Familiar names vie for Oscar

Showbiz vets back in line

ANNETTE BENING

Annette Bening first turned heads as a sexy con artist in 1990’s “The Grifters,” for which she picked up a supporting actress Oscar bid. She’s also been nominated three times for Golden Globes: for “Beauty’s” Carolyn Burnham, Virginia Hill in 1991’s “Bugsy” and Sydney Ellen Wade in 1995’s “The American President.”

Averaging roughly a film a year (or less) since becoming a wife and mother, Bening has stepped slightly out of the spotlight over the past few years. But, that’s allowed her to pick and choose her roles very carefully.

The decision to play Carolyn, a frantically rigid, driven real estate agent opposite Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (who also was nommed for a Golden Globe), was an easy one for Bening, though getting everything lined up took some maneuvering.

Bening says she “wanted to like” Alan Ball’s script, noting, “I knew Alan who started out in N.Y. at the same time I did … and I thought it was really original.”

Though she didn’t know helmer Sam Mendes prior to “Beauty,” Bening explains, “When I’m approaching a movie, if the material is good it’s really who the director is that matters. It needs to be the right kind of mix.”

When the film finally got rolling, Bening says, “It felt like everybody was doing it for the right reasons.”

The shoot “was emotionally hard work, but hilariously funny,” she says. The hard part was due to the film’s subject matter of severe suburban disillusionment and the fun part was working with Spacey, she says.

Bening shies from talking too much about herself or her own character, and instead crows about her co-workers. “Sam knows how to make people a group, it was a great feeling because he spends time with each person and Chris Cooper just makes the movie,” she says.

When pressed, Bening says of herself, “I’m always biased, I can be critical. I’ve done enough now to know what I like and what I don’t but I’m not a good judge of what the public will like, nor of my own work. I can’t be objective.”

Besides, she says, “Making a movie is a bit like falling in love. I get nuts about all of it.”

— Nancy Tartaglione

MICHAEL CAINE

“I inhabit a part, I don’t act it and I do that with varying degrees of success,” says Michael Caine. The 66-year-old British actor takes pride in his performance as Dr. Wilbur Larch, a compassionate orphanage caretaker and abortionist in “The Cider House Rules,” because “hopefully, you couldn’t see the wheels turning.”

He says the character is “a guy as far away from my real self as I’ve ever played … not that any are totally far away, because all human beings are very, very similar; it may be six degrees of separation in acquaintance but it’s only about one degree in emotion.”

Before signing on for the role, Caine worked with a voice coach for two weeks on his Maine accent, a very different American sound from the Southern voice he used years ago in 1967’s “Hurry Sundown.”

“Back then I asked Vivien Leigh what to do and she told me to say ‘Four-door Ford’ over and over. This time I practiced saying ‘Park the car in the car park.'”

Director Lasse Hallstrom says Caine’s accent sounded fine to his “Swedish ear,” and both he and producer Richard Gladstein speak enthusiastically of the actor’s combination of strength and sensitivity.

“Larch is a bit of a bully, but a compassionate bully and we needed softness within the strength, but without being sentimental and Michael has that,” says Gladstein.

They got that when Caine’s Golden Globe-winning performance as the sleazy manager in “Little Voice” (1998) inspired Miramax to suggest him for “Cider House.”

Caine won a supporting actor Oscar for “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and has been nominated for best actor for “Alfie” (1966), “Sleuth” (1972) and “Educating Rita” (1983).

“My feeling about awards are they’re like the weather and you can’t control that and you should never worry about things you can’t control,” says Caine. “It’s long odds and always a surprise if you win one.”

— Bridget Byrne

JIM CARREY

It may come as no surprise that director Milos Forman thinks Jim Carrey should win an Oscar for his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon.” What may be surprising is the vehemence of Forman’s lobby.

“Jim made a kind of eerie transformation into his character that I’ve only seen twice before as a director,” Forman says. And those other two? Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and Tom Hulce in “Amadeus” (1984). Nicholson won best actor for his role while Hulce earned a nomination.

“Jim was much better than I’d thought he’d be,” adds the helmer.

Much has been made of Carrey’s insistence on remaining in character from the first day of shooting. The blurring of roles has extended to a recent press conference, in which Carrey insisted he was surprised by the disruptive appearance of “Tony Clifton” (Kaufman’s alter-ego who was impersonated at the press meet by Kaufman collaborator Bob Zmuda).

