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Oscar may scratch his head over best picture

The Golden Globes, trade unions, movie critics and just about everyone else in Hollywood have weighed in on 2006's best movie achievements, helping to solidify the Academy Awards picture — and muddy it too.With Oscar nominations due out Tuesday, a few clear front-runners and some intriguing wild cards have emerged, along with an unusually open race for the top prize.Still to come are honors by t
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Golden Globes, trade unions, movie critics and just about everyone else in Hollywood have weighed in on 2006's best movie achievements, helping to solidify the Academy Awards picture — and muddy it too.

With Oscar nominations due out Tuesday, a few clear front-runners and some intriguing wild cards have emerged, along with an unusually open race for the top prize.

Still to come are honors by the Directors Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild, whose nominations came out earlier this month. Those awards should help sort out the much of the Oscar outlook, but unlike most years, when a solid favorite often emerges, the best-picture category could remain up for grabs right up to awards night Feb. 25.

A look at how Oscar season is shaping up:

The sure things

Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker seemingly sewed up the best-actress and actor categories from the minute their films debuted last fall.

A grand dame of British drama, Mirren looks unbeatable for her turn as prim Elizabeth II in "The Queen." Mirren brings marvelous haughtiness and humanity to the maligned monarch as she blindly ignores — then awkwardly acknowledges — her subjects' pleas for royal reassurance and comfort over the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

If there's a best-actress dark horse, it's Penelope Cruz, who delivers a career performance full of heart and humor in "Volver," playing a woman coping with bizarre — and possibly supernatural — crises in her domestic life.

But with Mirren in the mix, Cruz almost certainly has to settle for runner-up status.

The quiet, even-keeled Whitaker, known more for hushed menace or gentle humor, explodes on screen as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," presenting a figure of towering passion and depraved cruelty.

The fictionalized story casts the bombastic, bighearted and brutal Amin first as mentor — later as tormentor — of a young Scottish doctor seeking adventure in Africa.

The only actor with an outside chance at usurping Whitaker's Oscar crown is ...

The lion in winter

All the hard, hedonistic mileage of Peter O'Toole's life — and that of his character, a frail but still lecherous old actor — shows clearly on his face in "Venus," a portrait of a man whose libido still functions, even if his body doesn't.

O'Toole is tied with Richard Burton — his co-star in 1964's "Becket," which earned them both best-actor nominations — for the Oscar-futility record among actors, each nominated seven times but never winning.

With other best-actor nominations for such films as "Lawrence of Arabia," "My Favorite Year" and "The Lion in Winter," O'Toole was given an honorary Oscar four years ago, a prize he almost turned down, saying he thought he still had a chance to win the award outright.

There's an outside chance that still could happen, despite Whitaker's dominating performance. O'Toole is superb in "Venus," and the 74-year-old actor could prove a sentimental favorite among Oscar voters who believe he's been unduly overlooked.

The precedent is there: A year after the academy gave Henry Fonda an honorary award, the 76-year-old Hollywood legend finally won the best-actor Oscar, for "On Golden Pond."

The best-picture puzzle

The rousing Motown-era musical? The sweeping mob epic? The globe-trotting ensemble drama? The beloved road-trip romp? The sly, caustic palace tale?

Most years, a front-runner or two has emerged by now, but no clear favorite has stepped forward from this season's far-flung group of best-picture wannabes.

Almost certain to grab nominations are the musical "Dreamgirls," the crime saga "The Departed" and the monarchy chronicle "The Queen." The international drama "Babel" also looks like a safe bet, and the road tale "Little Miss Sunshine" has a strong shot to become a rare comedy that sneaks into the best-picture mix.

Clint Eastwood's World War II companion films, "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers," have outside chances, though neither has caught much fire with earlier awards or audiences. The suburban comic drama "Little Children" also has a shot.

"Dreamgirls" was the big winner at the Golden Globes with three prizes, including best musical or comedy. "Babel" came in leading the field with seven nominations but left with just one, for best drama.

Despite crafting such modern classics as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas," "The Departed" director Martin Scorsese never has delivered a best-picture winner — or won the directing Oscar.

Sentiment could be on his side this time with the cops-and-crooks tale of moles in the Boston mob and police force. Like audiences who flocked to "The Departed" and made it Scorsese's biggest hit ever, Oscar voters undoubtedly appreciate the filmmaker's return to raw, roiling crime cinema, a genre whose conventions he has helped define for more than three decades.

