Oscar Race | Dick Clark | 'The Producers'

Oscar Race Heats Up: 17 Days in January

Most members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will receive their Oscar ballots today.

They will have until Jan. 21 — a mere 17 days — to get them back to the Academy in order to be counted. This means that the ballots are due back five days after the Golden Globe awards take place.

And what do you want to bet that most Oscar voters will wait until the morning of the 17th to check off their faves, lick the envelope and put it in the mailbox? That's because Oscar voters will want to see what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has picked.

Academy voters by and large consider the Globes frivolous. Where the HFPA will select a Renée Zellweger, the Academy will rush to embrace what it considers more "serious."

Here's a scenario you may consider as the Academy voters sift through their tapes, talk to friends and make their final decisions.

On Jan. 16, all eyes will be on the HFPA regarding "Brokeback Mountain." It's a perfect Golden Globe dramatic entry. There isn't much dialogue, which helps, since the HFPA is sending out a message around the world.

Then there's the star appeal right now of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The HFPA loves stars and glamour. These two young men are right at the DiCaprio level of young Hollywood fame.

Ledger is "involved" (they have a kid) with his also-nominated co-star Michelle Williams. Gyllenhaal has a famous sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and she has a famous boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard). There's a table the Globes cannot pass up! And the gay cowboy thing — why, it's positively European!

Of course, the HFPA will have to deal with "King Kong," too. A megahit internationally, "Kong" has a nominated director beloved by the group: Peter Jackson. Since it can't really give "Kong" a Best Picture award, it will happily acknowledge Jackson as director.

If it gives "Brokeback" awards for Best Drama and Actor, and maybe Supporting Actress, then the HFPA is covered.

In the musical category, it looks pretty simple: Picture, Actor and Actress to "Walk the Line," the Johnny Cash picture. They'll give Best Actress in a Drama to Felicity Huffman, for "Transamerica."

Those choices leave the Academy voters in an interesting position — simply in that "Munich," a movie that's picking up an audience quickly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role of "Capote," will by then have been sorely overlooked.

"Munich" and "Capote" are almost certain Best Picture nominees with the Academy. They should be joined by "Walk the Line," the most entertaining movie of the year, and the inevitable "Brokeback."

The fifth slot is a toss-up, possibly between Woody Allen's excellent "Match Point" and David Cronenberg's highly admired "A History of Violence."

The question will be, starting on Jan. 31 when the nominees are announced, if Spielberg's camp can convince the voters that "Brokeback" is over and that "Munich" is a far more important picture that addresses substantial issues.

Ledger will likely be a Best Actor nominee, along with David Straitharn, Hoffman, Phoenix and either Viggo Mortensen or — and this would be lovely — Bill Murray, rescued from the oblivion of "Broken Flowers."

The actress list should include Dame Judi Dench, Huffman, Charlize Theron, Witherspoon and one of the following: Maria Bello, Gwyneth Paltrow or Keira Knightley.

The scarcity of leading-actress roles should be a subject dealt with by all those women's groups who lunch incessantly in Hollywood, I would think.

Dick Clark's Triumphant Comeback

You couldn't help but cheer for Dick Clark on Saturday night when he returned to host his annual New Year's show on ABC.

Despite having suffered a severe stroke over a year ago, Clark provided the only poignant moment on any of the various network shows. Bravo to him!

After warning the audience that his speech had been affected, Clark proceeded to host the 90-minute show with minor difficulties. Granted, he didn't stand, and ABC cut away from him shortly into each segment.

But Clark didn't back down for a minute. You could see how important it was — and he told us several times. But it didn't matter. I thought he was inspirational, and look forward to seeing him improve over the coming year.

And here's a thought: Even though Clark produces the American Music Awards, shouldn't the Grammys give him something this year?

He's been in the business for 50 years, and through his radio and TV shows, such as "American Bandstand," Clark discovered, launched or encouraged thousands of hits.

It's not like anyone considers the AMAs real competition for the Grammys. And it would be classy. Just a thought.

As for worrying about Clark, after watching a TiVo'd recording of his Rocking New Year's Eve show yesterday morning, I'm more concerned about Hilary Duff.

The teen pop queen looked emaciated. Her performance pieces — obviously pre-taped — were dreadful. She could barely move to the music she wasn't singing.

Duff seemed to have no sense of rhythm or time or that she was even on stage. And someone, please feed her!

Duff was the physical opposite of Mariah Carey, who filled the screen during her live performance and hit lots of long, high notes with no assistance.

Carey brings new meaning to the word "jolly." She really looked like she was having fun.