Forman says he and Carrey spoke little during the thesp’s preparations for the role.

“There wasn’t too much to discuss. Either he’d get it or he wouldn’t,” Forman continues. “There are no clues to what made Andy tick, so Jim had to go from the outside in.”

Carrey has repeatedly said he’s not too keen on the pre-Oscar derby — “the monkey dance,” he called it in November’s Vanity Fair. But that may turn out to be a bit of postmodern spin. Maybe the former standup, who says he used to lie awake at night figuring out what audiences wanted, has come up with the ultimate anti-Sally Field: “I challenge you to like me. I really do!”

— Christopher Grove

TOM CRUISE

If nice guys finish last, it’s no wonder Tom Cruise’s previous Oscar nominations have been for hard-bitten (yet ultimately sympathetic) characters in “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “Jerry Maguire” (1996).

Last year he added two other dark, complex portrayals to his resume as the jealous doctor in Stanley Kubrick’s final film “Eyes Wide Shut” and, in a daring supporting turn, as the misogynist Frank T.J. Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” for which he has been nommed for a Golden Globe.

If Cruise were to be nominated for both films, he would join an elite group that includes Teresa Wright, Sigourney Weaver and Jessica Lange, who were cited in supporting and leading turns in the same year.

With the actor category always crowded, and critical reaction to “Eyes Wide Shut” decidedly mixed, Cruise might have a better opportunity as the scene-stealing Mackey in “Magnolia,” especially since the year-end performance is fresher in the mind of Academy voters.

Besides, Academy voters are often impressed by above-the-title stars who tackle meaty supporting roles. Both Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman have won in this category for, respectively, “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “Unforgiven” (1992).

As with Hackman, in “Magnolia,” Cruise is freed from the constraints of having to carry the film, allowing him to delve deeper into his character’s dark side, which could win him points from critics and Academy members alike.

— Richard Natale

MATT DAMON

In the Christmas Day release “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Matt Damon doesn’t just take on one role — he takes on several.

He plays Tom Ripley, a young man with a distorted self-image and an unusual gift for insinuating himself into other people’s lives. Ripley so idolizes carefree playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), he eventually takes over Dickie’s life — with disastrous results.

Academy Award winning-director Anthony Minghella (the 1996 “The English Patient”) helms “Ripley,” which he also adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s suspense novel.

“One of the extraordinary things about what Matt’s done is the series of transformations he made,” Minghella says. “They’re not pyrotechnic or splashy; they’re very subtle transitions. He was very careful not to go for a cartoon impersonation, but to find what was essential about the characters Ripley played.

“Certain things are emphasized in the transition,” he says, “and the thing most emphasized to me is what’s familiar about Ripley, as opposed to what’s strange about him; what’s human rather than what’s monstrous.

“I think the combination of Matt’s own natural empathy as an actor and my sense of trying to talk about what was recognizable in Ripley’s aspirations have made a certain change in the way he travels through the film. He’s much more burdened by the consequences of what he does than perhaps is evident in the novel.”

In 1998, Damon won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for the script of “Good Will Hunting,” which he co-wrote with longtime friend Ben Affleck. Damon also earned Globe and Oscar noms for actor for his work in the title role.

— Terri Roberts

KIRK DOUGLAS

When Kirk Douglas first read the script for “Diamonds,” he passed. In its early drafts, the script depicted a lead character with Alzheimer’s disease, a condition Douglas felt would impede the flow of information and emotion.

“But then I said, wait a minute, why couldn’t we change it so he’s had a stroke?” Douglas says. “That makes it much more personal for me and helps us get to people.”

Thus was born the role of resilient ex-boxer Harry Agensky that is prompting talk of Douglas’ first Oscar nom since 1957 for “Lust for Life”; he was a competitor twice prior for “The Bad and the Beautiful” in 1953 and “Champion” in 1950.

(“Diamonds” includes footage from “Champion,” in which Douglas had played a boxer as well.)

Douglas found therapy in his return to acting.

“My agent tried to limit me to five or six hours a day,” he says. “But I never obeyed that. I found I got stronger as I worked.”

The film’s story also gave the star ample emotional fuel. It concerns three generations of Agenskys searching for long-lost diamonds as well as family reconciliation. Douglas connected with that notion because he long has sought to work on a film with son Michael and grandson Cameron.

