How we got here

Despite its best intentions, the Academy isn’t always the best at capturing the moment.

Tough talk, maybe, but not a knock. Films and performances — like a great wine — can age over time, increasing their value over the years. It’s difficult to play fortune teller, to see what will look better or worse decades from now.

In 1962, Peter O’Toole starred in David Lean’s sweeping epic “Lawrence of Arabia.” The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six, including best picture and director. Neither O’Toole nor co-star and fellow nominee Omar Sharif were among the winners. It was O’Toole’s bad fortune to be up against one of the towering performances in film history: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It was O’Toole’s first nomination. He was nominated for six more before this year, never winning. The Acad gave him an honorary Oscar, perhaps righting what they felt was a wrong, but “Venus” is his eighth and perhaps last stab at best actor honors.

As an aging thesp who’s barely hanging onto his dignity, O’Toole’s work received critical plaudits. Before the pic bowed, many Oscar watchers thought that if O’Toole matched his usual high standards, he’d be a shoo-in.

But then Forest Whitaker turned himself into Ugandan president Idi Amin and shook up the plan.

Although Whitaker easily could have been a supporting actor candidate — James McAvoy is really the protagonist and in many more scenes than Whitaker — Fox Searchlight smartly pushed Whitaker for the lead role, due to the powerhouse nature of his performance.

The kudo circuit quickly turned into a procession for the soulful actor, who won everywhere he turned, including the Broadcast Film Critics, L.A. Film Critics, National Board of Review and Golden Globes.

Whitaker credits working with locals on location in Uganda for helping to shape his performance.

“They taught me how to be a Ugandan,” he explains. “I learned the language, the dialect, how to eat, how to sit, where I would sit, how to shake hands and pay respect to people.”

Category confusion reigned over at Warner Bros., where Leonardo DiCaprio put together terrific back-to-back performances, in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Ed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond.”

The latter was definitely a starring vehicle for him, while “The Departed” was more of an ensemble piece, in which he co-starred with Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and supporting actor nominee Mark Wahlberg. It’s tough to say if his perf in “The Departed” would have been nominated for lead if the studio had stuck with that strategy from day one, but obviously WB was concerned that by doing so it might compromise his chances to get a nomination in either film and possibly split the vote.

Sony was high on Will Smith and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and neither disappointed. The actor — in a wise departure from his more action-oriented roles — was recognized by the Academy while the film has pulled in an impressive $150 million.

Ryan Gosling seems to be a star on the rise. Although many average moviegoers probably don’t know much about him, since he prefers more cerebral roles in smaller films, casting directors are taking notice. Making the short list here should be considered a major accomplishment.

Oscar pedigree

After 11 years between nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio now has earned two nods in the past three years.

He was only 19 in 1993 when he was tabbed for his work on “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” His second nom came in 2005 for his second collaboration with Martin Scorsese on “The Aviator.” (They also worked together on “Gangs of New York.”)

What many fail to remember is that DiCaprio was not among the 14 nominees for the megahit “Titanic,” and of the two actors who were nominated — Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart — neither won. The film captured 11 Oscars.

In what’s already been well-documented, Peter O’Toole is 0-for-7 heading into this year’s race. Besides the iconic “Lawrence of Arabia,” O’Toole was passed over for “Becket,” “The Lion in Winter,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “The Ruling Class,” “The Stunt Man” and “My Favorite Year.” He received an honorary Oscar in 2003 for lifetime achievement.

Will Smith proved he can do more than fight off bad guys when he earned a nomination in Michael Mann’s “Ali.” If his selection in “The Pursuit of Happyness” means anything, Smith’s best chance for nominations seem to be via biopics.

Both Forest Whitaker and Ryan Gosling made the rounds of the awards circuit for “The Last King of Scotland” and “Half Nelson,” respectively, and each will be making his first appearance at the Oscars.

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