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'Snubs' Much Ado About Nothing?

It's a four-letter word that's thrown around a lot during Hollywood's awards season, especially when the coveted Oscars are just around the corner.

Snub.

As in, will the Academy snub Martin Scorsese (search) again this year for best director? Is Annette Bening (search) going to be snubbed for the second time against Hilary Swank in the best actress category? And will this year see yet another Oscar snub for Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman (search) and Kate Winslet, who never seem to win?

With the Academy Awards (search) airing Sunday night, the answers are near. And one thing is certain: The debate will go on over whether Oscar snubs really happen, or are just figments of the Hollywood gossip's overactive imagination.

Some awards-show sages think Academy members deliberately overlook certain Hollywood stars year after year in favor of others.

"The last thing they're voting on is the best of anything," said Tom O'Neil, host of the awards prediction Web site Goldderby.com (search). "They're voting on who's in the club, who's out of the club, who's cool, who's not."

But many obscure actors and movies — those considered underdogs and not "in the club" at all — have won Oscars in the past (Swank's "Boys Don't Cry" victory is case in point), leading some insiders to dismiss the snub concept as fiction.

"The big trend in the last 10 or 15 years has been a much greater openness to small movies, newcomers and people who aren't big names ... I think it's very rare that there's a collective will not to give someone a vote," said Mark Harris, editor at large at Entertainment Weekly magazine. "People genuinely vote for what they think is the best performance. They may have no taste, but I think they're voting sincerely."

Acclaimed "Raging Bull" director Scorsese is perhaps at the focus of the "snub watch" this year. The filmmaker — who has never won an Oscar — received his fifth best director nomination for "The Aviator," but he's up against favored candidate and Hollywood darling Clint Eastwood (search) for "Million Dollar Baby."

Eastwood, who already has one best director Oscar for the 1992 film "Unforgiven," is expected to win, despite the fact that Scorsese was overlooked for his efforts in "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Goodfellas" and "Gangs of New York."

And while some are beginning to compare the prolific, bushy-browed New York director to Susan Lucci — the "All My Children" star who had 18 Daytime Emmy nominations before finally winning the lead actress prize in 1999 — others say just having a top industry award nomination speaks volumes.

"The Academy doesn't hate Martin Scorsese," said Harris. "It's absurd to use the word ‘snub' for someone who's been nominated five times."

O'Neil, however, is firmly in the thumbing-their-noses camp, predicting Eastwood will likely win not because "Baby" is better directed than "Aviator," but because he "is [the Academy's] baby" while Scorsese is an East Coast outsider whose films "tend to be violent and gritty and not sentimental ... you need that kind of emotional gooeyness to win."

In the best actor category, Jamie Foxx (search) is widely expected to win for his dead-on impression of Ray Charles in "Ray."

But when it comes to other best actor candidates like 30-year-old DiCaprio (nominated for "The Aviator" and only once before for supporting actor in 1994 for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") and 41-year-old Depp (nominated for "Finding Neverland" and only once before for best actor last year for "Pirates of the Caribbean"), O'Neil thinks youth and good looks work against them, even as pretty ingenues are rewarded.

"[Academy members] vote for young, beautiful women and they punish young, beautiful men," O'Neil said. "These geezer Oscar voters have a selfish agenda: They lust after babes and punish the pin-up boys for having everything they secretly want."

The Academy is famously tight-lipped about the identities of its roughly 800 members, but common speculation is that the average age is 50-plus and two-thirds are men, according to O'Neil.

Along with younger men, older actresses also tend to fall into the "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" cycle.

Bening is nominated for "Being Julia," her third Oscar nod and her second with "Million Dollar Baby" star Swank as a fierce competitor. (Bening was the favored pick in 2000 for "American Beauty," but suffered a surprise upset to then 25-year-old Swank for "Boys Don't Cry.") And in 1991, Bening was nominated for best supporting actress for "The Grifters," but walked away empty-handed.

O'Neil believes 46-year-old Bening is the victim of the legendary Hollywood ageism toward older actresses, pointing out that only one woman over 50 has won in an acting category in recent memory: Judi Dench in 1999 for supporting actress in "Shakespeare in Love."

"The babe factor is going to hurt Annette," he said. "Even when we think a veteran grand dame like Lauren Bacall is a shoo-in (in 1997 for 'The Mirror Has Two Faces'), here comes a babe like Juliette Binoche to beat her (for 'The English Patient')."

But a Bening loss could also be attributed to the obscurity of the film "Being Julia." While Swank's "Million Dollar Baby" was not a box-office hit, it attracted buzz — and viewers — after the Oscar nominations, and is up for best picture.

Freeman and Winslet aren't new to the experience of hearing someone else's name called when the envelope is opened, either.

Freeman's Academy nods have been for best actor for "The Shawshank Redemption" in 1995 and "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990, and for supporting actor in 1988 for "Street Smart." But the "Million Dollar Baby" star, up for best supporting actor this year, is considered the favorite by many Oscar forecasters.

Winslet's best actress nomination this year for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a long shot, and her second one (the first was for "Titanic" in 1998). She's also had two supporting actress nods, one for "Iris" in 2002, the other for "Sense and Sensibility" in 1996.

Harris, who has covered the Oscars for years, is reluctant to pin any political agendas or trends on the wins themselves, saying favoritism and campaigning tend to happen more with nominations.

"When envelopes are opened and you're surprised, more often than not it's because they're not going for the sentimental favorite," he said. "I don't see a lot of really long-lasting trends in the way Academy voters vote."

A huge public outcry over this year's Oscar winners is unlikely — though Freeman and Scorsese losses might cause some grumbling.

And in spite of all the talk, movie and media folk seem to care more about perceived snubs than plain-old filmgoers. Awards-show viewership is dwindling, in part because there are so many televised show-biz ceremonies nowadays, and also because nominated movies are frequently relative duds at the box office. None of this year's five "best pictures" has hit the $100 million mark yet.

"I don't know that getting [an Oscar] holds the same weight it used to, at least to those of us outside the industry," said film buff Cristina Barden, a 30-something working mom from Long Island. "There are so many [awards] out there, it's not so much of a 'wow' anymore."