The star has never won a competitive Oscar, though he memorably was awarded an honorary one in 1996, just months after suffering a devastating stroke.

Adding to the buzz, the Screen Actors Guild gave Douglas a Lifetime Achievement Award just last year.

But all the hardware, not to mention star turns in all-time classics like “Spartacus” (1960) and “Paths of Glory” (1957), doesn’t bring anything close to the satisfaction Douglas has in just being a working actor again.

“I’m especially gratified because ‘Diamonds’ is my first film after my stroke,” Douglas says. “I was afraid I was going to have to wait for silent films to come back so I could get a good role.”

— Dade Hayes

RICHARD FARNSWORTH

It certainly wasn’t a stretch to cast Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, an elderly war vet who rides a lawnmower several hundred miles to see his ailing brother. A stunt man for 40 years before he began acting, Farnsworth is a rancher at heart and was excited about the role, especially because Straight’s persona was almost second nature to him.

“There was really no preparation for it,” he says from his ranch in Lincoln, N.M. “I just got off my tractor and got on his.”

Farnsworth, 80, found notoriety as an actor in 1978, co-starring as Dodger in “Comes a Horseman” in what he calls his “first real role” and one for which he was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar.

Talk of an Oscar for “Straight Story” has him both excited and nervous, wondering if what critics are saying about him getting a nom actually will come to pass.

“Naturally, I’m tickled to death,” says Farnsworth, whose plans include a Wyatt Earp project with fellow thesp and friend Wilford Brimley. “I’ve been in this business my whole life. I don’t believe in too many things until they happen. I’ll take it if it comes and take it any way I can get it.”

“Straight Story” director David Lynch, known for his eccentricities on both the bigscreen and TV, also has a history with Oscar, having been nominated twice as a helmer — “The Elephant Man” (1980), “Blue Velvet” (1986) — and as a screenwriter for adapting “The Elephant Man.”

The straight-laced Farnsworth (“I don’t like four-letter words”) thought the two worked well together.

“He was great with me,” says Farnsworth of Lynch. “I’ve worked with quite a few directors but David fit me the best. He was very patient.”

— Stuart Levine

JODIE FOSTER

Despite rumblings about the long running time of “Anna & the King” and even complaints about its lack of songs, the Academy membership has frequently proven it loves a good hoop-skirt epic, a tragic love story and class acts like Jodie Foster.

The story’s earlier film incarnations were Oscar friendly. The 1946 “Anna and the King of Siam” won awards for cinematography and interior decoration, as it was dubbed then. “The King and I” (1956) garnered nine Oscar noms and won five, including best actor for Yul Brynner.

That’s a tough pedigree to live up to, but Lawrence Bender, one of the film’s producers, says this production has its own juice.

While “King & I” was more or less a filmed stage performance, the producers of “Anna” took the whole shooting match to Malaysia. “We wanted to make an epic love story where the third character was this incredibly beautiful back-drop,” says Bender. But, lush vistas notwithstanding, it’s Foster and co-star Chow Yun-Fat who are front and center.

“You never really know how good you have it until you’re finally on the set and have someone like Jodie speaking the lines,” says Bender. “Because she’s so brilliant, she can pick apart a scene and add things to it one never really knew was there.”

“One of the wonderful things about Jodie is that she’s not afraid to make her character unsympathetic,” Bender continues. When the very British Anna arrives in Siam she is, to put it mildly, colonial in her reaction to her exotic surroundings and customs.

With 30-plus films and two best-actress Oscars, Foster has had a stellar career. Reportedly paid $15 million for her work in “Anna and the King,” Foster told Daily Variety late last year that she was attracted to the role of Anna Leonownes because it’s “a true story, romantic and epic in scope, with a very Eastern feel.”

The pic was originally scheduled to open on Thanksgiving, but studio execs decided to try to catch a wave of femme-centric audiences on the last two shopping weekends before Christmas.

— Chris Grove

TOM HANKS

It’s not for nothing that Tom Hanks is often compared to James Stewart. Like his predecessor, Hanks is capable of shouldering a movie (be it comedy or drama) with ease.

One drawback — sometimes said of Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda as well — is he sometimes makes it look too easy. Though Stewart received his Oscar for a comedy, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), as well as four other nominations, some of his better performances — “Vertigo” (1958) and “Rear Window” (1954) to name just two — were overlooked.

