Pop Culture

Get ready for some young Oscar nominees

When the Academy Award nominations are announced Jan. 31, we could be looking at the youngest collection of nominees in Oscar history. Several contenders are likely to become first-time nominees.

The Golden Globes and the year-end critics’ awards have led the way to honoring fresh talent in medium-budget independent productions, while the Hollywood guilds, including the Writers’ Guild, the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Producers’ Guild, appear to be following in the same Oscar-forecasting direction.

All have bypassed major-studio budget-busters such as “King Kong” and “Chronicles of Narnia” to recognize “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain,” which was produced for a meager $14 million and has broken box-office records for a gay love story.

Heath Ledger, now 26 and winner of the New York Film Critics’ prize for best actor for “Brokeback Mountain,” could become the youngest actor to win the best actor Oscar. Adrien Brody, who was 29 when he won for “The Pianist” three years ago, currently holds the record.

Ledger’s 25-year-old co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal, won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actor. He’s likely to figure in the Oscar nominations (the Screen Actors Guild has also nominated him in the supporting category), and so could 25-year-old Michelle Williams, who received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress for her work as Ledger’s wife in “Brokeback Mountain.” If there’s a “Brokeback” sweep, 23-year-old Anne Hathaway might earn a supporting nomination for playing Gyllenhaal’s wife.

Can we see your ID?

Chris Pizzello / AP
Actress Reese Witherspoon arrives at the 12th Annual Premiere Women in Hollywood event in Beverly Hills, Calif., in this Sept. 20, 2005 file photo. The evening, which honored women singled out by Premiere magazine for their achievements in the film industry, will be telecast on AMC on October 2. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello-File)

Reese Witherspoon, who will be 29 for a few more weeks (she turns 30 in March), seems a shoo-in for a nomination for her performance as country singer June Carter in “Walk the Line.” She wouldn’t, however, be the youngest Oscar winner for best actress; the voters frequently honor such youngsters as 21-year-old Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”) and 24-year-old Audrey Hepburn (“Roman Holiday”) in this category.

Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams, Hathaway and Witherspoon would all be first-time nominees. While it does seem that Witherspoon must have been in the running before, that’s because critics’ groups and others recognized her talent years ago, when she was doing more daring work in “Election” and “Freeway.”

Her 31-year-old co-star, Joaquin Phoenix, already has scored a supporting nomination for his work as the mad emperor Commodus in “Gladiator.” His Johnny Cash impersonation in “Walk the Line” looks like a shoo-in for a best actor nomination.

Other youngish possibilities include 20-year-old Keira Knightley as the exacting heroine of “Pride and Prejudice”; 22-year-old Jesse Eisenberg, whose misguided teenager is central to the effectiveness of “The Squid and the Whale”; 21-year-old Scarlett Johansson’s nagging girlfriend in “Match Point”; and 29-year-old Cillian Murphy’s sweet transvestite in “Breakfast on Pluto.”

The over-30 competition includes Rachel Weisz’s aggressive political activist in “The Constant Gardener”; Robin Wright Penn’s distressed ex-lover in “Nine Lives”; Maria Bello as Viggo Mortenson’s shocked wife in “A History of Violence”; Terrence Howard’s rap-loving pimp in “Hustle & Flow”; Thandie Newton’s victimized wife in “Crash”; and 38-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose uncanny impersonation of Truman Capote in “Capote” appears to be Ledger’s chief competition.

Another 38-year-old, Paul Giamatti, who was overlooked for his essential contributions to “Sideways” and “American Splendor,” finally seems to have a lock on a supporting nomination for his work as Russell Crowe’s devoted fight manager in “Cinderella Man.” As with Witherspoon, it’s hard to believe that Giamatti and Hoffman (indispensable in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Almost Famous”) have not been nominated before.

Oscar virginsThe first-timers may also include several over-40 actors and filmmakers who could earn Oscar’s attention at long last.

Matt Dillon, now 41, has transcended his teen-star beginnings and forged a real career. His impressive incarnation of a complex, rage-filled Los Angeles policeman in “Crash” may be his most compelling performance to date — or at least the equal of his work in “Drugstore Cowboy” and “To Die For.”

David Strathairn, 56, plays the legendary newsman, Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, Good Luck.” It’s just the latest in a series of remarkable performances that stretch back a quarter of a century, to “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “The Brother From Another Planet” and other collaborations with writer-actor-director John Sayles.

Amanda Edwards

Frank Langella, 66, brings a professional’s finesse to his impersonation of CBS executive William Paley, who has a memorable showdown with Strathairn’s Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Langella is best-known as a Broadway actor, but he’s made an impression in several movies, including the sexy 1979 version of “Dracula” and “Diary of a Mad Housewife.”

Felicity Huffman, 43, used to be best-known for her contributions to “Desperate Housewives.” That’s likely to change with her droll performance in “Transamerica,” as a transsexual who hooks up with the son she fathered long ago.

Jeff Daniels, 50, earned Golden Globe and Independent Spirit nominations for his breakthrough performance in “The Squid and the Whale.” He plays a writer and a father who has seen better days on both fronts.

Gong Li, 40, won the National Board of Review’s award for her supporting work as the bitchy Hatsumomo in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” An Oscar nomination would honor her welcome scenery-chewing in a dull film, as well as her truly distinguished career as the star of such Chinese classics as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell My Concubine.”

George Clooney, 44, could score three first-time nominations: for playing the supporting role of a betrayed CIA agent in “Syriana,” for co-writing “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and for directing “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He already has Golden Globe nominations in all three categories.

David Cronenberg, 62, has never been an Oscar favorite. His Canadian horror films were either too gross or too specialized to catch on. His only movie to be honored with an Oscar, “The Fly,” won for best makeup, though he’s directed Oscar-worthy performances by Jeremy Irons (“Dead Ringers”) and Judy Davis (“Naked Lunch”). His latest, “A History of Violence,” has become a mainstream success, and could earn him his first nomination for best director.

That’s a lot of first-timers. Clearly all of them won’t make it. It’s been a rich year.