With more than a dozen worthy performances, the Best Actor category is shaping up to be Oscar's tightest race this year. "At this point it beats me who's going to win," says Daily Variety reporter Claude Brodesser. "It's a little early to make too many judgments. A bunch of movies opening at Christmas will definitely change the race." The frontrunner at the moment seems to be Jamie Foxx, who was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review for channeling Ray Charles in Ray. In fact, several potential nominees are gaining acclaim in biopics: Johnny Depp, who plays Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland; Liam Neeson as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in Kinsey; Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (opening Dec. 17) and Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (Dec. 17). With completed ballots due Jan. 15, Oscars voters have only a month to make their choices. Right now, "the members of the Academy haven't seen many pictures, including those that have already been released," says an Oscar insider. "Not many have seen Aviator or Million Dollar Baby"—a drama opening Dec. 17, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, whose performance as a grizzled boxing coach has gotten raves at early press screenings. As they catch up on Oscar viewing, voters will be playing close attention to Javier Bardem, playing a quadriplegic in The Sea Inside (Dec. 17), and Sideways's Paul Giamatti, as well as Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (Dec. 22). Last year's winner, Sean Penn, has another worthy role in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Dec. 29). Gael García Bernal is a double threat with roles in The Motorcycle Diaries and Bad Education. And the sexiest contender alive, Jude Law, could land recognition for Closer. Studios are also stumping for box office giants Tom Cruise (Collateral) and Jim Carrey; Fox released Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on DVD just in time for awards season.
The crop of stellar female performances seems thin, but "it could be a standoff between Hilary Swank and Annette Bening again," says Daily Variety's Brodesser. Indeed, early signs point to a redux of 2000's Best Actress race, when Boys Don't Cry's Hilary Swank (back this year as a boxer in Million Dollar Baby) beat out American Beauty's Annette Bening (who already has nabbed National Board of Review's Best Actress as the mother of all divas in Being Julia). Also lauded by NBR: Emmy Rossum (for Breakthrough Performance in The Phantom of the Opera) and the ensemble cast of Closer, which also puts Julia Roberts in the running. Other strong candidates include Imelda Staunton as a meek abortionist in Vera Drake, Audrey Tautou (A Very Long Engagement), Scarlett Johansson (A Love Song for Bobby Long), Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace).
With no clear frontrunner, the race is unusually wide open. As in the Best Actor category, biopics—namely The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Kinsey, Ray and Hotel Rwanda—are considered serious competitors. Thanks to an eclectic mix of potential nominees like The Incredibles (already a favorite for Best Animated Feature) and the French film A Very Long Engagement (ineligible for Best Foreign Film because it was coproduced by a U.S. studio, Warner Bros.), "it's the weirdest year ever for the Best Picture race," says Daily Variety's Brodesser. "It's like having gazelles running against rabbits. They run differently from each other, so why would you put them in a race together?" More conventional nominees include critics' darling Sideways, popcorn favorite Spider-Man 2, the lavish musical Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (gunning for this year's Chicago slot) and the indie drama The Sea Inside. And don't count out Million Dollar Baby and Spanglish, from a pair of directors, Clint Eastwood and James L. Brooks, whose films (like Mystic River and As Good As It Gets) are frequent Oscar favorites.
Jason Lynch. Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles