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THE OSCARS

Now, Here Is a Battle

In a year with few favorites, predicting which of the academy's gladiators will prevail is tricky indeed.

March 25, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

No one is lonelier than the solitary gladiator in the arena, standing alone before the multitudes, his every misstep and miscalculation leaving him vulnerable to the taunts of a pitiless crowd. No one, that is, except the determined, resolute Oscar prognosticator. Especially this year.

For in what might be a subliminal nod to the cliffhanger nature of that other election back in November, veteran Oscar-watchers agree that the race to be decided tonight is closer and less susceptible to prediction than usual. Even the various awards from the Screen Actors, Directors and Writers guilds have added confusion rather than their usual clarification. In almost all major categories--best actress is the most notable exception--plausible cases can be made for two and even three possible victors.

Best picture: That is true in the best picture race, which is often clear by this late date. There is considerable backing for "Traffic," which, with ads quoting newspaper editorial pages rather than entertainment writers, has positioned itself as the public service choice, the candidate for the "Meet the Press" crowd.

Then there's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a film with the most genuinely enthusiastic supporters and the only one that offers voters the chance to make Oscar history by selecting the first foreign-language entrant to win the best picture award.

Yet, finally, most, though by no means all, signs point to that lone "Gladiator." The academy has traditionally had a weakness for the historical epic--think of "Braveheart" beating out "Apollo 13" in 1995--and DreamWorks has done an expert job of repositioning the film as an acknowledged classic already taking its ease in the cinematic pantheon.

The pick: "Gladiator."

Best director: What a difference an award makes. Until Ang Lee took the top prize from the Directors Guild of America, he was not considered the front-runner for the Oscar. But that victory over his closest competitor, "Gladiator's" Ridley Scott, in a contest that usually (but not always) prefigures the Oscars gives him a leg up on the big prize. Scott still has a good chance here, and Steven Soderbergh can't be counted out, though competing with himself--for "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"--certainly hurts. But if you're looking for a favorite, it's got to be the tiger.

The pick: Ang Lee, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Best actor: Before nominations were announced, Tom Hanks seemed the likeliest choice to win because he's the likeliest choice any time he's nominated. But when "Cast Away" got only two nominations (Hanks' and one for best sound), his chances diminished, as did Denzel Washington's after a similar situation developed with "Hurricane" last year. Ed Harris' career-best performance for "Pollock" is a possibility, but not being nominated for the Screen Actors Guild award is not a good sign.

There is growing support for Javier Bardem's wonderful work in "Before Night Falls," and if there is an upset, he or Harris is the one to pull it off. But, following the Oscar pattern of giving the award the year after a memorable but unrewarded performance, the likely winner is "The Insider"-turned-"Gladiator."

The pick: Russell Crowe, "Gladiator."

Best actress: Five women are nominated, but everyone agrees that this is at best a two-person race between the veteran, well-respected Ellen Burstyn in the operatic "Requiem for a Dream" and the ever-popular Julia Roberts in one of the roles of a lifetime in "Erin Brockovich." But after Burstyn was unable to unseat Roberts in the SAG balloting, it began to look like no race at all.

The pick: Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich."

Best supporting actor: Despite strong performances by the other contenders, this once again comes down to a two-person race. The veteran Albert Finney, the irreplaceable ballast in "Erin Brockovich," has enough support to be considered the co-favorite, and no one would be shocked if he won. But Benicio Del Toro is not only the strongest element in the well-regarded "Traffic," he also took the tougher best actor award in the SAG contest, which has to give him the edge.

The pick: Benicio Del Toro, "Traffic."

Best supporting actress: A race of devilish complexity, perhaps the hardest one of the night, and one that was made even more difficult to call after Judi Dench, who was discounted for the Oscar because she'd won so recently for "Shakespeare in Love," took the SAG prize. She could well win here, and Marcia Gay Harden's standout performance in "Pollock" has a chance as well. Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson are handicapped by both being nominated for "Almost Famous," but perhaps the handicap will not be fatal for Hudson. It sometimes helps to imagine who the voters would most like to see up on the stage, and the tears flowing between Hudson and her mother, Goldie Hawn, in the audience might be too much to resist.

The pick: Kate Hudson, "Almost Famous."

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