Fortunately, Academy voters have come to appreciate and recognize Hanks’ ability, nominating him for lead actor honors in films as diverse as “Big” (1988) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), bestowing him with back-to-back Oscars for “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994).

As with last year’s “Private Ryan,” he is the centerpiece of a multicharacter drama in Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile.” Academy members once again may recognize his contribution and bestow Hanks with his fifth nomination in 10 years.

— Richard Natale

BOB HOSKINS

It’s not as if Bob Hoskins hadn’t tackled evil characters before Joseph Ambrose Hilditch in Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey.”

He had, for instance, played Iago — the paragon of evil — for director and renaissance man Jonathan Miller in a 1981 BBC production of “Othello.” But for Hoskins, evil wasn’t the element that made the link for him between Iago and Hilditch, a gastronomically obsessed middle-age man who runs the food operation for a Birmingham, England, factory and abducts and kills young, single women.

“I don’t view Hilditch as a monster, really,” Hoskins says. “I always saw him as a victim. Felicia (a character played by Elaine Cassidy, whom Hilditch befriends and eventually abducts) is a victim to his kindness, and he’s a victim to her innocence and sincerity. He’s also a victim of the rituals in which he’s imprisoned himself: food preparation rituals, rituals of work, rituals of his behavior toward these girls.

“Having said that, I haven’t experienced such intensity of delving into such a dark character since doing Iago for Jonathan. I realized that both Jonathan and Atom stage operas, and must extract performances from singers. They both have this music in their heads.”

Hoskins has frequently played intimate, emotional roles in films. That kind of role established his international reputation, such as his doomed hood in “The Long Good Friday” (1980) or an unlikely lover in “Mona Lisa” (1986) — which earned him an actor nom from the Academy.

He has alternated those kinds of parts with broader but technically difficult work, as in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988), in which he had to play opposite animated characters.

” ‘Roger Rabbit’ was hard because it was pure performance, and so is ‘Felicia’s Journey,’ ” notes Hoskins, who had long before read William Trevor’s novel of the same name but had only seen one Egoyan film — “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) — before reading the script.

“I didn’t see how a script could be made of the book, but Atom had made some brilliant choices and additions. I didn’t know how he saw Hilditch, but when we met, we immediately knew how I was going to do the part.”

Hoskins’ fans, who may revel in the actor’s shifts between quiet calm and explosive anger, are finding a new Hoskins, in a performance in which no anger or outbursts are ever allowed to come to the surface.

That’s because he and Egoyan understood that “Hilditch’s motive isn’t evil, because he doesn’t know that what he’s doing is bad. I entered his character through loneliness, where even as a child, his only way of existing was to be in his mother’s cooking TV show. He had no emotional outlet, only through food.”

And though Hoskins says he tries to “flush away” his character before going home from work, this time was different: “I thought I was being perfectly normally, but my wife Linda told me, ‘Bob, you do realize that you’re behaving really strangely?’ ”

— Robert Koehler

JOHN MALKOVICH

“I love watching John in the movie because he’s so totally brave and willing to do anything,” says director Spike Jonze of the title star of “Being John Malkovich.”

The first-time feature director believes the film works because the actor has an “enigmatic quality which pulls it beyond just high concept”

Jonze is a fan of Malkovich’s comedy performances, which include two hosting stints on “Saturday Night Live,” and describes the actor’s humor as “very dry, deadpan and very self-deprecating.”

Malkovich, co-founder of Chicago’s avant garde Steppenwolf Theater, is often cast in creepy roles, often underscored with a perverse sexuality. His two previous Oscar nominations have been for oddball characters in films more mainstream that “Being John Malkovich.”

He received his first nom for supporting actor as the blind lodger in his debut movie, the Depression-era family drama “Places in the Heart” (1984), and was nominated again in that category as the too-clever-for-his-own-good assassin in the thriller “In The Line of Fire” (1993).

The Academy has never nominated an actor for playing himself — where’s the challenge in that? On the other hand, in this film the thesp plays not just “himself,” but also a number of other versions of himself. It is, in the words of one critic, “the role he was born to play.”

— Bridget Byrne

JULIANNE MOORE

It’s been a busy two years for Julianne Moore, but the rewards are paying off for her. With smaller parts in “Cookie’s Fortune” and “A Map of the World,” Moore has appeared in no less than five features that are up for Oscar consideration this year.

