Penn vs. Who? Jared Harris Britney's Woes RIP, Regis' Cat

Best Actor? Sean Penn vs. Everyone Else

This year's Academy Award for Best Actor? As ballots are arriving in Academy members' mailboxes, it's Sean Penn's award to lose. The question is: Will he?

Penn did fine work in two films this year: "Mystic River" and "21 Grams." But the latter is too small and too hard to digest, so the "Mystic River" performance has become Penn's de facto entry in the Oscar race. After years of being nominated, this may actually be his turn.

But wait. "People do not like Sean Penn." That's the word I hear from more voters and fans than I care to count. It's not just his making trips to Iraq. They get the sense that he doesn't like the Academy. Let's face it: Penn is not going to campaign for an Oscar. Maybe he figures Roman Polanski didn't have to last year and he won. Maybe he's right.

So who are Penn's competitors? Bill Murray, in "Lost in Translation." Jude Law, in "Cold Mountain." Ben Kingsley, in "House of Sand and Fog." Russell Crowe, in "Master and Commander." Then there's the indie second-tier gang: Peter Dinklage in "The Station Agent," Paul Giamatti in "American Splendor." It was not a great year for strong actors. An Oscar for Tom Cruise as "The Last Samurai"? Not happening.

There are many who say Murray has a shot. It seems unlikely that Academy voters appreciate "Lost in Translation" with the same fervor as fans of Murray's self-deprecating irony. If they did, he would have been nominated for "Rushmore." Crowe and Kingsley? Not very exciting choices, and they've got their Oscars.

That would leave Law, and don't count him out so fast. Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain" is a financial and critical hit. It's bound to have a dozen or so nominations. With "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" lacking lead acting nods, look for "Cold Mountain" to fill the void. And a sweep could mean a gold statue for Law.

Jared Harris and the 'New' Ivy Are Toast of London

In London last week I was thrilled to catch a performance of Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." You know this play: Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan were the original stars when it came to Broadway; John Malkovich and Glenn Close took the movie roles and made them their own.

All that said, it was pretty swell to see our old pal, Jared Harris, making the role of seductive, slithery Valmont his own. All thoughts of Rickman and Malkovich were quickly vanquished as Harris — who's played the lead in the movie "I Shot Andy Warhol" and was the only sympathetic figure in the recent "Sylvia" — sashayed across the Playhouse stage in the West End in embroidered greatcoats and lame robes.

Why Harris — who gives a deliciously wicked performance — isn't working more regularly in Hollywood is a mystery. He certainly has the pedigree (his dad was the late great, Richard Harris.) He should really be in the category of constantly working 35-year-old plus lead character actors.

I should not forget to tell you that Emilia Fox, the talented actress and daughter of actor James and niece of producer Edward, co-stars with Harris, as well as one my favorite actresses, Polly Walker, of "Enchanted April" fame. I hope before their run is finished in the West End, one of the British TV companies has the good sense to put this rendition and this trio on video for posterity.

More from London tomorrow...

Britney's Woes: Sale-ing Into Oblivion

Poor Britney Spears. I say she should have stayed married to the guy from her hometown, started a family and become a country-singing superstar.

But no, that would have been the smart thing to do. Instead, Spears is going to treat us to a downward spiral of alcoholic ranting.

Is she upset over the sales of her latest album? She should be. "In the Zone" is on the charts, but not like its predecessor. The CD has sold 1.6 million copies, roughly a third of her previous release in 2001. That's not good news when you've got an entourage and a family to support.

Spears has no formal education, no clue about adult life and a lot of bodyguards. And oh yes, the money. My guess is that over the holidays she was just ... lonely. And bored. Too young to have perspective and too old to watch "Sesame Street," she's stuck in a dangerous rut. Again, my advice, Brit: Marry the guy for real and learn to make a casserole.

Regis Loses a Cat

I was moved yesterday by Regis Philbin's announcement that his cat, Ashley, had passed away. I remember the early stories of Ashley when he had to have a tooth pulled. Regis is an excellent imitation of him then. That's more than 15 years ago. My sympathies to Regis, Joy, JJ and Joanna.