NEW YORK – Nicholson, Caine, Kidman, Streep. A lot of familiar names are circulating -- often in more than one category -- in this year's Oscar acting races, which are a lot less murky than the Best Picture contest.
Here's a category-by-category rundown of the shoo-ins, likely contenders and the wild cards.
SHOO-INS: Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt, Michael Caine, The Quiet American.
LIKELY: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York, Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition, Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher.
WILD CARDS: Edward Norton, 25th Hour, Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me if You Can, Adrien Brody, The Pianist, Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Campbell Scott, Roger Dodger.
THE BUZZ: This is shaping up as a battle between the two veterans: three-time winner Nicholson, who's a lock for a 13th nomination for playing a world-weary retiree, vs. Caine, who has two supporting trophies on the mantle, having his best shot ever at the top prize as a world-weary war correspondent.
Early audiences agree Day-Lewis' brutal bad guy is the best thing in Gangs, but he may turn out to be a 'tweener -- it's neither a lead nor a supporting role.
And though newcomer Luke has a lot of buzz as a troubled Navy man who triumphs over adversity, very few debuts have ever been nominated in this category.
SHOO-INS: Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven, Nicole Kidman, The Hours, Meryl Streep, The Hours.
LIKELY: Renee Zellweger, Chicago, Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
WILD CARDS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary, Salma Hayek, Frida, Diane Lane, Unfaithful.
THE BUZZ: With her two co-stars -- Kidman dons a false nose as Virginia Woolf, Streep plays a modern day Mrs. Dalloway -- splitting The Hours vote (she's in the supporting category for that movie), this is Moore's race to lose as a '50s suburban Job in a mink coat in Far From Heaven.
That's barring a sweep by the more crowd-pleasing My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Chicago -- whose lead actresses both get marks for their pluck. There's often a surprise in this category, and they typically involve newcomers like Gyllenhaal, who gets major props for playing a masochist so sweetly.
SHOO-INS: Ed Harris, The Hours, Chris Cooper, Adaptation.
LIKELY: Paul Newman, Road to Perdition, Dennis Quaid, Far From Heaven.
WILD CARDS: Ray Liotta, Narc, Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition, Alfred Molina, Frida, John C. Reilly, Chicago.
THE BUZZ: This is the most competitive acting race, with a collection of extremely showy roles -- except for Reilly in one of his patented dopey-husband parts, who may nevertheless benefit from a Chicago sweep.
Sentiment says that Cooper, Quaid, Liotta and Molina -- four worthy veterans who've never been nominated -- are more deserving than Hanks, Newman and Harris. But history suggests things often don't work out that way.
SHOO-INS: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago.
LIKELY: Julianne Moore, The Hours, Patricia Clarkson, Far From Heaven, Cameron Diaz, Gangs of New York.
WILD CARDS: Meryl Streep, Adaptation, Samantha Morton, Minority Report, Bebe Neuwirth, Tadpole.
THE BUZZ: Kathy Bates takes off her clothes and provides much-needed laughs in her rather grim comedy. But she may not be able to hold off Zeta-Jones, who steals Chicago as Velma Kelly by virtue of the fact that she's the only one of the leads who can actually sing and dance worth a lick.
While it would be delicious to see Zeta-Jones face off against Neuwirth -- who won a Tony in the role on Broadway but lost it in the movie -- it's doubtful Miramax, the studio releasing both films, will spend the money needed to help achieve this ironic outcome.