Moore is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having garnered a supporting actress nomination in 1998 for “Boogie Nights.” But her lead performances in “The End of the Affair” and “An Ideal Husband,” as well as her supporting role in “Magnolia” this year should increase her visibility yet further.

In Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair” she plays Sarah, the adulterous wife of a passionless civil servant (Stephen Rea) having an affair with his friend (Ralph Fiennes). The power of the film is in its painful portrayal of true love found and then lost forever.

“It’s an extraordinary, beautiful story. She’s someone who goes from being a completely compromised individual to almost an exalted kind of ideology. Neil, as a director, is truly one of the more romantic ones I’ve ever worked with — he really has a sense of male/female relationships,” she says.

Working again (after “Boogie Nights”) with Paul Thomas Anderson on his ensemble piece “Magnolia” was another intense experience. As Linda Partridge, the trophy bride of an elderly, dying TV magnate, her already highly strung character becomes remorseful as she confronts her own shortcomings over their life together.

“It was arduous, to tell you the truth, and Paul will tell you that himself. There were a lot of times I felt I didn’t understand where I was going as a performer so you just have to throw yourself into it and try to experience it, in a way. You can’t chart emotion — you can only play it — so you have to find a way to put yourself in it and experience it,” she says.

— Paul Power

AL PACINO

Al Pacino this year has two chances to cop his ninth Oscar nomination: In his leading roles in Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” the actor gives performances that echo the kinds of roles that brought him Academy recognition in the past.

Starting with his supporting actor nom for “The Godfather” (1972), Pacino was present on the Oscar list throughout the ’70s and returning in the early ’90s. In addition to five best actor nominations (and one win for 1992’s “Scent of a Woman”), he has received two other supporting noms: for “Dick Tracy” (1990) and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992).

As a CBS producer fighting to convince the network to air his segment on a man (Russell Crowe) who blew the whistle on big tobacco, “The Insider” finds Pacino in crusader mode. The role recalls other righteous characters he’s played in the past in “… And Justice for All” (1979) and “Serpico” (1973), in which he portrayed another real-life character, cop Frank Serpico.

As a pro football coach in Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” Pacino again essays his tough exterior-soft interior persona, reminiscent of such roles as his Oscar-winning indomitable sightless bon vivant in “Scent of a Woman.”

— Richard Natale

GWYNETH PALTROW

During promos for his Oscar-winning pic “The English Patient” (1996), helmer Anthony Minghella first met Gwyneth Paltrow –a relationship that resulted in his casting her in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” opposite Matt Damon.

“As soon as I met her, I started to see how she might figure in ‘Ripley’ and what a gift it would be if I could get her to come into it as a character actor rather than a movie star,” he explains. “She also has this uncanny ability to take on the sound and the look of whatever role, whatever period, she’s cast in.”

In “Ripley,” which bowed Christmas Day, Paltrow plays Marge Sherwood, the expatriate girlfriend of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). Set in Italy during the late 1950s, the film concerns Tom Ripley (Damon), an outsider blessed — or cursed — with a talent for creating elaborate fantasies who eventually takes over Dickie’s life.

According to Minghella, “The Marge Sherwood I’ve written and that Gwyneth plays is not judged the same way in the film as she is in the novel. She becomes the voice of the audience. She speaks for our own frustration that no one can see what he’s up to.”

Paltrow is the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and producer-director Bruce Paltrow (“St. Elsewhere,” “The White Shadow”). She made her film debut in “Shout” (1991) but first garnered attention in “Flesh and Bone” (1993). Other credits include “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” (1994), “Seven” (1995), “The Pallbearer” (1996), “Emma” (1996), “Sliding Doors” (1998), “Great Expectations” (1998) and “A Perfect Murder” (1998).

Though not nominated for a Golden Globe this year, last year’s trifecta with the Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild actress awards for her gender-bending performance in “Shakespeare in Love” could bode well for her chances with “Ripley.”

— Terri Roberts

SEAN PENN

A perpetual risk-taker, Sean Penn again explores the dark undercurrents of human nature in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” as a talented but deluded and self-destructive jazz musician.

Penn’s ability to convey the less noble human traits is well-established. From his Oscar-nominated turn in “Dead Man Walking” (1995) to his other complex, unapologetic portrayals in “At Close Range” (1986), “Casualties of War” (1989), “Carlito’s Way” (1993) and last year’s “The Thin Red Line,” however, there is the sense that he can do this kind of work with one hand tied behind his back.