It was weird that while her singers and dancers all wore winter coats, mufflers and leg warmers in the freezing night air, Carey was nearly naked and didn't seem to mind. Good for her. She should make this an annual event.

It's easy to make fun of Mariah, but you must realize she is completely earnest about these things. Speaking with chipmunk-cheeked Ryan Seacrest later, Mariah was buoyant and articulate about being in Times Square.

After what she's been through, it's amazing that's she still so optimistic. Good for her. She's having a great time now, and we might as well be, too.

Over on FOX TV, Regis Philbin ran his New Year's show with his usual professionalism. But FOX Los Angeles import Jillian Barberie, she of the famously flat stomach (sadly hidden), completely lost her voice doing Reege's street interviews.

To make matters worse, her makeup looked frozen. And she didn't know much about New York.

When a woman said she'd gone to Serendipity, Barberie replied: "That's supposed to be famous." Oh well.

I really liked Joy Philbin's song with hubby Reege, but the show needed more of the grouchy, itchy, scratchy Philbin we see on weekday mornings, not the Miss America host. Next year, a maybe even a little Gelman, to juice it up.

The FOX music acts were pretty interesting. I really liked Sugarland, even though I'd never heard of them. And the Bangles, exhumed from a crypt, did a nice job on Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter." Paul Simon should send them a note — he made a little money from that.

But what do the Bangles want? I can't figure out if they're back together for a real reason or just to show up at events and collect checks.

Earlier Saturday night, we dined up at Elaine's, where the absent and recuperating doyenne had left her famous eatery in the solid hands of manager Diane Becker.

There was music from the excellent soul man Lonnie Youngblood, who didn't realize at first that none other than pop and Broadway star Huey Lewis was at a front table. Lewis told me he'd just done two performances of "Chicago" before heading uptown.

After midnight, it was straight down to Cipriani at 42nd St., where we'd been told the good and the great were headed for a party hosted by Carey and Seacrest.

Cipriani 42nd St. is a massive, elegant space that used to be a bank. Many fine evenings have been spent there within its marble halls and under its vaulted ceiling since it became a catering hall. Expectations were high.

Alas, this was the first time I've set foot in the place to find the floor not just sticky, but icky. "Zoo" would have been too kind a description.

Let's just say that thousands of young people had spent hundreds of dollars for the chance to be chopped up in a human Cuisinart. I hope they had a good time.

Celebrities spotted included the aforementioned Seacrest, wisely hidden in a VIP area far from the madness, "That '70s Show" star Topher Grace and an actor from "Beverly Hills 90210" whose name no one could remember.

Someone said they saw Mariah on the main stage — itself a roped-off VIP crush — around 2 a.m. But attempting access to that area by then would have been ill-advised, I'm afraid.

Maybe things got better around 3 a.m. They certainly couldn't have gotten any worse.

Out in Aspen, Colo., we got frequent phone calls about the stars there. Celebrities drift to Aspen or to the island of St. Barts if they want to be seen during Christmas week.

And so Don Johnson threw a big party with the help of Niche Media/Gotham magazine and Jason Binn; Jack Nicholson got around town, as did Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell and Goldie's son Oliver Hudson; Denise Rich had a party, 'natch, and someone spotted '70s teen-pop star Leif Erickson, the Nick Lachey of his day, wandering about.

I don't know about you, but I'll be glad when everyone gets back to work today.

New Year's Fans Choose 'The Producers'

Every movie wants a distinction. Biggest Wednesday opening, for example. Most nominations of the season. And so forth.

Not qualifying for either of those, "The Producers" looks like it carved a spot out for itself on Saturday night. It was the only movie in the box-office top 10 that increased its audience from the previous night.

In other words: "The Producers," based on the hit Broadway musical, was the only movie anyone wanted to see on New Year's Eve.

It's not much, but it's something.

Every other movie in the Top 10 was down from the previous night, according to boxofficemojo.com. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "King Kong," "Fun With Dick and Jane," "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," "The Family Stone," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Munich" all showed declines.

But "The Producers" — starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, directed by Susan Stroman — posted a 6.2 percent increase.

It took in $1,365,000 on Saturday night — not the biggest box office, but, in this time of lowered expectations, it was the only movie to show no fall-off from the night before.

"Fun With Dick and Jane," for example, had the biggest day-to-day drop, raking in 27.9 percent less than it had on Friday.

So here's a rare trivia note for "The Producers," a movie that didn't get great reviews and probably won't gross very much in the long run.

If only every night could be New Year's Eve, because apparently revelers weren't as interested in ringing in a new year with Israeli vigilantes, dinosaurs and giant apes, a suburban couple down on their luck or three British school chums and their eccentric associates.

They wanted a laugh. They wanted "Springtime for Hitler."