The race for Oscar

Who you can expect to be vying for the big awards next month


Jamie Foxx, above, stars in "Ray"

Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 11:14 p.m.
With no J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy to lord over Hollywood's prom night, an eccentric mix of real-life characters may step in to fill the void at the Academy Awards.
There's the billionaire, Howard Hughes, in ''The Aviator.'' The blind singer, Ray Charles, in ''Ray.'' The sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, in ''Kinsey.'' The future revolutionary, Che Guevara, in ''The Motorcycle Diaries.'' The paralyzed euthanasia advocate, Ramon Sampedro, in ''The Sea Inside.'' The Good Samaritan innkeeper, Paul Rusesabagina, in ''Hotel Rwanda.'' The guy who wrote ''Peter Pan,'' J.M. Barrie, in ''Finding Neverland.''
No solid favorites have emerged in main Oscar categories, leaving a wide-open race among those biographical movies and a broad mix of fictional films.
Last February, the Tolkien epic ''The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'' swept all 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best picture and director. And while some awards watchers have groused that 2004 produced a weak field of contenders, there are plenty of intriguing prospects that should make Oscar night (Feb. 27) far less predictable than 2003's show.
A rundown of potential contenders for Oscar nominations, which come out Jan. 25: Best picture Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic ''The Aviator'' could become a default front-runner if no other film catches fire as awards season progresses.
The nearly three-hour movie drags at times, but its vibrant depiction of 1920s, '30s and '40s America - and monumental re-creations of Hughes' film production ''Hell's Angels'' and the flight of the mammoth Spruce Goose airplane - make for a visual and dramatic spectacle that should appeal to every branch of the 5,800-member academy.
Also in its favor, ''The Aviator'' deals with two subjects Hollywood loves - itself, and an erratic weirdo. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as the obsessive-compulsive Hughes, and the Scorsese brand name signals that this could be the epic to watch as the Oscars approach.
Of the other biographical films, Marc Forster's ''Finding Neverland'' has the strongest best-picture prospects, combining clever whimsy and brooding drama for a fanciful portrait of Barrie's ''Peter Pan'' inspirations.
Taylor Hackford's ''Ray,'' Bill Condon's ''Kinsey,'' Terry George's ''Hotel Rwanda,'' Alejandro Amenabar's ''The Sea Inside'' and Walter Salles' ''The Motorcycle Diaries'' have better chances at acting and other nominations than best-picture slots.
The latter two are foreign-language films, which rarely make the best-picture cut. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's World War I era romance ''A Very Long Engagement'' and Zhang Yimou's martial arts epic ''House of Flying Daggers'' have the same hurdle, but those movies have caught stronger best-picture buzz than other foreign-language pictures.
Sumptuously shot, Joel Schumacher's ''The Phantom of the Opera'' could join ''Moulin Rouge!'' and ''Chicago'' as the third musical of the past four years to earn a best-picture nomination after a two-decade drought for the genre.
The year's most divisive hits - Mel Gibson's ''The Passion of the Christ'' and Michael Moore's ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' - probably are too polarizing to grab enough votes for best-picture nominations.
''Shrek 2'' and ''The Incredibles'' will duke it out for the animated Oscar, but as two of the year's best-reviewed films, they also have longshot best-picture potential.
Other possibilities: Clint Eastwood's boxing saga ''Million Dollar Baby''; Mike Nichols' caustic sex yarn ''Closer''; James L. Brooks' culture-clash tale ''Spanglish''; Alexander Payne's offbeat road-trip flick ''Sideways''; and Mike Leigh's abortion drama ''Vera Drake.''
Best actor Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in ''Ray'' seems like the one certain nominee among a crowded field. Foxx authentically captures Charles' mannerisms and intonations, and he seamlessly juggles the singer's playful, gentle demeanor with the dark, hurtful side that led him to prolonged drug addiction and heartless treatment of women.
Besides, an Oscar vote for Foxx is in essence an Oscar vote for the beloved Charles, who died last June.
Other possibilities: Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in ''The Aviator''; Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie in ''Finding Neverland''; Javier Bardem in ''The Sea Inside,'' playing Ramon Sampedro, who campaigned for 30 years for his right to die after a paralyzing accident; Don Cheadle in ''Hotel Rwanda,'' playing hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered refugees from the 1990s genocide in the African nation; Clint Eastwood as a crusty gym owner who reluctantly agrees to train a female boxer in ''Million Dollar Baby''; Liam Neeson as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in ''Kinsey''; Paul Giamatti as a loser who gets a new chance at love in ''Sideways''; and Jude Law as a duplicitous lover in ''Closer.''
