci tries to make the definitive leap to center stage with “Opposite.”

Because she was overlooked last year for her precociously sexual supporting role in “The Ice Storm,” Ricci’s two adult roles this year were an announcement to her acting peers that she’s leading lady material.

Having laid the groundwork with stellar supporting roles, she has turned up the heat, and even though she’s barely 18, the Academy acting branch could see a nomination as long overdue. Whether she will fall into the leading actress category or supporting, as she did with the National Board of Review, remains to be seen.

“She can go as far as she wants,” Roos says. “The audience likes her, even her darker characters. And she has real star quality. When she’s on screen, you can’t look at anyone else.”

If Ricci is not quite a long shot, her inclusion among the finalists will materialize only if she can manage to slip by such powerhouse names as Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter — all of them Oscar winners or at least previous nominees. But the Academy’s acting branch is known for such little surprises.

– Richard Natale

LEELEE SOBIESKI

Like “Beloved’s” Kimberly Elise, teenage Leelee Sobieski surprised many viewers in the early fall with a commanding performance in Merchant Ivory’s study of the family of novelist James Jones, “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.”

While winning industry attention in one of the key dramatic roles in the summer hit “Deep Impact” and fueling industry curiosity about her upcoming role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Sobieski’s perf as the novelist’s maturing daughter brought the young actress uncommon respect.

Whether this can translate into Oscar gold is a difficult call, since “Soldier’s Daughter” was one of several serious-minded post-summer films that quickly faded, even with critical support.

“She is magnificent,” says “Entertainment Tonight’s” Leonard Maltin. “I felt like I was watching the birth of a young new star, and I’m not going too far to say that this was the launching pad for a major career.”

– Robert Koehler

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