LOS ANGELES – It may have "Crashed" at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, but "Brokeback Mountain" is back in the saddle as the lead contender for Tuesday morning's Academy Award nominations.
"Brokeback Mountain," the story of two cowboys in love, has dominated earlier Hollywood honors, earning best dramatic film and three other prizes at the Golden Globes and winning top awards from key critics groups.
However, at Sunday night's Screen Actors Guild Awards, the ensemble drama "Crash" pulled off an upset win over "Brokeback" for the overall cast award.
But experts believe the film is still positioned to become the first gay-themed movie to win the best picture Oscar, while "Brokeback Mountain" filmmaker Ang Lee is a frontrunner for best director. Lee won the best director prize on Saturday from the Directors Guild of America.
"Once people saw the film, they understood that it was a film about a kind of epic greatness that can exist in anyone, anywhere, no matter who they are, no matter what their sexual orientation or class or historical circumstances," said "Brokeback" producer James Schamus.
For his performance as a married cowboy fighting his sexuality in "Brokeback," Heath Ledger has a virtual lock on a best actor nomination, though he faces serious competition from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Golden Globe for lead actor in a drama as gay author Truman Capote in "Capote" and the Screen Actors Guild award for lead actor.
Felicity Huffman is considered the favorite to win best actress for her gender-bending role in "Transamerica," a comic drama centered on a man preparing for a sex change that earned Huffman the dramatic actress prize at the Globes.
An Oscar would cap a breakout year for Huffman, who won an Emmy last September for "Desperate Housewives" after years of toiling in bit movie roles, failed television shows and TV guest spots.
However, at the SAG awards, Huffman lost the best actress prize to Reese Witherspoon, who plays June Carter Cash in the popular Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" and also won the Golden Globe for that role.
That said, Huffman won the SAG prize for best actress in a TV comedy for "Desperate Housewives," so SAG may not have wanted to award her twice in one evening.
Also working in Huffman's favor: This year's likely Academy Award contenders tend to be heavy on political and social issues. In addition to "Brokeback," "Capote" and "Transamerica," other strong Oscar candidates include oil-industry thriller "Syriana," an indictment of American thirst for Middle East petroleum at any cost; "Good Night, and Good Luck," a tale of personal freedom vs. fear-mongering told through the 1950s clash between newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy; and "The Constant Gardener," a story of love, intrigue and murder amid corruption by governments and pharmaceutical companies in Africa.
The feel-good movie "Walk the Line" is also considered a formidable Oscar competitor, after it won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy and garnered acting prizes for Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix.
But outside of "Walk the Line" and possibly "Munich," which uses the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympics and its aftermath to examine the cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East, the Oscars likely will follow the lead of earlier film honors and focus heavily on smaller, independent fare rather than studio flicks.
"This year, I'm particularly happy for the movies that were in, that are coming out," said "Brokeback Mountain" director Lee. "I feel very not only honored, but it's just a pleasure to be with those so-called small movies."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.