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Once again, unfamiliar names pepper list of Oscar nominees

| Sunday, March 25, 2001

Academy Awards
  • 73rd annual ceremony.
  • 8:30 p.m. today.
  • ABC.
  • It happens every year at Oscar time. Performers and directors who weren't even being picked up on radar the previous year are in the thick of contention.

    Last year, Sam Mendes, a theater director who had just made his first movie, went on to win the Oscar for 'American Beauty.'

    Hilary Swank came out of nowhere to win Best Actress for 'Boys Don't Cry.' The ranks of nominees who were unfamiliar to many included Janet McTeer, Samantha Morton, Chloe Sevigny, Catherine Keener, Michael Clarke Duncan and even, perhaps, Toni Collette, Jude Law and Best Supporting Actress Angelina Jolie.

    So it is this year with the seemingly abrupt emergence of players such as Benicio Del Toro, Laura Linney, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Hudson, Javier Bardem and, perhaps, Marcia Gay Harden and director Stephen Daldry.

    The day has passed when the casual moviegoer knew all 10 of the performers nominated in the lead categories and the (mainly) long-established character actors who were up for their supporting performances.

    Now, as often as not, moviegoers who don't keep up with independent or limited-release films wind up reading the list of Oscar nominees with questions such as, 'Javier who is up for what?'

    In some respects, the playing field is more level now that the independents have just as good a chance of getting videos and DVDs into the hands of voters as major film distributors.

    In the days when the big film companies were like families of contract directors and players, the mavericks and newcomers in independent films were much less likely to score nominations - although the races then tended to be more fun to follow. You knew who all the Spencer Tracys and Katharine Hepburns were.

    And so we get down to the business of forecasting winners in the 73rd annual Academy Awards derby.

    I'll predict a winner and runners-up and, without regard to those, I'll add the identity of the folks for whom I'd vote if I were among the 5,722 voting members of the Motion Picture Academy.

    Among the main six categories, let's work from easiest to hardest.



    Actress


    It started out as a three-way race, with Joan Allen ('The Contender') and Juliette Binoche ('Chocolat') in the fourth and fifth slots.

    But despite two awards from various film societies for Laura Linney ('You Can Count on Me') and three for Ellen Burstyn ('Requiem for a Dream'), all of the momentum has swung toward Julia Roberts ('Erin Brockovich'), a three-time Oscar nominee whose six wins to date this year include an invaluable one from the Screen Actors Guild.

    Prediction: Roberts in a landslide.

    Preference: Burstyn.

    Supporting Actor


    As in the Best Actress category, the five likeliest nominees were the five to get nominated. Four-time nominee Jeff Bridges may be highly regarded in Hollywood, but he hasn't won anything yet for 'The Contender,' and he isn't going to rise above fifth place in the balloting.

    Five-time nominee Albert Finney ('Erin Brockovich') is even more of a veteran and is in a better-liked picture. He has been overdue longer. His winning of the SAG Award puts him back in the running with favored veteran status.

    Joaquin Phoenix ('Gladiator') and Willem Dafoe ('Shadow of the Vampire') each have two wins so far this year from the many groups voting 'bests' annually. Like Finney, they can't be counted out.

    But Benicio Del Toro ('Traffic') took the lead early. He has collected six awards already for 'Traffic,' including the Screen Actors Guild's, where he was placed in the leading category and still managed to beat Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe.

    Prediction: Del Toro, easily.

    Preference: Finney.

    Director


    You can count out Stephen Daldry ('Billy Elliot') and Steven Soderbergh's work on 'Erin Brockovich.' Soderbergh, the first director to receive a double nomination in the category since Michael Curtiz in 1938, is more likely to collect votes for his direction of his other 2000 contender, 'Traffic.'

    Soderbergh has won six awards so far this year, five of them for his combined efforts on the two films and one for 'Traffic' alone.

    But he's up against Ridley Scott, who has won nothing but who has the favored Best Picture nominee, 'Gladiator,' and Ang Lee, whose three prizes to date for 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' include the Directors Guild of America Award.

    I'm guessing Scott is running third, with Soderbergh's 'Traffic' work second.

    Prediction: Lee.

    Preference: Soderbergh for 'Traffic.'

    Picture


    I've never been less enthusiastic about the slate of nominees. They do not - individually or collectively - announce themselves as future classics.

    Figure 'Chocolat' to run fifth and 'Erin Brockovich' fourth. Had 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' not been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, I'd say it had a strong chance of winning Best Picture. But by honoring it as the foreign film, voters will feel free to save the main category for the epic 'Gladiator' or the edgy 'Traffic.'

