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Dissecting the directors’ competition

Race rests on Acad's definition of a helmer

No race better exemplifies this year’s wide-open Oscar field more than the one for director.

None of the five nominees — Robert Altman, Ron Howard, Peter Jackson, David Lynch and Ridley Scott — has ever won a helming Academy Award. Yet all but Lynch could make a compelling case for being the favorite. (His “Mulholland Drive” got just one nomination despite applause from critics groups.)

The contest rests on one basic question: What is the role of a director? Is he or she primarily a technical and visual pro who knows where to put the camera and apply the right sheen in post? Is it being more of a coach, coaxing great performances and keeping the cameras rolling? Or is it something else entirely?

Here, then, is the up and down sides of each director on the ballot:

A BEAUTIFUL MIND

Howard, a first-time nominee after two decades behind the camera, is often portrayed as a prolific showbiz lifer poised to get his due. That perception has existed since 1996, when “Apollo 13” scored nine noms, with Howard conspicuously absent from the tally, despite winning the influential Directors Guild of America Award.

With “Beautiful Mind,” which earned Howard his second DGA Award, some critics have frowned on Howard’s softball treatment of John Nash’s life, or have commented on the absence of razzle-dazzle in his visual style. Neither is an impossible hurdle, but the omissions of “Moulin Rouge” and “In the Bedroom” from the director race send conflicting signals about “Mind’s” chances. The former is a technical feat while the latter is all about performances.

BLACK HAWK DOWN

A no-show in the acting and screenplay races, “Black Hawk’s” fortunes beyond Scott lie strictly below the line. The cinematography, editing and sound are all nominated, and Scott has plenty of admirers in the tech-oriented quarters of the Acad. He has now been nominated three times as a director.

Some Oscar pundits believe that pay back is in the offing for his “Gladiator” miss, especially on a pic whose topicality could allow Oscar voters to make a statement on world events.

GOSFORD PARK

Altman’s fifth nomination came just prior to his 77th birthday, and some forecasters say it has the makings of a lifetime achievement honor.

“Gosford” has performed well at the B.O. and is among the wily director’s best reviewed efforts. It could be just as possible, however, that the same org that rebuffed the direction of “Nashville,” “MASH” and “The Player” will continue to shut him out, especially given his self-aided maverick reputation.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

Jackson may be the youngster of the bunch, but he has one thing going for him: 13 nominations. Of the eight pics nommed 13 or 14 times, six have won picture and five have won director.

The other plus for Jackson is that he capably managed a sprawling, pricey and ultimately megagrossing production, as did the Oscar-winning helmers of “Titanic” and “Gone With the Wind.” In many minds, he is best director in the contemporary, lead-the-troops sense of the word.

On the other side of the ledger is the role of special effects in the film. Many voters from the old school don’t value f/x as much as they do acting and narrative. With only one actor nom, “Rings” is an interesting blend of yesterday’s Hollywood epic and today’s whiz-bang event pic.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Lynch is the first director since Altman, for 1993’s “Short Cuts,” to be nominated without the pic garnering a single other nom. That doesn’t augur well for his modern noir, but as this anything-goes awards season has shown again and again, no candidate can be counted out until the votes are counted up.

The tightness of the race means there could easily be a split between the picture and director winners. That happened last year, with double nominee Steven Soderbergh winning for “Traffic” and the top trophy going to “Gladiator.”

Sometimes a big-name helmer wins director but not picture, a la Steven Spielberg with “Saving Private Ryan.”

The split cuts both ways. Martin Scorsese remains Oscarless. And in 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” won for pic, but he lost to “The Grapes of Wrath” helmer John Ford.

Hitchcock, in fact, is a perfect symbol for the annual dilemma of matching up pics with directors in the minds of voters. Widely considered the quintessential director in terms of style and command of material, he is also one of the biggest names never to win a competitive Oscar.

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