This year, Penn may be given a leg-up in the Oscar derby from director Allen’s handling of actors: Allen has brought Oscar recognition to everyone from Diane Keaton (actress winner for 1977’s “Annie Hall”) to Michael Caine (supporting actor winner for “Hannah and Her Sisters,” 1986) to Mira Sorvino, supporting actress winner for “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995).

— Richard Natale

WINONA RYDER

Winona Ryder’s Oscar past includes a best actress nomination for “Little Women” (1994) and a supporting actress nom for “The Age of Innocence” (1993).

Now she’s hoping Oscar looks her way in a film that doesn’t require a corset: “Girl, Interrupted.” Based on the bestselling memoir of the same name, Ryder portrays Susanna Kaysen, a woman who was misdiagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and hospitalized for two years in a psychiatric ward.

“It was by far one of the most challenging roles I’ve had in my career,” says Ryder, who also exec produced the film. “It’s one of those rare opportunities that comes and grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let you go. It’s something that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life, something I had been preparing for my whole life.”

Ryder admits that her portrayal of the depressed writer draws from her own troubled teen years when she suffered anxiety attacks and ultimately sought treatment. “There are times in our life that are rough and we kind of face them and walk away going, ‘Wow, there aren’t answers to every question and everything doesn’t come with a cheat sheet,’ ” the actress says.

Her most painful realization from making the film was not personal but societal. “Back then (the ’60s), you were locked up for being sensitive, and now if you’re homicidal or suicidal, (hospitals) won’t take you for more than three weeks because we don’t have the funding,” she says.

With more than 20 feature films behind her, Ryder has a sane outlook on the Oscar race. “I just want people to see the film,” she says.

— Jan Lindstrom

KEVIN SPACEY

In a town where the writer and his work can be considered disposable commodities, it’s refreshing to talk to a scribe who feels his work was not only treated with respect, but even improved.

But that’s how scripter Alan Ball talks about “American Beauty” star Kevin Spacey.

Ball, whose screenplay for “American Beauty” is his first to be produced, says of Spacey’s approach to playing Lester Burnham, “I would hear him saying the lines and I’d think, ‘That is exactly how I wrote it in my head’ and other times he’d do something different and I’d think, ‘I never even thought of that’ and I was just so impressed.””He’s one of the most talented actors alive,” Ball says.

His “American Beauty” co-star Annette Bening echoes Ball’s sentiments and admiringly notes Spacey’s ability to impersonate just about anybody. Simply, she says, “He was so much fun to work with.”

Spacey previously has been recognized by the Academy with a best supporting actor Oscar for his turn as Verbal Kint in 1995’s “The Usual Suspects” and has won myriad critics’ awards. This year he’s hotly tipped to pick up a nod for “Beauty.”

— Nancy Tartaglione

MERYL STREEP

As the most Oscar-nominated actress working today, Meryl Streep is in position to receive her 12th nomination as the violin-playing school teacher in “Music of the Heart.”

If she succeeds, she will tie with Katharine Hepburn for the most acting nominations ever received, though Hepburn remains way out in front with four best actress wins. Streep has one as supporting actress, “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), and in the lead category, “Sophie’s Choice” (1982).

Of her 11 noms, only the first two were in support (the other was 1978’s “The Deer Hunter”). The rest were as leading lady in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), “Silkwood” (1983), “Out of Africa” (1985), “Ironweed” (1987), “A Cry in the Dark” (1988), “Postcards From the Edge” (1990), and more recently, “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) and 1998’s “One True Thing.”

Whereas it took Hepburn a lifetime to accrue 12 nominations, Streep, who is 50, has amassed her 11 citations in a little more than two decades.

As with many of her roles, in “Music of the Heart,” critics lauded Streep for avoiding all the obvious pitfalls in a role that might have tended toward the maudlin. Her Roberta Guaspari is yet another real-life character whom Streep has elevated to heroine onscreen, having worked similar magic with Karen Silkwood, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in “Out of Africa,” Lindy Chamberlain in “A Cry in the Dark” and, on the small screen, Lori Reimuller in “… First Do No Harm,” which brought her an Emmy nomination.

— Richard Natale

DENZEL WASHINGTON

When it came time to shoot the scene of the young Lesra Martin meeting Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane,” director Norman Jewison didn’t have to try too hard to get things happening. It turns out that the young actor playing Lesra, Vicellous Reon Shannon, was as much in awe of scene partner Denzel Washington as Lesra had been of Carter.

