Oscar Preview

This is not an easy year to handicap the Oscar nominations, due to be announced Feb. 11. Nearly every category offers eight or ten plausible nominees, a marked rise from the typical six or seven. True, shoo-ins exist in every category, and, yes, Chicago and The Hours both stand to rake in numerous nods; nevertheless, this year’s nominations race is as wide-open as I’ve ever seen it.

In the Best Picture category, Chicago and The Hours are locks for nominations, but bunched behind them are a slew of films jockeying for the final three slots; of this group, The Pianist, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York are most likely to snag the nods. Still, don’t discount the chances of Adaptation, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, About Schmidt and Road to Perdition.

In the past, directors have tended to be nominated if their film makes the Best Picture slate, and this year will likely see that trend continue. Gangs of New York’s Martin Scorsese, Chicago’s Rob Marshall, The Pianist’s Roman Polanski, The Hours’ Stephen Daldry and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ Peter Jackson will most likely make the category. The category’s underdogs are led by Adaptation’s Spike Jonze, Far From Heaven’s Todd Haynes and About Schmidt’s Alexander Payne.

Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis are the two locks in the Best Actor category for their turns in About Schmidt and Gangs of New York, respectively; Chicago’s Richard Gere is also a solid bet for a nod. The final two slots will be split between four contenders: The Pianist’s Adrien Brody, Adaptation’s Nicolas Cage, The Quiet American’s Michael Caine and About a Boy’s Hugh Grant; the comparative prestige of Brody’s and Cage’s pictures give them the edge for the spots.

The Best Actress nominees are the most difficult to predict this year. The Hours’ Nicole Kidman and Chicago’s Renee Zellweger lead the field. Weaker but nevertheless bankable bets are Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven and Diane Lane in Unfaithful. The fifth slot is anybody’s guess. Salma Hayek has the strongest chance for her starring role in Frida, but right behind her are Meryl Streep for The Hours, Nia Vardalos for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Maggie Gyllenhaal for Secretary and Isabelle Huppert for The Piano Teacher.

Best Supporting Actor, a traditionally strong category, will no doubt include long-ignored journeymen Chris Cooper for Adaptation and Dennis Quaid for Far From Heaven. The Hours’ Ed Harris is a likely nominee, while Road to Perdition’s Paul Newman and Chicago’s John C. Reilly are less so. Nevertheless, I expect both of them to make the cut, leaving Frida’s Alfred Molina, Catch Me If You Can’s Christopher Walken and Narc’s Ray Liotta, among others, out in the cold.

The Best Supporting Actress slate is a more settled one. Guaranteed nominees include Kathy Bates for About Schmidt, Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago and Meryl Streep for Adaptation, with The Hours’ Julianne Moore almost as sure a bet. As bizarre as “Academy Award Nominee Queen Latifah” sounds, I expect that she’ll round out the category for her work in Chicago. Lesser possibilities for nominations include White Oleander’s Michelle Pfeiffer, Gangs of New York’s Cameron Diaz, Igby Goes Down’s Susan Sarandon, About a Boy’s Toni Collette and Far From Heaven’s Patricia Clarkson. —Benjamin L. Soskin