Open season

Only a few actors are assured a nomination in this year's Oscar race.

Forest Whitaker (Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland") and Helen Mirren (Miramax's "The Queen") might already have been crowned king and queen of this year's Oscar race, but for everyone else, the field is as wide open as it has ever been. This is a year where many actors have a shot at getting nominated, but few seem guaranteed that recognition.

In part, this is because there has been only a limited number of showy performances -- the sort that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members love, where actors transform themselves through makeup and accent and costumes and prove they are "acting." Instead, some of the strongest performances have come in ensemble-oriented movies, meaning that voters might have a hard time singling out any one cast member -- which could hurt Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and Greg Kinnear in a film like Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," as well as the players in Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" (Paramount/DreamWorks), and even more so the collective male performers in Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed" -- Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg -- all of whom are being pushed by Warners in the supporting category.

Additionally, some of the best performances have come in movies that aren't the sort Academy members traditionally embrace, either because of their dark subject matter, independent feel or lack of critical acclaim. The most prominent among them is the star of Miramax's dramedy "Venus," Peter O'Toole, who has emerged as Whitaker's most serious rival for the lead actor crown and who has drawn strong support from a host of critics, thanks to what one called a "career-summing-up" role.

But the list of possible nominees in small, challenging or less-well-received films runs from an Oscar staple like Annette Bening in Sony's "Running With Scissors" to a relative newcomer like Maggie Gyllenhaal in IFC Films' "Sherrybaby" to truly fresh faces such as Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps in ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," a decidedly indie tale about a crack-addicted high school teacher and the teenager with whom he shares a special bond.

Even with so much uncertainty about the possible nominees, one thing remains clear: This is shaping up to be one of the most ethnically diverse group of nominees in Oscar history. In addition to Whitaker and Epps, a number of black actors delivered rousing supporting and lead performances in an eclectic mix of studio and independent productions.

Will Smith is earning his best reviews since his starring role in Michael Mann's 2001 biopic "Ali" for Sony's "The Pursuit of Happyness," which opened to terrific boxoffice in mid-December; similarly, Djimon Hounsou, who was previously nominated for 2003's "In America," has won raves for his standout supporting turn in Warners' "Blood Diamond." They could be joined by other black actors including Derek Luke (Focus Features' "Catch a Fire") and four performers from Paramount/DreamWorks' lavish Broadway adaptation "Dreamgirls" -- Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson is the favorite to win in the supporting actress category and one of the few performers besides lead actor Whitaker and lead actress Mirren who seems a safe bet for a nomination, thanks to her ability to take on her showstopping number and deliver it in a way that "makes the paint peel off the walls," to paraphrase casting director Debra Zane.

Hudson will most likely be competing against two other American actresses in the always-unpredictable supporting actress category -- Vera Farmiga for her turn in "Departed" and young Abigail Breslin for her role as the delightful would-be pageant contestant in "Sunshine" -- and four British performers, including beloved English character actress Frances de la Tour of Fox Searchlight's "The History Boys," Oscar winners Cate Blanchett (Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal") and Emma Thompson (Sony's "Stranger Than Fiction") and newcomer Emily Blunt for her comedic turn in Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada."

Bolstering the international quotient, two foreign stars from Paramount Vantage's "Babel" also might figure in the supporting actress category: Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi.

Among the black actors leading the race, Hudson's co-star Murphy stunned even his most ardent admirers in stripping all the elements of his cocky, comedic persona for his role as the arrogant crooner James "Thunder" Early in "Dreamgirls," a role that also showcased his singing skill.

Murphy's biggest rivals for the hotly contested supporting actor title are as different as the films in which they appeared: the multinominated Nicholson ("Departed") and the near-unknown Michael Sheen, the British actor who embodied Prime Minister Tony Blair in "Queen." Sheen was thought to have the edge until he was overlooked when the nominations were announced for the Golden Globes -- one of the most surprising omissions among this year's Globe contenders. Nicholson could split some votes with his co-stars, most notably, Wahlberg -- though both made it into the Globes' final five.

Another strong possibility in the supporting actor category is Jackie Earle Haley (New Line's "Little Children"). In contrast to some of the actors cited above who might be hurt by appearing in films that were generally disliked, Haley stands a stronger chance at receiving a nomination because he managed to impart depth and some humanity to a despicable character in director Todd Field's critically acclaimed tale of suburban dysfunction.

Breakout performers Adam Beach ("Flags") and Michael Pena (Paramount's "World Trade Center") also could hear their names announced Jan. 24 for portraying real-life figures affected by tragedy -- Beach as disaffected solider Ira Hayes, who must reconcile the horrors he witnesses on the battlefield at Iwo Jima with life after the war, and Pena for his portrayal of Will Jimeno, a Port Authority cop who became trapped beneath the rubble of the twin towers on Sept. 11.

While this year's Oscar pool is rife with diversity and first-timers, a few familiar faces will no doubt make up the list of lead actress nominees. In addition to Mirren, several contenders -- like four-time nominee Kate Winslet ("Little Children") and previous winners Meryl Streep ("Devil"), Renee Zellweger (MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Miss Potter") and Judi Dench ("Notes") -- know the Oscar drill better than anyone.

And Spanish star Penelope Cruz, whose face is becoming increasingly familiar in the throes of awards season, might earn her very first Oscar nomination this year in the lead actress category for her role as a blue-collar woman struggling to cope with the chaos that threatens to envelop her in Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" (Sony Pictures Classics).

In the lead actor category, other repeat faces include Leonardo DiCaprio, the only person other than director Eastwood to receive two nominations at the Globes. Because no actor can be nominated twice in the same category at the Academy Awards, Warners has been pushing him as best actor for "Blood Diamond" and supporting actor for "Departed"; most insiders think his best chances are for the latter film, though they appear unsure whether Academy voters will deem "Departed" a supporting or lead role.

Apart from Foxx, Gosling, Kinnear, Luke, O'Toole and Whitaker, other possible best actor nominees include Matt Damon for Universal's CIA drama "The Good Shepherd," Edward Norton for either Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist" or Warner Independent Pictures' period production "The Painted Veil" and Ken Watanabe for his commanding turn in Eastwood's Japanese-language "Letters From Iwo Jima" (Warners). Ben Affleck, too, could follow his Venice Film Festival best actor win with a nomination for Focus Features "Hollywoodland" -- though whether in the lead category or supporting race is again unclear.

Of course, there is another potential best actor nominee in the mix as well: Sacha Baron Cohen for his title role as that roving reporter from Kazakhstan in Fox's "Borat." Although Cohen picked up a Globe nomination and more than one critics' prize, an acting nomination would stun most insiders. But in a year where anything goes, it is not beyond the realm of possibility -- and wouldn't that make for an interesting Oscar ceremony?
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