And with good reason. As the wronged Carter, Washington turns in a performance that equals or exceeds his Oscar-nominated work in “Malcolm X” (1992), “Cry Freedom” (1987) and “Glory” (1989) — for which he won a supporting actor Oscar. If Washington isn’t at least nominated this year, Jewison will be surprised.

“Denzel was totally emotionally committed to the role,” Jewison says. “He desperately wanted to tell this story.”

Washington spent six months boxing two hours a day an lost forty pounds to get ready for the film’s fight sequences.

For Jewison, “The Hurricane” is the unofficial third part of a trilogy that began with “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), which won best picture, best actor for Rod Steiger and earned Jewison a director nom, and continued with “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), his first collaboration with Washington.

For the actor, it has been another opportunity to play a man, who in Washington’s words, has “a concentrated dose of life.” Not that Washington set out to play epic characters. In a recent interview in George magazine, he made it clear: “I’m not always looking for the next great guy to play, but I don’t shy away from them either. These are fascinating, great parts. And that’s cool.”

The Academy may agree.

— Christopher Grove

EMILY WATSON

Few actresses have garnered as many acting accolades for a film debut as British thesp Emily Watson.

Her screen bow in Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” (1996) won her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, the N.Y. Film Critics Circle’s actress award, the L.A. Film Critics Assn.’s newcomer of the year honor, the European Film Academy’s actress laurel, the London Film Critics Circle kudo and the British newcomer of the year award, among others.

Watson went on to play cellist Jacqueline Du Pre in 1998’s “Hilary and Jackie,” earning Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA nominations.

Her latest role is extremely understated: the long-suffering mother of seven in the screen adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.”

Watson’s previous characters started off relatively normal, then shifted into sickness or emotional instability. In “Ashes,” she begins with a nervous breakdown, loses three children to hunger, poverty and illness, and watches her charming but feckless husband succumb to the bottle; as she endures each setback, Angela grows stronger.

“It was interesting, because there’s no great catharsis for me in it,” Watson says of her role. “There were no big scenes, which was different. I’ve played some mad screamers in my time and it’s been very clear in that how to tell a story. The discipline was just to play it scene by scene.”

— Jan Lindstrom

SIGOURNEY WEAVER

Sigourney Weaver says she felt liberated by her role in “A Map of the World” because her director, Scott Elliott, did not encourage her to make the character more sympathetic.

“I was allowed to play her as flawed, warts and all,” says the actress, who earned degrees from Stanford U. and the Yale school of drama.

Though Weaver approached the role unsentimentally, she wasn’t without trepidation. She wondered if the audience could forgive the character, who is taking care of a friend’s child who accidentally drowns. But co-star Louise Fletcher told her, “You’ll have every woman’s sympathy because, although she’s done the unthinkable, it’s what most women are most fearful of doing themselves.”

If she cops her fourth Oscar nomination for “Map of the World” (she’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe), it won’t be the first time she’s been rewarded for playing complex, multifaceted women. All her previous Oscar-cited work has come for women who don’t beg for the audience’s understanding, but eventually earn it: Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” (1986), Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), both for her lead work; and the delightfully self-centered Katherine in “Working Girl” (1988), for which she was nominated as supporting actress.

— Richard Natale

KATE WINSLET

Nothing personal, but after Kate Winslet auditioned for the lead in “Holy Smoke,” director Jane Campion and producer Jan Chapman saw about 500 Aussie actresses to see if they would knock Winslet out of contention.

“Harvey (Weinstein) probably thought we’d taken leave of our senses,” says Chapman with a chuckle from her office in Sydney. “But he let us go through the process.”

Campion apparently likes to check to see if her instincts are right. The character of Ruth, after all, is 100% Oz; Winslet is 100% Brit.

“We thought maybe there was something intangibly Australian we needed to have for the part,” Chapman continues.

But when Winslet flew to New York to read with Harvey Keitel, the deal was sealed. “They matched each other in energy and daring,” Chapman says.

Needless to say, Winslet has had a fairly successful career so far.

After making a splash in the 1994 “Heavenly Creatures,” she was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for “Sense and Sensibility” (1995). Her next film, “Titanic” (1997), not only put her in the highest-grossing film of all time, it also got her a best actress nod.

At 24, she is the youngest actress to be nominated twice for an Oscar.

— Christopher Grove

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