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Time to Handicap the Academy Awards (Part 3 - Best Actor)...By Hartley Henderson

The third category available for betting is perhaps the most competitive: best actor. Two names have come up over and over when discussing this category, Peter O'Toole and Forest Whitaker. The 74 year old O'Toole has been mentioned as the likely winner, not so much for his role in "Venus", but rather to make up for past wrongs. O'Toole has been nominated 7 times for an Oscar but has never won. He did receive a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards in 2003, but never won a competitive Oscar. His last nomination, in 1982, was supposed to give him the award he deserved, but it didn't come to fruition. The film "Venus" has O'Toole playing a famous elderly screen and stage actor who is trying his best not to become too lonely in his old age. So essentially he's playing himself. The movie by all accounts is quite dull and sluggish and O'Toole is adequate in his role, but nothing spectacular. The people who viewed it at the Toronto film festival had very mixed reviews about the movie and about O'Toole's performance.

If O'Toole was not the star that he was for roles like "Lawrence of Arabia", the consensus is that he would not even be considered for an Oscar for this performance. But as has been seen in too many instances, the Oscars are as much a popularity contest as they are a genuine reward of performance. As such, if the Academy wants to give O'Toole his "award for past wrongs", he will win. If they want to give it to the best actor of the year they will look elsewhere. In 1997 Lauren Bacall was seen as the penultimate in sure things for her supporting role in "The Mirror has Two Faces" for the exact same reason - to make up for her never having won an Oscar prior. She won the Golden Globe and pretty much every other award for that performance prior to the Oscars, but when it came to Oscar night she lost out to Juliette Binoche in "The English Patient". So while O'Toole likely will win the award for best actor, there is precedent for voting for the most deserving choice which this year is not O'Toole. Besides, many in the Academy will think they did their duty when they gave him his lifetime achievement award.

The other favourite is Forest Whitaker for his depiction as Idi Amin in the "Last King of Scotland". The movie, which details the life of a Scottish doctor who becomes Idi Amin's private physician, assistant and commandant, is said to be riveting. And all accounts suggest that Forest Whittaker steals the show. Like Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen", Forest Whittaker is said to have Idi Amin down to a tee (albeit he doesn't look that much like him). Despite being one of the most evil dictators of our time, Amin could make himself appear as charming and magnetic when the need arose. Forest Whitaker supposedly had this down pat and his characterization was truly memorable. The movie has been released to some smaller theatres since September, but will go in wide release in January.

While O'Toole and Whittaker are the most talked about for an Oscar, they are hardly the only candidates. Will Smith in the "Pursuit of Happyness" is starting to gain a lot of interest, and unlike "Venus" and the "Last King of Scotland" it will probably be a box office hit which certainly helps Smith's chances. The movie, which has Will Smith as a struggling salesman who takes custody of his son, is said to be heart warming and intriguing. In fact Jaden, Will's son in the movie and in real life, is said to be a serious Oscar contender for best supporting actor which would make him the youngest winner since Tatum O'Neal won for "Paper Moon". Smith is absolutely loved in Hollywood, but his downfall may be his age. Smith was nominated for "Ali" and many thought that would be his only chance. But Smith is proving to be very versatile and likely will have other chances to win an Academy Award. With all the elderly actors and actresses likely to get Oscar nominations this year, there could be a groundswell towards O'Toole and away from those who still have careers ahead of them like Smith.

Another actor getting a lot of acclaim is Leonardo DiCaprio. Actually DiCaprio has two chances, one for "The Departed" and one for "Blood Diamond". Originally his agents were pushing for him to get the nomination for "Blood Diamond", but now it appears they will submit his role in "The Departed" for consideration since it had more public appeal. DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a police officer who gets swept up in a mob life. DiCaprio is very good in the role but there is some doubt he can win against the likes of Whittaker or O'Toole. Further hurting his chances is the fact that he was not the only star in the show. Jack Nicholson as the ultra evil Frank Costigan has been suggested as a better choice, and generally in movies where there is more than one standout the Academy avoids singling one of them out. As well, like Will Smith, DiCaprio is still quite young, so the Academy may avoid giving him the Oscar as they may feel he still has a career ahead of him.

The next actor being touted for a nomination is Ryan Gosling for his role as a cocaine addicted teacher that tries to turn his life around in "Half Nelson". The movie was very small and was ignored by most critics. While Gosling was seen as a big plus in an otherwise lingering movie, it may not be enough. As a general rule, the Academy likes to award films that have some public appeal and this one has none.

Nicolas Cage has been getting some interest as the police sergeant in "World Trade Center". Cage was brilliant as the sergeant who gets caught in the rubble when the world trade centers collapsed in 2001. Some of the concerns that could keep Cage from seriously being considered are that he was not the only star in the film, as Michael Pena had almost as much scene time. As well, there wasn't much physical acting as the majority of the film had Cage lying under a steel beam and talking. More importantly though, the film was released very early in the year and many in the Academy may have forgotten his performance come nomination time.

Derek Luke is another actor given a small chance for his role in "Catch a Fire". Luke plays a young man who fights against the oppressive South African regime at the time of apartheid. This is the type of role that often gets quite a bit of interest at the Oscars, but like many of the other films it was not very successful at the box office. Luke, by all accounts, was riveting and brilliant in his role and truly Oscar worthy, but the film has only grossed about $4 million in North American receipts. It is highly unlikely Luke will get nominated. But if he does, look for the interest in his role to grow. Once the nominations are announced the Academy members closely examine the films that are nominated, and by all accounts this is a movie that gets the viewer's attention and Luke is spectacular. Thus, while many in the Academy have not seen this movie, they will screen it when making their votes should it be nominated, and many critics believe at that point Luke will be seen as a serious contender to O'Toole and Whittaker.

Lastly, one of the newer names that has been mentioned for the best actor Oscar is Ken Watanabe for his role in "Letters from Iwo Jima". Watanabe plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and by all accounts gives one of the most spectacular performances of the year. His chances of winning likely will depend on what happens to the film itself. Originally the film was not going to be considered for the 2006 Oscars, but that changed after it became clear that "Flags of Our Fathers" was not getting as much interest as was expected. Unlike "Flags of Our Fathers", which was viewed as another "hooray for the United States" war movie, "Letters from Iwo Jima" shows the pain and misery of the losing side. And Watanabe clearly illustrates the devastation that the battle of Iwo Jima took on the Japanese soldiers and the country of Japan. Reviewers at a few sites have called the movie the best war film of the 21st century, and Watanabe's performance as Oscar material. The main downfall of the movie and Watanabe is that the movie isn't being released until February, so few Academy members will have seen it. Also, the movie has Japanese subtitles which could detract from Watanabe's performance.

The other actors getting any real consideration are Jack Nicholson for his role in "The Departed", Brad Pitt in "Babel" and George Clooney for his role in the "Good German". As well, Sacha Baron Cohen has been mentioned for his role in "Borat", but realistically he has zero chance.

So to sum up, if the Academy wants to give out a sympathy Oscar for past work, the award will go to O'Toole. If they want to give it to the best performance, it will go to Whittaker. But a couple of real dark horses at long odds may be Derek Luke or Ken Watanabe.

Hartley Henderson

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