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Oddsmakers can't call the best actor race

Will the Oscars this Sunday be a ho-hum affair or will a dark horse named Seabiscuit come bounding out of the gate to beat hundreds of glory-hungry Hobbits by a nose?

Frankly, the bookmakers are saying don’t waste your money by betting on the nag because the odds are hugely against this happening.

But film experts think a couple of surprises are possible at the 76th annual Academy Awards even if “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is almost certain to race off with the major prize of the night, best picture, leaving “Seabiscuit” and three other films biting the dust.

The biggest chance of an upset is expected in the best actor category, which Tom O’Neil, the host of the online awards site GoldDerby.com, calls a “cliff-hanger in which three bad-boy actors — Sean Penn, Bill Murray and Johnny Depp — are racing neck-and-neck and in which one of them will probably win by a nose.”

Going into the home-stretch of the Oscars race, Penn was the favorite for his performance as an ex-con anguished by the murder of his teenage daughter in Clint Eastwood’s powerful crime thriller “Mystic River.”

But O’Neil said Penn made a huge tactical error when he failed to attend the Golden Globe awards in January and gave Hollywood the impression that he wasn’t interested in competing for filmdom’s top prize, the Oscar.

Meanwhile, the British film industry’s equivalent of the Oscars honored Murray for his performance as  a lonely, middle-aged actor adrift in Tokyo in “Lost in Translation” and the U.S. Screen Actors Guild unexpectedly gave its top award to Depp, who plays a flamboyant buccaneer in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Robert Osborne, author of “75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards,” says that “when the Oscars seem pat, that’s when the surprises come” and his choice of this year’s upset is, like O’Neil, the best actor’s race.

“There is so much talk about Johnny Depp right now. Bill Murray gave a comedy performance, which Oscar voters often don’t go for, and Penn is disliked in part because ... people get upset over his politics — he did go to Iraq,” Osborne said.

Depp chargeTime magazine film critic Richard Schickel also thinks that Depp has a strong shot at the award, which last year went to Adrian Brody  for “The Pianist” in an upset victory.

“Bill Murray put in more of an appearance than a performance. He is not a lock. Sean Penn has a shot as does Depp. ...  who is not an underrated actor any more but one of the two or three best actors working.”

The experts also see a chance for an upset in one other acting category — best supporting actress, with Renee Zellweger seen as a favorite for her role as a scrappy, plain-spoken farmhand in “Cold Mountain.”

Although she won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actress on Sunday, many critics think she could lose to either Shohreh Aghdashloo for her work as the wife of an Iranian colonel in “House of Sand and Fog” or to popular independent film star Patricia Clarkson, the cancer-stricken mother in “Pieces of April.”

South African-born Charlize Theron is tipped to win the best actress award for her performance as a prostitute serial killer in “Monster.” But her strongest competition is expected to come from Diane Keaton, who plays a woman in her 50s finding love in “Something’s Gotta Give.”

But Schickel thinks Theron has the edge: “She’s going to win the Hilary Swank Memorial Oscar,” referring to the Academy Award that the then-unknown Swank won for an equally bold performance in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

“(Theron’s) performance is very good even if the movie is not a bowl of Jello,” Schickel said.

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