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I Am Sam

Tugging at the heartstrings of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters is certainly one way to get noticed. And when an adorable 7-year-old girl is doing the pulling, it’s a sure-fire way to get attention.

Not that “I Am Sam” needs to rely on the cuteness factor to gain Oscar credibility. The two leads, Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer, bring with them five noms, and producer Edward Zwick was nominated last year for “Traffic” and won the big race of 1998 with “Shakespeare in Love.”

Penn has been generating strong word of mouth for his portrayal of a mentally challenged father who is fighting the state’s social services department to get the custody of his daughter. Voters may catch echoes of five-time Oscar winner “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979).

Penn is a critics’ and Academy favorite. He’s been nominated two times, most recently in 1999 as a frustrated musician in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown.” Four years earlier he got the nod for his role as a convicted murderer in Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking.”

His depiction of mental retardation also has Oscar precedent. Dustin Hoffman won gold in 1989 for playing an autistic savant in “Rain Man.” Tom Hanks and Jodie Foster are two top names that were noticed for portrayals of similar characters in “Forrest Gump” and “Nell.” Cliff Robertson won the 1968 Oscar in the title role of “Charly,” a mentally challenged man who is made temporarily intelligent.

Pfeiffer is a three-time nominee looking to grab gold for the first time. It’s been awhile, though, since the Acad has given her due after a slew of nominated turns in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Her last nomination came in 1992 in “Love Field” after winning praise for “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Laura Dern, who plays the girl’s adopted mom, was nominated back in 1991 for “Rambling Rose.”

If the Acad recognizes either Penn or Pfeiffer’s perf, then director Jessie Nelson has a chance to share in the glory. Both “Kramer” director Robert Benton and “Rain Man” helmer Barry Levinson took home Oscars for their respective efforts.

Film’s editor, Richard Chew, won an Oscar for his work on “Star Wars” and received a nom for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

NOMS WATCH

  • Actor: Sean Penn

  • Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer

  • Supporting actress: Dakota Fanning

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