But the musical — long moribund until 2001's "Moulin Rouge" scored a best-picture nomination and 2002's "Chicago" won the best-picture Oscar — continues its resurgence with "Dreamgirls."

Adapted from the stage sensation, the film traces the rise of a Supremes-like singing trio from Detroit's 1960s music scene. On course to follow "Chicago" as a $100 million box-office hit, "Dreamgirls" is a crowd-pleaser anchored by invigorating musical performances and classy production values that will have across-the-board appeal for academy voters.

The deserving veteran

Since his early 20s, Eddie Murphy has weathered broad career swings.

His infectious grin and manic temperament have won over audiences in "Beverly Hills Cop," "48 Hrs." and the "Doctor Dolittle" and "Nutty Professor" flicks, but he's tanked when straying too far from his likable, tried-and-true persona with such duds as "Holy Man," "Vampire in Brooklyn" and "The Adventures of Pluto Nash."

As a James Brown-like soul wailer in "Dreamgirls," Murphy finally has found an ideal fit for his in-your-face attitude, his edgier side and his innate talent to take the stage and blow the roof off the joint.

With a Golden Globe now on his shelf, Murphy heads toward the Oscars looking like a solid supporting-actor front-runner.

The deserving directors

Like O'Toole, Scorsese could go down in the books as one of the all-time biggest failures at the Oscars. With five nominations and no wins, Scorsese is tied with four other directors for losingest filmmaker.

A sixth loss would make Scorsese the record-holder.

His prospects look good this time, though the same was true two years ago, when he lost to Clint Eastwood. The latter's "Million Dollar Baby" beat Scorsese's "The Aviator" for best picture.

Eastwood scored two directing nominations for the Golden Globes with "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," though his Oscar star faded after he was shut out for a Directors Guild nomination.

The winner at the Golden Globes, Scorsese was among the guild nominees, along with Stephen Frears for "The Queen," Bill Condon for "Dreamgirls," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for "Babel" and the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for "Little Miss Sunshine."

Oscar nominees generally line up close to the guild picks, though Eastwood could slip in to displace someone.

As for a winner, Scorsese certainly has sentiment on his side. No matter how "The Departed" fares in other Oscar categories, the directing prize finally seems within his grasp.

The deserving newcomers

In barely two years, Jennifer Hudson has gone from talent-show hopeful as a finalist on "American Idol" to Golden Globe winner and likely Oscar front-runner as supporting actress for her show-stopping role in "Dreamgirls."

With her first acting role as a saucy vocal powerhouse forced to take a back seat to her more mainstream and photogenic bandmate, Hudson steals scene after scene opposite Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and pop superstar Beyonce Knowles.

While Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were the marquee names in "Babel," the most memorable performances came from two faces relatively new to the Hollywood crowd.

Mexican actress Adriana Barraza is heartbreaking as nanny to two American children whose life takes a terrible turn because of tragic events half a world away. Japanese newcomer Rinko Kikuchi proves mesmerizing with a silent, wrenching, introspective performance as a teen whose family is struck by the same events overseas.

The deserving long shots

On rare occasions when academy voters go for comic roles, it's usually with a respected dramatic actor who's gone slumming in a comedy, such as Kevin Kline, a supporting-actor winner for "A Fish Called Wanda."

Sacha Baron Cohen's turn as a crass and clueless observer of the United States in "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" won him the Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy.

The role almost certainly is too outrageous to earn him a best-actor nomination from the staid academy, but it would be nice to seem him in the mix if only to liven up what could be an otherwise predictable lineup.

Two little-seen films about protagonists coping with drug problems brought acting nominations at earlier awards for actors every bit as good as the likely Oscar nominees, but who probably will not be among the five finalists.

Maggie Gyllenhaal earned a Golden Globe nomination as an ex-con fighting her drug addiction and trying to work her way back into her young daughter's life in "Sherrybaby."

Ryan Gosling was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award as an inspiring teacher struggling with a drug habit who becomes both mentor and reclamation project for a bright inner-city student in "Half Nelson."

But it's tough for such deserving smaller performances to break into a roster crowded with such Oscar heavyweights as Mirren, O'Toole, Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Departed," "Blood Diamond"), Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal"), Kate Winslet ("Little Children") and Will Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness").