On the other hand, Spacek has been nominated five times before and won for 1980's "Coal Miner's Daughter." And if there's anything the academy likes as much as a return to form, it's a young actress who'd never previously had an Oscar-caliber role making the most of her opportunity. Hilary Swank did that with "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) and Halle Berry just might do the same with "Monster's Ball." Although not the initial favorite, her nomination has been gaining momentum the past several weeks, and it's increasingly possible that she could catch Spacek at the wire. In fact, after her SAG victory, she looks like she's done just that and should walk home with the statuette.
Best supporting actor is perhaps the toughest race to call, with only Ethan Hawke in "Training Day" considered to be out of the running. Jon Voight is a veteran who hasn't been nominated in 16 years, but he's already won (for "Coming Home") and his work in "Ali" is not a breakthrough. Jim Broadbent's performance in "Iris" was enormously admired, but there does not seem to be much heat behind that picture.
Which leaves two respected British actors, Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" and Ian McKellen in "Lord of the Rings." Kingsley, though superb as a soulless gangster, has already won for "Gandhi" and is in a film that may not have been as widely seen as it deserved. Which leaves McKellen, a brilliant actor who was the sine qua non of a very popular film and won the SAG award. That combination will likely be difficult to resist
Best supporting actress, on the other hand, is probably the easiest race to call. Although Maggie Smith, like Judi Dench in "Shakespeare in Love," gives just the kind of showy British performance the academy usually can't resist in a supporting role, one of her co-stars, SAG winner Helen Mirren, is nominated along with her, and having two actors from the same film (Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand in "Almost Famous," Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in "Thelma & Louise") in most cases means they will cancel each other out.
With Kate Winslet put aside, again for "Iris'" lack of heat, that leaves two young but experienced actresses in career best roles. But Marisa Tomei has already won an Oscar (for the very different "My Cousin Vinny"), which should make Jennifer Connelly, "A Beautiful Mind's" major surprise, the not-surprising winner.
There's a caveat to all these choices, and that is, as that ancient horse player would no doubt attest, in handicapping races it is always possible to know too much. The more you start to recognize a variety of factors as potential key indicators in the academy's decisions, the harder it becomes to decide which one is going to be predominant.
With the academy, as with many things in life, it is possible to overthink a situation, not realizing that the most obvious choice may also be the best one. It's a lesson I'm continually trying to learn, and if I don't get it this time, the Brooklyn Dodger fan I once was reminds me that there's always next year.
Kenneth Turan is The Times' movie critic.