    I think 'Gladiator' is a pony league 'Spartacus,' but whereas 'Traffic' has only two Best Picture citations so far (and 'Tiger' just one), 'Gladiator' has four, including one from the Producers Guild and another from the British Academy.

    Prediction: 'Gladiator.'

    Preference: 'Traffic.'

    Supporting Actress


    From here on, the guessing gets riskier.

    Only the New York Film Critics honored Marcia Gay Harden ('Pollock'), but with that award a contender get noticed. Only the British Film Academy honored Julie Walters ('Billy Elliot'), but that's something, too. Only the Screen Actors Guild honored Judi Dench ('Chocolat'), but that's best yet - those winners tend to anticipate Oscar winners.

    Both of the actresses nominated for 'Almost Famous' have been cleaning up. Frances McDormand (like Dench, a former Oscar winner) has three prizes this year. So does co-star Kate Hudson, who is 25, the age at which mama Goldie Hawn won in the same category for 'Cactus Flower' (1969).

    Skip Harden and Walters. I think we're safe in calling McDormand No. 3.

    The category notoriously ferrets out newcomers and veterans. So will they give a second one to the hugely esteemed 66-year-old Dench, just two years after her win for 'Shakespeare in Love,' or go with second-generation Hollywood favorite Hudson• The safer answer may be Hudson, but ...

    Prediction and preference: Dench.

    Actor


    Students of Oscar voting and odds-playing probabilities are tantalized by this one.

    Geoffrey Rush, who won for 'Shine,' has one win so far this year for 'Quills,' plus a Screen Actors Guild nomination for it. Figure him fifth.

    Russell Crowe has one win this year for 'Gladiator' and a Screen Actors Guild nomination, too. He has the advantages of starring in the probable Best Picture winner and of having lost last year for notable work in 'The Insider.' But recent losses aren't a reliable barometer of future wins.

    Javier Bardem has two prizes to date for 'Before Night Falls,' but he didn't make the slate of Screen Actors Guild nominees.

    Five-time nominee Tom Hanks ('Cast Away') won for both 'Philadelphia' (1993) and 'Forrest Gump' (1994). Can he win three times in the lead category in eight years• Will it help that he's so popular, that he gained and lost a lot of weight for the part and that he carries the long center section of the film alone• Three groups already have voted him the year's best.

    Lastly there's Ed Harris, whose 'Pollock' was a long-planned labor of love. Hollywood loves those, but it didn't help Robert Duvall win for 'The Apostle' or Billy Bob Thornton for his leading performance in 'Sling Blade.' And Harris didn't even get a Screen Actors Guild nomination.

    It comes down to Crowe and Hanks, with Harris as the dark horse. I see Crowe as a close third, with Hanks' previous wins hurting, more than helping, him in a photo finish.

    Prediction: Harris.

    Preference: Rush.

    The rest of the categories


    Original Screenplay: Cameron Crowe can't be counted out for 'Almost Famous,' but I'm predicting my preference will win: Kenneth Lonergan for 'You Can Count on Me.'

    Adapted Screenplay: Prediction: Stephen Gaghan for 'Traffic.' Preference: Ethan and Joel Coen for 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

    Original Score: Prediction: Hans Zimmer for 'Gladiator.' Preference: Ennio Morricone for 'Malena.'

    Song: Prediction: Bob Dylan for 'Times Have Changed' from 'Wonder Boys.' No preference.

    Foreign Language Film: Prediction: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' (Taiwan). No preference because 'Crouching Tiger' is the only one of the five released here.

    Cinematography: Prediction: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' Preference: 'Malena.'

    Art Direction: Prediction: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' Preference (with the unseen 'Vatel' excluded): 'Quills.'

    Film Editing: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' Preference: 'Traffic.'

    Costume Design: Never bet against Asian costuming. Prediction: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' Preference: '102 Dalmatians.'

    Makeup: Prediction and preference: 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas.'

    Sound: Prediction: 'Gladiator.' Preference: 'The Patriot.'

    Sound Effects Editing: Prediction and preference: 'U-571.'

    Visual Effects: Prediction: 'The Perfect Storm.' Preference: 'Hollow Man.'

    I've made no picks among the documentaries and shorts because only one of the 18 nominees in those four categories has been shown here.

    The rub, of course, is wanting to have a good score with predictions in the main 19 categories while preferring my, well, preferences, and enjoying surprises.

    Maybe next year we'll have something the caliber of 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'On the Waterfront' or 'Rain Man' to root for.

    Ed Blank is the Tribune-Review's Broadway theater critic. He can be reached at (412) 854-5555 or eblank@tribweb.com .

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