NEW YORK – And the Oscar goes to . . . a misogynist rapper? A low-brow comic? A sleekly coiffed sitcom star?
If early buzz is to be believed, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Eminem, Adam Sandler or Jennifer Aniston could be clutching a gold statuette come next March.
Other oddball contenders? How about an unknown stand-up named Nia Vardalos winning for Best Screenplay for her sleeper summer smash, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Or Richard Gere taking the top prize for a singing role in Chicago.
The 75th Academy Awards showdown is shaping up as the wackiest Oscar race yet. But are the traditionally staid Academy voters ready to join the 21st century and take a chance on someone not named Tom Hanks?
"Oscar voters are becoming more open to wacky things," says Oscar expert Tom O'Neil, host of the awards-predictions Web site GoldDerby.com.
"We've seen that recently with David Lynch nominated last year as Best Director, and with the nominations for Moulin Rouge -- they're willing to try some crazy stuff."
So, too, are a number of Oscar-pedigreed directors, whose casting leaps of faith have conferred legitimacy on their stars.
Few took news of Eminem's acting debut seriously, citing the example of that other white rapper Vanilla Ice's disastrous foray into the movies.
But the scoffing stopped when word came down that 8 Mile, a Nov. 8 release about a young man in Detroit fighting his way out of poverty using his rapping talents, was being helmed by Oscar-winning director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys.)
The film's producer Brian Grazer said recently that, under Hanson's direction, the potty-mouthed provocateur has "turned in a performance that reminds me of Stallone in Rocky. I think the audience is going to be blown away, and so will the Academy."
Adam Sandler, pilloried by the critics for this summer's Mr. Deeds, was the talk of Cannes earlier this year, playing a phone sex-addict who collects pudding coupons to earn frequent flyer miles in Punch-Drunk Love, opening Oct. 11.
Bizarre premise, yes, but Sandler reportedly steers clear of his trademark goofball shtick, and the highly regarded auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) is said to have elicited a "subtle" performance from his star.
"This is a man people didn't even take seriously as a comedian," says O'Neil. "He's always been a joke just the kids got, and now we're being told to take him seriously as a thespian.
"That seems so preposterous, yet if Paul Thomas Anderson says he wrote the part for Adam Sandler . . . "
O'Neil also notes that the Academy has previously rewarded comedians Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for taking on serious roles, in Good Will Hunting and Ghost, respectively.
The Academy voters are suckers for actors playing against type. That may give (sigh) Tom Hanks an edge for his role as a villain in summer's Road to Perdition, but it also gives Aniston a look-in. The Friends star won raves when she de-glammed and adopted a Southern drawl for her role as a frowzy checkout chick in the darkly comic indie, The Good Girl.
"Jennifer Aniston may seem like too much of a lightweight sitcom star to be considered a serious Oscar rival, but then you recall someone who Oscar voters really, really liked -- former Flying Nun and Gidget Sally Field," O'Neil says.
Finally, the buzz surrounding Chicago, based on Bob Fosse's sexy Broadway musical, is escalating to a deafening roar -- and Richard Gere, who plays lawyer Billy Flynn, is earning raves for his singing voice.
But it's Renée Zellweger, as Chicago's chorus girl murderess Roxie Hart, who is hot, hot, hot.
Nominated last year for Bridget Jones' Diary, it could be, against all odds, a singing and dancing role that finally lands Zellweger the gold.