Also, Kevin Bacon as a child molester trying to go straight after prison in ''The Woodsman''; Bill Murray as leader of a ragtag oceanography team in ''The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou''; Jim Carrey as a man struggling to retain medically erased memories of his ex-girlfriend in ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind''; Tom Cruise as a hit man on a killing spree in ''Collateral''; Gerard Butler as the disfigured musical genius in ''The Phantom of the Opera''; John Travolta as a hard-luck case who becomes a paternal figure to a teenage woman in ''A Love Song for Bobby Long''; and Gael Garcia Bernal as the young Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara in ''The Motorcycle Diaries.''
Best actress Hilary Swank won five years ago for ''Boys Don't Cry,'' dashing the Oscar hopes of Annette Bening, who had been the front-runner for ''American Beauty.''
Both are back in the Oscar race, and Swank could thwart Bening's chances again with ''Million Dollar Baby.'' With endearing humor and pathos, Swank plays a zesty boxer whose life takes a tragic turn, her delivery rivaling the raw power of her performance in ''Boys Don't Cry.''
Bening delivers a gleefully wicked role in ''Being Julia,'' playing a 1930s stage diva who takes exultant revenge on the men in her life and a young rival.
''Spanglish'' presents two excellent performances from Tea Leoni as a callously self-absorbed wife and mother and Paz Vega as a Mexican housekeeper fiercely trying to shield her daughter from Americanizing influences.
Other possibilities: Imelda Staunton as ''Vera Drake,'' a saintly woman in 1950s Britain whose good deeds include performing illegal abortions; Audrey Tautou in ''A Very Long Engagement,'' playing a woman desperately searching for her fiance, who supposedly died in the trenches of World War I; Julia Roberts as a photographer flitting back and forth between two men in her life in ''Closer''; and Kate Winslet as a woman who's had memories of her ex-boyfriend erased in ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.''
Also, Emmy Rossum as a stage ingenue who's the title character's object of obsession in ''The Phantom of the Opera''; Scarlett Johansson as a teen who finds an unlikely surrogate family in ''A Love Song for Bobby Long''; Laura Dern as a wife whose hubby is stepping out with her best friend in ''We Don't Live Here Anymore''; Catalina Sandino Moreno as a Colombian woman lured into life as a drug smuggler in ''Maria Full of Grace''; and Uma Thurman as a vengeful assassin in ''Kill Bill - Vol. 2.''
Supporting actor The wizened, weary, worldly wise sage act is almost second nature to Morgan Freeman, and he's never been better at it than in ''Million Dollar Baby.''
As a one-time boxing contender now shuffling through life as a gym menial, Freeman exudes the resignation and resilience of the survivor, and his stately voice-overs are the film's emotional anchor.
''Kinsey'' offers two prospects, Peter Sarsgaard as one of the title character's circle of researchers and John Lithgow as Kinsey's puritanical father.
Other possibilities: Clive Owen as a brutish lover in ''Closer''; Jamie Foxx as a cab driver hijacked by a hit man in ''Collateral''; Alan Alda in ''The Aviator,'' playing a politician tangling with Howard Hughes; Thomas Haden Church as a randy bridegroom on a prenuptial spree in ''Sideways''; David Carradine as a philosophizing assassination ringleader in ''Kill Bill - Vol. 2''; Liev Schreiber as a brainwashed vice presidential candidate in ''The Manchurian Candidate''; and Rodrigo de la Serna as Guevara's traveling buddy in ''The Motorcycle Diaries.''
Supporting actress Cate playing Kate? Katharine Hepburn, the love of Howard Hughes' life, is brought to the screen by Cate Blanchett in ''The Aviator,'' and once you get past the initial jolt of seeing a distinctive modern A-list actress playing a distinctive Depression-era one, she pulls it off admirably.
''Sideways'' offers two strong contenders, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh as pals on the deceiving end of romantic advances from two guys passing through.
Other possibilities: Laura Linney as the title character's sexually inquisitive wife in ''Kinsey''; Kate Winslet as an ailing mom whose sons inspire J.M. Barrie in ''Finding Neverland''; Cloris Leachman as a boozy grandma trying to preserve her daughter's marriage in ''Spanglish''; Meryl Streep as a cruelly calculating political puppetmaster in ''The Manchurian Candidate''; Natalie Portman as a stripper in a twisted relationship in ''Closer''; and Regina King as Ray Charles' sassy lover and backup singer in ''Ray.''
Best director With ''The Aviator,'' Martin Scorsese has that sentimental-favorite thing going even stronger this time than he did when he was the front-runner for 2002's ''Gangs of New York'' but lost to Roman Polanski for ''The Pianist.''
Scorsese has never won the directing Oscar, which seems stupefying when you consider his body of work includes ''Raging Bull,'' ''Taxi Driver'' and ''GoodFellas.''
Other possibilities: Clint Eastwood, ''Million Dollar Baby''; James L. Brooks, ''Spanglish''; Joel Schumacher, ''The Phantom of the Opera''; Mike Nichols, ''Closer''; Marc Forster, ''Finding Neverland''; Alexander Payne, ''Sideways''; Zhang Yimou, ''House of Flying Daggers''; Jean-Pierre Jeunet, ''A Very Long Engagement''; Michael Moore, ''Fahrenheit 9/11''; Bill Condon, ''Kinsey''; Brad Bird, ''The Incredibles''; Alejandro Amenabar, ''The Sea Inside''; Terry George, ''Hotel Rwanda''; Mike Leigh, ''Vera Drake''; and Walter Salles, ''The Motorcycle Diaries.''

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