Thesps offer surprises as they salute their own

As these things go, the 2002 awards season has been miserable for readers of tea leaves, pig entrails and other prognosticatory devices. Something has scrambled the circuits, making it difficult in this oh-so-wacky year to plumb voters’ preferences, in this case for Screen Actors Guild Award noms.

Adding to the confusion, Universal’s “A Beautiful Mind,” which scooped up SAG noms for actor, actress and ensemble, made a mistake during the submission process. In a U boo-boo, Jennifer Connelly was entered as actress — and received a nom — instead of supporting, where she’s Oscar nominated.

Studio execs call it an unfortunate error, but have good reason to hope for a reprise of last year’s USA Films flub with Benicio Del Toro. His “Traffic” cop was mistakenly flagged for a lead performance in the SAG kudos; he snagged that honor before bagging the supporting actor Oscar.

The U snafu, however, likely kept Nicole Kidman from what many thought was a sure-bet actress nom, for either “Moulin Rouge” or “The Others.” Widespread speculation is the Kidman vote was split, and in danced Connelly.

Then there’s the Penumbra Effect of actor noms Kevin Kline, Sean Penn and Denzel Washington. All three gave praised perfs — in “My Life as a House,” “I Am Sam” and “Training Day,” respectively — for films that otherwise had mixed receptions. Onlookers speculate their star power shined flattering light on co-stars Hayden Christensen, Dakota Fanning and Ethan Hawke, respectively, who collared SAG supporting noms.

The reasoning behind the SAG noms matters little, however, to New Line, whose “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings,” “Life as a House” and “I Am Sam” snared six of the 30 film noms.

“It’s a great thing to put in the ads,” says Russell Schwartz, New Line domestic marketing prexy. “The ensemble (nom for ‘Rings’) is great. It’s a vote of confidence in the movie, and perhaps that bodes well for the nominations in the Oscar best picture,” Schwartz proficiently predicted before the Oscar noms were announced.

Even Carnac the Great couldn’t have been more on target.

“Rings” surprised many by leading all films with 13 Oscar noms, including best picture and a supporting nom for Ian McKellen. “A Beautiful Mind,” which many thought would lead the Oscar brigade, was second with eight noms.

In general, SAG nominators recognized high performance in low-performing films. Cate Blanchett in “Bandits,” Renee Zellweger in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and Judi Dench in “The Shipping News” qualify here.

So does Cameron Diaz; though “Vanilla Sky” cleared $100 million, by most other measures she was more successful than the film. Par was delighted for Diaz, whom it has been pushing, but its biggest Oscar hope remains the film’s song, by Paul McCartney.

Dench was the only bigscreen thesp to snag double noms (best actress for “Iris” as well supporting for “Shipping News”), which may split her support for a win. Other doublers may do better: Richard Dreyfuss schooled with “The Education of Max Bickford” and Showtime telefilm “The Day Reagan Was Shot;” Sissy Spacek picked up best actress nods for “In the Bedroom” and telefilm “Midwives,” a cross-media couplet Lifetime hopes brings its first SAG win.

“I think (Spacek) is clearly in people’s consciousness now,” says Trevor Walton, Lifetime senior VP of original movies. “There are those moments in an actor’s career, when they’re at her level, where people are rediscovering her.”

Showtime also is hopeful of a breakthrough, with three other telefilms joining Dreyfuss’ with noms.

“It seems when people are actually forced to sit and watch the shows before voting, we do pretty well,” said Showtime programming prexy Jerry Offsay.

Otherwise, though, TV noms were about the tried and true, and winners should be too. Seven shows — “Sex and the City,” “Will & Grace,” “The Sopranos,” “The West Wing,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” — snared 23 of 30 slots. Only HBO’s “Six Feet Under” snared multiple noms from outside that group.

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