Overflow male crowd gives weight to theory of inequality of roles

There doesn’t seem to be much fight left in the battle between the sexes, at least as far as Oscar is concerned.

This year’s actor and actress nominations not only reinforce the decade-plus trend toward men and away from femmes, say Hollywood veterans, but they also point up just how uneven the playing field has become.

With an abundance of great parts for actors and a paucity of strong roles for actresses, this year’s Academy Awards has opened arguably the widest gender gap yet between leading men and women.

That there are fewer and fewer golden opportunities for actresses is an old story by now. But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

“It’s sad, and it didn’t used to be that way,” says one industry insider. “They used to showcase movies around the actress, but today good women’s roles are few and far between.”

Blame it on Hollywood’s rush to embrace the hearts and wallets of the young male demo. Or pin it on Lifetime and like-minded TV nets, which provide the sort of female-friendly entertainment moviegoers have seemingly abandoned.

Of course, there are plenty of other theories, but the reality of a paper-thin actress field becomes all the more harsh in light of so many worthy actor contenders.

Indeed, there were easily 10 or 12 worthy candidates for leading man nominations this year, a fact that caused much hand wringing and hard choices when it came time to whittle the field to five finalists.

The irony here is that while the actor field is deep, it’s not nearly as intriguing as the actress race.

While the men’s event is shaping up to be four thesps chasing one clear favorite, the women’s race is at least a two-femme race.

How do the trends and topics shake out for the lead acting categories? Here’s the way veteran observers and industry pundits break it down.

The almost sure thing: The actor category isn’t so much a horse race as a Foxx hunt.

“Nothing is absolutely sure with the Academy, of course, but of all the major categories, a Jamie Foxx win is the surest bet,” says Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan.

The “Ray” star is enjoying almost across-the-board endorsement. New York Times critic A.O. Scott marvels at Foxx’s ability to act without his eyes — “Eyes are so important to screen acting,” he reminds — and believes the timing is right for Foxx. “As much as the Academy likes to reward people who’ve been around,” Scott says, “they also like to catch people on the rise at the moment they break out.”

Other elements working in Foxx’s favor include his supporting nod for “Collateral.”

“It shows he’s not a fluke, that he’s a really good actor,” Turan says.

His celebration at the Golden Globes could be also be a plus.

“His speech was terrific and a lot of people would love to see that excitement as part of the show on Oscar night,” Scott says.

The wild card: If anybody can catch Foxx, it might be Clint Eastwood. The 74-year-old star has never won an acting award from the Academy, but his “Million Dollar Baby” performance is acknowledged as one of his best.

And it doesn’t hurt that his late-arriving movie is rapidly gaining momentum on the awards circuit.

“I think Clint is the only one who can take down Foxx,” says Sasha Stone, editor of the closely read Web site Oscarwatch.com.

“It’s certainly the most poignant role he’s ever played,” adds Los Angeles Daily News film critic Bob Strauss. “He manages to get across this man’s spiritual struggle in almost complete silence and stillness. He’s never utilized his iconic movie star presence better.”

The longshots: In the year of the biopic it’s only fitting that the remaining actor slots are filled by thesps portraying real-life characters. But conventional wisdom doesn’t favor the former matinee idols, Globe winner Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator”) and Johnny Depp (“Finding Neverland”).

Says Philip Wuntch, film critic for the Dallas Morning News, “They’re both good actors and they’ve done excellent work, but the competition is just too stiff this time.”

The sleeper: Then there’s Don Cheadle, a career character actor who turns in the performance of his career as the star of the emotionally gripping “Hotel Rwanda.” Strauss is one of many who give him an outside shot at an upset.

“He’s convincing on every level. He never makes you think, ‘What a brave, self-sacrificing guy.’ He just makes you wonder how the hell is this guy gonna get through all of this. And that’s much more impressive.”

The rematch: Five years ago, Annette Bening was the favorite to capture actress honors for “American Beauty,” but a young upstart named Hilary Swank delivered a gender-bending star turn in “Boys Don’t Cry” and made off with Oscar.

This year, the clash at the Kodak pits an overdue Bening (the “Julia” star remains 0-for-Oscar) against another buffed up Swank effort (“Million Dollar Baby”). Who has the edge?

Depends who’s doing the talking, what day it is, which way the wind is blowing and any number of other variables.

Some say Bening will win because she’s never won and she turns in a strong performance in the kind of role the Academy loves. Others believe Bening will lose because she’s terrific but the movie isn’t, which is why hardly anybody saw it. The fact she’s managed to successfully combine work, marriage and kids counts in her favor — and against her.

Then there are those who opine that Swank will win because she went the extra mile to prep for “Million Dollar Baby,” delivers another tear-inducing turn and picked up a Golden Globe and SAG Award. Then again, Swank won’t win because she’s too young to have two Oscars and her work between “Boys” and “Baby” is mostly forgettable.

Gentlemen, place your bets.

The dark horses: If Bening or Swank falter down the stretch, the other candidates can easily step up for an upset. The only question is whether it’ll be the matronly abortionist (Brit Imelda Staunton, who’s already picked up a satchel full of critics’ honors for “Vera Drake” and represents an ideology the Academy tends to support) or the mind-sweeping ex-girlfriend (Brit Kate Winslet, who continues to make brave choices and provides an emotional center to the challenging “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). And don’t forget newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno from “Maria Full of Grace.”

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