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Oscar Season Remains a Tight Race

Academy Awards (search) contenders demurely say it's nice just to be nominated. In this wide-open Oscar season, just about any nominee could end up winning.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (search) announces nominations for the 77th Oscars on Tuesday. While the likely field of contenders has been narrowed through previous Hollywood honors, a surprise or two could pop up, and few categories have clear-cut front-runners.

With its Golden Globe win for best drama and the potential to lead the way with the most Oscar nominations, Martin Scorsese (search)'s Howard Hughes saga "The Aviator" (search) probably will establish itself as the nominal early best-picture favorite.

Other film awards, including the Directors Guild of America (search) prizes Jan. 29 and the Screen Actors Guild (search) honors Feb. 5, will help sort out the leaders heading in to the Oscars on Feb. 27.

The uncertainty raises intriguing questions for movie fans who like to see Hollywood make a horse race of its awards season.

How will the probable Oscar rematch between Hilary Swank (search) and Annette Bening (search) play out? Will Jamie Foxx (search) maintain the best-actor momentum he has had since the Ray Charles film biography "Ray" (search) premiered last fall? What are the prospects for 2004's critical darling, the road-trip romance "Sideways" (search), among academy voters, who tend to favor sober drama over comedy?

And most important, can the savvy awards-marketing machine at Miramax, which has produced the best-picture winners "Chicago," "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient," finally secure an Oscar for Scorsese?

"It's been a weird practical joke that the man hasn't won," said Leonardo DiCaprio (search), who starred in Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," won the Golden Globe for dramatic actor as Hughes in "The Aviator" and is a likely best-actor nominee for the Oscars. "A cruel practical joke. It's like, you know, ridiculous. Enough said."

Scorsese, the man responsible for such films as "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas," has been nominated for best director four times and best screenplay twice, while three of his films have scored best-picture nominations.

But he and his films have never won. His most recent contender, "Gangs of New York," had 10 nominations but was shut out in every category.

While "The Aviator" took the top dramatic prize at the Golden Globes (search), Scorsese lost the directing category to Clint Eastwood (search) for the boxing saga "Million Dollar Baby" (search).

Yet Globe voters had just named Scorsese best director two years ago for "Gangs of New York," so they may have felt it was time for another nod to Eastwood, a previous Globe winner for "Unforgiven" and "Bird."

Eastwood and Scorsese both are nominated for the Directors Guild prize, which has a solid record at predicting what filmmaker will win the same honor come Oscar night. Only six times since 1949 has the guild winner failed to follow up with the best-director Oscar.

"Sideways" won Globes for best musical or comedy and for screenplay and is a likely contender in the best-picture race and other prominent Oscar categories. Though laced with dramatic moments, the film's comic tone will be a handicap at the Oscars, where lighter stories rarely prevail.

On the acting front, dramatic-actress Globe winner Swank for "Million Dollar Baby" faces another Oscar showdown with Bening, the Globe winner for musical or comedy for the show-business farce "Being Julia."

Five years ago, underdog Swank in the low-budget "Boys Don't Cry" (search) won the Globe dramatic honor and the best-actress Oscar over Bening, who had been the front-runner for "American Beauty" (search).

Other potential nominees include Paul Giamatti (search), Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen for "Sideways"; Cate Blanchett (search) as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator"; Johnny Depp (search) as playwright J.M. Barrie in "Finding Neverland" (search); Liam Neeson and Laura Linney for "Kinsey" (search), the film biography of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey; Imelda Staunton for the abortion drama "Vera Drake" (search); and Javier Bardem for "The Sea Inside" (search), based on the real-life story of euthanasia lobbyist Ramon Sampedro.

Foxx could snare two Oscar nominations, as lead actor for the title role in "Ray" and supporting actor for the hit-man thriller "Collateral." His eerie emulation of Charles' movements, vocal cadences and understated slyness have established Foxx as the man to beat in the best-actor category.

This could be a record year for black actors, who might grab four of the 20 acting nominations. Along with Foxx's prospective dual nominations, Don Cheadle is a likely nominee as lead actor in "Hotel Rwanda" and Morgan Freeman probably will be included in the supporting-actor field for "Million Dollar Baby."

Three times previously, black actors have earned three of the acting nominations, including the 2001 Oscars, when Denzel Washington of "Training Day" and Halle Berry of "Monster's Ball" won the lead-performer prizes.

Oscar analyst Tom O'Neil, author of the book "Movie Awards," said black actors have gradually gotten more opportunities to act in serious dramas.

"Morgan Freeman was amazing. Don Cheadle was amazing. Jamie Foxx had a breakout year with these two performances," O'Neil said. "It's not based on people saying, 'Oh, we're overdue to acknowledge African-American artists.' These are really powerful, performance-driven surges we're seeing."

While ethnic diversity may be a healthy thing for the awards, the wide-open range of contenders is not necessarily a good thing for Oscar organizers, who have been troubled by a downward trend in the ceremony's TV ratings.

Recent history suggests that more people tune in to the Oscars when there is a box-office behemoth favored to win, such as with 1997's $600 million blockbuster "Titanic," the year the awards drew their biggest audience ever, 55.2 million viewers.

The Oscars reversed their ratings slide last year, when the $377 million smash "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" dominated. This time, all the likely best-picture nominees are well below the $100 million mark in domestic revenues.

"Yeah, I think we're a little concerned about it," said Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director. "I think that that 'Titanic' year was a huge eye-opener for us. Before that, we always kind of assumed the best thing to have in terms of audience interest was a really close, hard-to-predict horse race.

"That year suggested very strongly that maybe a killer blockbuster everybody was pretty sure was going to win might not be the worst thing in the world to have."

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