Oscar favorites should keep an eye on rearview mirror

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If this political season has proved anything, it's that it doesn't pay to be labeled a front-runner. Just ask also-ran Rudy Giuliani or the now-embattled Hillary Clinton.

But front-runners do serve one purpose: They set the stage for upsets.

That's the position that the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" finds itself in as the countdown to the Feb. 24 Academy Awards ticks away. Academy members have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to turn in their ballots to PricewaterhouseCoopers, but most voters will have mailed theirs by today. While a final round of awards dinners this weekend will offer a few more indications of which way the winds are blowing, they won't influence the final Oscar outcome.

Since it debuted at the Festival de Cannes in May, "No Country" has slowly but steadily been building a constituency. An immediate critical favorite, it surprisingly didn't win any prizes at Cannes, though it did secure a prime spot as the centerpiece film at the New York Film Festival in October.

Miramax, which co-financed "No Country" with Paramount Vantage, carefully nurtured its rollout throughout the fall. Initially, some questioned whether Hollywood would embrace the movie. The issue wasn't its violence -- after all, the Academy bestowed its previous best picture Oscar on the equally bloody "The Departed." It was more a question of whether Hollywood would fall in love with a movie that is so deeply despairing.

The answer, so far, is yes. "No Country" has picked up kudos from the DGA, WGA and PGA as well as SAG's ensemble acting trophy. Although it lost to "Atonement" at the BAFTAs, chalk that up to the British feature's hometown advantage.

The established front-runner for best picture and best director, "No Country's" halo effect also is expected to surround Javier Bardem in his quest for best supporting actor honors. But that's a category in which upsets frequently occur, as happened last year when Alan Arkin took the prize most expected would go to Eddie Murphy.

Actingwise, Daniel Day-Lewis is favored to take home best actor. He already has claimed Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards for his ferocious performance as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood." With eight nominations each, "Blood" is going head-to-head with "No Country" in a number of categories, with best actor the slot where Paul Thomas Anderson's movie is most likely to get major recognition.

Best actress is more of a genuine horse race, though. Julie Christie ("Away From Her") and Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") shared the limelight at the truncated Globes, where Christie was named best dramatic actress and Cotillard took best actress in a musical or comedy. Christie scored with SAG, while Cotillard prevailed at the BAFTAs. Academy voters likely are split between those who want to award the veteran actress for a performance that depended on finely tuned moments versus those eager to welcome a charming newcomer who delivered a rousing, theatrically extravagant turn.

But this year, it's the unpreditable best supporting actress contest that could determine the winner in many an Oscar pool. Cate Blanchett, who scored in the same category in 2005 for "The Aviator," appeared the early favorite for her trousered turn in "I'm Not There," quickly picking up a Globe. But then American acting royalty Ruby Dee ("American Gangster") reigned at the SAG Awards, and Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton") was honored at the BAFTAs. Meanwhile "Gone Baby Gone's" Amy Ryan has picked up a thick packet of critical endorsements.

So at least there's one major category where no upset is possible -- simply because there's no front-runner to come up short.
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