Thesp roulette

Actor competish draws overflow crowd while women's field is compact

With the strongest actor lineup in years, Oscar may have some tough choices ahead.

There are more than 20 viable contenders who in any other year might have been a shoo-in for a nomination. This year it’s anybody’s game, and at this point, anybody’s guess.

For other categories, particularly actress and picture, it’s a bit difficult to put together a strong comprehensive list. The boys have the opposite problem — too much of a good thing.

“It’s an amazingly tough time. I wish when you have this number of great performances they would nominate seven or eight for best actor and two for best actress because that’s what happened this year,” says Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers. “Why not do it? Why have such a hard and fast rule?”

Travers’ idea is unlikely to win support at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences but it would certainly be a lot easier for the actors branch, which votes for the final five noms, to make anything other than a Solomonic choice in a year with so many guys going for the gold.

It may be a time when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s practice of splitting up comedic and dramatic performances for its Golden Globes comes in handier than usual.

Many believe the actress race has just a handful of real contenders — Annette Bening in “Being Julia,” Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake,” Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” 18-year-old Emmy Rossum in “Phantom of the Opera” and late starter Hilary Swank, impressive in Clint Eastwood’s boxing pic “Million Dollar Baby.”

If there are surprises they could come from foreign competish such as France’s Audrey Tautou in “A Very Long Engagement,” China’s Zhang Ziyi in “House of Flying Daggers” or Catalina Sandino Moreno of “Maria Full of Grace.” Laura Dern (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”) and Julie Delpy (“Before Sunset”) also are possible.

The men are another story.

“The actors are everywhere and so many of them are playing real people. That’s the unusual thing I see about it,” says Travers. “You start with Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel) and go to Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson).

“Plus there’s Javier Bardem in ‘The Sea Inside’ (Ramon Sampedro) and Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Don Cheadle’s character (Paul Rusesabagina) in ‘Hotel Rwanda.’

Then Kevin Spacey is Bobby Darin, Kevin Kline is Cole Porter and Sean Penn is Sam Bicke, the guy who tried to kill Nixon. It’s astonishing. I have never seen anything like it.”

Travers adds he ran into Paul Giamatti from “Sideways” and told the actor how glad he was that the character in the film was completely made up. In addition to Giamatti, Travers singles out Neeson in “Kinsey,” Depp in “Finding Neverland,” Spacey in “Beyond the Sea” and DiCaprio in “The Aviator,” but says Foxx’s “Ray” is the actor to beat right now.

“I think it’s enormously tight. If I’m saying Jamie Foxx is the one to beat, I don’t mean that he’s a shoo-in to win. I just think that’s a performance almost anyone can get behind whatever you think of the movie,” he says. “I mean Kevin Bacon, a pedophile in ‘The Woodsman’ is a terrific performance but this whole election year could hurt that one. I don’t know if the Academy will want to be embracing pedophiles.”

As if the race weren’t crowded enough, Clint Eastwood, who directed and stars in “Million Dollar Baby,” and John Travolta’s “A Love Song for Bobby Long” were not scheduled to open in 2004, but got last-minute slots in this year’s kudos derby when rough cuts indicated they might be Oscar bait.

Also coming in late in the season are past winners Al Pacino in the film version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and Penn for a tour de force performance in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” as well as a man he beat last year, Bill Murray, who is perhaps wishing “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” can make up for his “Lost in Translation” disappointment.

Carrey campaign

Conversely, Jim Carrey, with a Focus Features campaign behind him, is hoping voters can remember back to March and his critically praised work in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

DreamWorks, thinking Tom Cruise’s gray-haired hit man in “Collateral” could score a bull’s-eye, has launched a unique campaign focusing voters on thesp’s past work as well with a personal appearance by the star at an American Film Institute-sponsored evening at UCLA and a special DVD attached to a Daily Variety cover ad.

But not everyone is convinced the contest is as tight as it appears. “Frankly, I don’t see it that tough a race,” says “Entertainment Tonight” critic Leonard Maltin. “Every year there are a lot of very good performances. But I think when you strip away the hype there are only a handful of great performances.”

Maltin says if he had to pick five right now it would be Giamatti, Foxx, Bardem, Depp and four-time nominee Jeff Bridges.

“I think ‘The Door in the Floor’ gave Jeff Bridges one of the best parts of his career and he in turn gave one of his all-time best performances. The challenge is to get people to see it and to recognize a film that was not a hit, but I would match that performance against anyone’s.”

As for the supporting races, the females have vets such as Cloris Leachman in “Spanglish,” Gena Rowlands in “The Notebook,” Julie Christie in “Finding Neverland” and Meryl Streep in “Manchurian Candidate.” They could compete with newcomers like “Closer’s” Natalie Portman and “Sideways’ ” Virginia Madsen. Others include Laura Linney (“Kinsey”) and even Winslet possibly gaining a rare second nom for “Finding Neverland.”

For males, the supporting field is far less of a mob scene than their leading colleagues. But it’s no less intriguing with Foxx also in the hunt for “Collateral” — although Maltin and Travers say he had a bigger role than Cruise. Travers likes Clive Owen in “Closer,” Peter Sarsgaard’s daring turn in “Kinsey,” young Freddie Highmore in “Finding Neverland” and David Carradine in “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” although he believes that there is no buzz around that spring release.

Going to Church

He also praises sitcom actor Thomas Haden Church for a hilarious turn as a man on his last fling before marriage in “Sideways.”

Maltin hopes the Academy has room for another well-known TV star with a long film career, 76-year-old James Garner, heartbreaking as a man desperate to keep his wife from slipping into dementia in summer sleeper “The Notebook.”

In recent years, this category is where a sentimental AMPAS found a way to honor such un-Oscared vets as James Coburn and Jack Palance perhaps for a lifetime of achievement as well as their singular achievements in their respective years.

Maltin says sentiment has nothing to do with it. “I think sentiment sometimes is overrated in handicapping the Oscars. If you don’t agree just ask Lauren Bacall” who lost for her turn in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” he reminds. “Garner who has given wonderful performances for years is at his best in ‘The Notebook’ and would certainly deserve a nomination.”

With so many worthy performances this year, particularly in the leading male category, voting could be split several ways, allowing for real surprises when the final five are announced Jan. 25.

It could yield a situation Travers fears: “I think a lot of people that should be nominated won’t be, and I think that’s really too bad.”

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