Down to the Wire: Last look at the list

HOLLYWOOD — A few years back, Randy Newman (currently enjoying his 15th and 16th nominations) had this to say about the Academy Awards: “It’s one of the strangest events that humans have created.”

One of the strangest things about the awards is that people make predictions with absolute certainty. And every possible scenario or voting pattern can be backed up with valid examples from the past 73 years — no matter how contradictory.

Here are a few things we’ve learned from this year’s nominations from Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters:

Actor noms for Sean Penn (as a mentally challenged single father in “I Am Sam”) and Russell Crowe (a schizophrenic genius in “A Beautiful Mind”) are not all that surprising. Dating back to Cliff Robertson’s win in 1969 for “Charly” to Dustin Hoffman’s award for “Rain Man” in 1989 and Tom Hanks’ win in “Forrest Gump” in 1995, the acting branch has been liberal with accolades for thesps who throw themselves into these kinds of roles.

On the distaff side, Judi Dench’s “Iris” could also qualify, showing the ravages of Alzheimer’s on her character, though that performance also falls into another popular genre with the acting branch, the biopic.

Playing real-life characters has often brought awards (Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi,” Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking,” Martin Landau in “Ed Wood,” to name just three). This year portraying the older Iris Murdoch put Dench in the running (three of her four nominations have been for biographical portrayals) as well as for co-stars Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet (as the younger Murdoch). In addition, nominees Will Smith and Jon Voight played real people in “Ali,” as did Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in “A Beautiful Mind.”

Nicole Kidman was cited for “Moulin Rouge,” in which she plays a courtesan. Ladies of the night are great grist for the Oscar mill. Donna Reed in “From Here to Eternity” and Shirley Jones in “Elmer Gantry” got their supporting actress awards for playing bad girls. More recently, Elisabeth Shue secured an actress nomination for her hooker with a heart of gold in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

In other words, every nomination this year, no matter how “surprising,” could find precedents. In truth, the biggest surprises in this year’s Oscar noms were not who was included, but who wasn’t.

The same will be true of the winners: Everyone can make predictions, but only with Monday-morning quarterbacking can the winners said to be “inevitable.”

The 13 noms bestowed on “The Lord of the Rings” would seem to give it an advantage, since the film with the most noms has won the top prize in nine out of the last 10 years. But it’s hardly a foregone conclusion. Most Oscar seers see this as a particularly cockeyed year, in which the rules could be broken. Everyone has theories on why one of the other four could win.

“A Beautiful Mind,” for example, also has the elements of past picture winners: serious subject matter, romance and triumph over adversity.

The picture category also includes two very different spectacles, “The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring” and “Moulin Rouge.” Though they were produced in lands Down Under, they demonstrate on every level the style and craftsmanship that have come to be equated with old-fashioned Hollywood — which voters love. And fans of these films are particularly enthusiastic.

Though directed by American Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” is in the tradition of Oscar-honored stylish English period dramas like “A Room With a View” and “Sense and Sensibility.” It represents class, wit and charm.

The remaining contender, “In the Bedroom,” takes the “small-movie” slot, which Miramax has frequently occupied (“The Crying Game,” “Il Postino,” “Chocolat,” etc.). It’s also a slot that has turned up some pic winners, and everybody loves an underdog.

The usual odd dichotomy between picture and director noms resulted in helmers Baz Luhrmann and Todd Field being left out, although their respective films, “Moulin Rouge” and “In the Bedroom,” were clearly reflections of their unique visions.

Instead, their spots went to nominations for David Lynch for “Mulholland Drive” and Ridley Scott for “Black Hawk Down”; neither saw their picture nominated. In fact, Lynch has the odd distinction of nabbing the sole nom for his film.

France’s “Amelie” earned an original screenplay nomination; other foreign-lingo films such as “Fanny and Alexander,” “Au Revoir les Enfants,” “Europa, Europa,” “Red,” “Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful” have also shared this distinction in past years.

The moral of the story: Don’t bet any money on any of this year’s contenders.

As always, odds-makers (Caesar’s Palace and the U.K.’s Odds-checker to name two) have been quick to post odds on the major races. But, of course, these odds are not the same as in horse-races, where you can calculate a horse’s odds based on past races. In other words, their Oscar guess is as good as yours.

Still, there are surprises among the nominations. Few pundits had predicted Ethan Hawke’s supporting nomination for “Training Day”; before the Screen Actors Guild had cited him, he was not included in noms for such kudos as the Golden Globes and AFI Awards, nor cited on critics orgs’ lists.

Among the candidates who failed to make the cut in Oscar’s category were Gene Hackman for “The Royal Tennenbaums” (he could have shown up in actor as well), Steve Buscemi in “Ghost World,” Jude Law in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” Tony Shalhoub for “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and Eddie Murphy, “Shrek.”

The actress category includes another surprise: Renee Zellweger in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” simply because the Academy often overlooks comedic work. She took the slot that some expected would go to Tilda Swinton for “The Deep End,” Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Drive” or longshots such as Reese Witherspoon of “Legally Blonde” and Michelle Pfeiffer for “I Am Sam.”

In the race for actor, Penn was not a shoo-in, since he too was ignored in most other award noms. Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom”) was also a questionmark. Other hopefuls for their slots include Ewan McGregor (“Moulin Rouge”), Kevin Kline (“Life as a House”), and Billy Bob Thornton for either “The Man Who Wasn’t There” or “Monster’s Ball.” The acting branch might have split its vote between his two films.

Also among the missing was two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey in “The Shipping News,” a film that had Oscar elements all over it but was completely shut out.

In the supporting actress race, as with many other categories, the surprises were not who made it, but who didn’t. A number of highly touted performances got squeezed out, including Cate Blanchett’s work in “Bandits,” Dench’s efforts in “The Shipping News” and Cameron Diaz’s dramatic turn in “Vanilla Sky.”

The new animation category also provided one the year’s stunners: Paramount’s underdog toon “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” took the third contender’s spot, alongside “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.,” while critical favorite Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” will have to look to its Independent Spirit Awards nomination.

(Tim Gray contributed to this article)

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