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Leonardo DiCaprio, Anna Paquin and Ralph Fiennes: Former unknowns receive Oscar buzz

Leonardo DiCaprio, Anna Paquin and Ralph Fiennes: Former unknowns at the center of Oscar buzz

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Now that Oscar ballots are in the hands of Academy voters—nominations will be announced on Feb. 9—the buzz isn’t only about performers like Tom Hanks (Philadelphia) and Debra Winger (A Dangerous Woman). Nearly a half-dozen former unknowns have catapulted into Oscar contention. ”There’s no question it’s a phenomenon this year—they went from nowhere to prominent,” says Columbia Pictures publicity executive Mark Gill. Here are some of the leading players:

Leonardo DiCaprio He costarred with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin in This Boy’s Life, but it’s his role as Johnny Depp’s retarded brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that’s planted his name on the industry grapevine and the + awards circuit. (He was named Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and was also a Golden Globe nominee.) Said to be fielding a slew of offers, he’s currently at work on the Western The Quick and the Dead, playing opposite Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone. —Anna Paquin She was just 9 years old when she portrayed Holly Hunter’s willful daughter in The Piano (she tied with Rosie Perez of Fearless as Best Supporting Actress by the L.A. Film Critics and was a Golden Globe contender). She’s now on television, solemnly touting the merits of MCI communications. —David Thewlis A former punk rocker, Thewlis has British stage, television, and movie credits, but it took his role as a philosophical drifter in Mike Leigh’s Naked to snare industry attention (Best Actor, Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics). Next up for Thewlis: a role in PBS’ third installment of Prime Suspect. —Ralph Fiennes He won acclaim as the cold-blooded Nazi in Schindler’s List (Best Supporting Actor, New York Film Critics; Golden Globe nominee) and will next be seen in the Robert Redford-directed Quiz Show. Fiennes seems intent on making the most of his white-hot status. He recently dumped the agent who landed him both Schindler’s and Quiz Show and moved over to the glitzy Creative Artists Agency. A harmonious departure? ”He may think it’s harmonious. I think it’s atonal,” says former agent Clifford Stevens of Paradigm. As for what lies ahead for Fiennes, Stevens adds obliquely, ”I hope he gets everything he deserves.”