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Best Actor

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Too many men, too little time. That’s gotta be what Academy voters are thinking as they rush to catch up with the crush of male performances that make this category the most fiercely competitive of the 1997 Oscars — and the toughest to handicap. Sure, by flying in the face of political correctness in As Good as It Gets, JACK NICHOLSON (1) is a lock for a nod; with 10 previous nominations (including his wins for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment), an 11th would set a record for a male actor. And if Jack’s the beloved old pro, then MATT DAMON (2) has to be considered the hot new kid on the block: His fellow actors can’t fail to pat him on the back for fulfilling every actor’s fantasy by writing his own ticket with his screenplay (cowritten by Ben Affleck) for Good Will Hunting. After all, the same strategy earned Billy Bob Thornton nods for both acting and writing last year.

But beyond that, the race is up for grabs. PETER FONDA (3) (Ulee’s Gold) got the endorsement of the New York Film Critics Circle, but his movie came out way back in June, so he’s been forced to run a long-distance race. By contrast, four-time nominee (and Tender Mercies winner) ROBERT DUVALL (4) won top honors from the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as a fiery preacher in The Apostle, but his little movie won’t reopen until Jan. 30. He has to hope Academy viewers like feeding their VCRs.

Benin native DJIMON HOUNSOU (5) had one of the year’s most notable debuts as Amistad’s rebellious Cinque, but if he’s to get a nomination, he’ll have to fend off criticism that his character was underdeveloped in the script, and he’ll face competition from a wealth of veteran scene-stealers: DUSTIN HOFFMAN, whose wicked takeoff on producer Robert Evans in Wag the Dog has insiders chuckling (though they may ultimately deem it more impersonation than performance); AL PACINO, who turned in one of his strongest takes on Mafia hood-dom in Donnie Brasco (though that movie’s February release is a distant memory); DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, who spent a year training for his IRA pugilist in The Boxer; SAMUEL L. JACKSON, who played a fresh variation on a Quentin Tarantino lowlife in Jackie Brown; RALPH FIENNES, whose performance as a gentle-souled compulsive gambler in Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda is just beginning to get attention; and KEVIN KLINE, whose deft emergence from the closet in In & Out was the comic performance of the year — which is a mixed blessing given how often the Academy overlooks comic brio. With all that competition, where does that leave Titanic’s LEONARDO DICAPRIO? Very possibly as the man overboard. — GK

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LOVABLE LONG SHOT

Surrounded by stars with big scenes and bigger names, Ian Holm is the quiet alternative for Best Actor. Holm plays a lawyer in The Sweet Hereafter, but he’s no Hollywood crusader. Slinking to the site of a school-bus crash to whip up a lawsuit, he cajoles mourning families and treats his own daughter — a dying drug addict — with stony detachment. But underneath that brittle facade, Holm deftly reveals a deep layer of sadness. He vents his spleen, but he breaks your heart.

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