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Will Julia Roberts win an Academy Award?

EW says she’s got a shot — plus, who else might be gunning for the gold

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Julia Roberts
Bob Marshak

We tried to hold out. Really. We’ve been distracting ourselves with shiny objects for ”weeks.” But we can wait no longer. We’re only human. It’s time to weigh in on Oscar race 2001!

Even we admit that the first half of the year is generally a ”teensy ”bit sparse when it comes to Academically sound films — studios often save Quality Fare for the fall. On the other hand, there have been a few historic exceptions: 1995’s Best Picture, ”Braveheart,” came out in May, and 1991 honoree ”The Silence of the Lambs” debuted in February. ”Oscar isn’t supposed to be about when the film is released,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. ”Oscar season should be the entire year.”

And this year there’s already plenty to talk about. Um, ”Ready to Rumble” for Best Pile Driver. Uh, ”Road Trip” for Best Supporting Rodent…. We kid. For your consideration, some bona fide early favorites.

Best Picture Box office behemoths ”Erin Brockovich” (Universal) and ”Gladiator” (DreamWorks) give the most serious rumblings of worthiness. ”Gladiator”’s shot will depend on whether voters view it as a popcorn flick or a sweeping David Lean-style epic. One exec at a rival studio opts for the latter: ”The film that represents Hollywood at its finest with respect to size and scope, success and ambition, satisfaction and acclaim is ”Gladiator.”” As for ”Brockovich,” think of it as a cleavage-packed ”Norma Rae” — and that 1979 film grabbed a Best Picture nod, along with three other noms. ”The minute ”Brockovich” screened, there was Oscar buzz,” says Dergarabedian. (Both ”Brockovich” and ”Gladiator” could also get director nods for Steven Soderbergh and Ridley Scott, respectively.) Ethan Hawke’s media-savvy ”Hamlet” is a long shot, but solid reviews and the inspired Miramax marketing machine may change that.

Best Actress Back in 1991, ”Pretty Woman” nabbed Julia Roberts a Best Actress nomination — but no Oscar. ”Brockovich” is another story. Roberts plays the same kind of brassy (and Academy-approved) broad, but the film’s serious subject matter gives her performance the right weight. Says Dergarabedian, ”(Roberts’) performance — definitely Oscar caliber.” And so far, unique: A spring fat with chick flicks (Kim Basinger’s ”I Dreamed of Africa,” Madonna’s ”The Next Best Thing,” etc.) didn’t exactly leave critics girl crazy.

Best Actor John Travolta’s daring turn as a prissy, dreadlocked alien in ”Battlefield Earth” is the kind of stretch Oscar loves. Kidding again. Truthfully, though, the rest of the hirsute crowd doesn’t have much more of a chance. A thumbs-up for Russell Crowe in ”Gladiator ”is very iffy; action heroes — even well-respected ones — rarely get gold. (Mel Gibson wasn’t even nominated the year ”Braveheart” won.) Paramount is so high on ”Wonder Boys” — which features Michael Douglas as a pothead prof — it’s reportedly rereleasing the film in October to pump up visibility. Will it work? ”There may be something there,” Dergarabedian says cautiously. Another slight possibility, via Britain: Despite ”American Psycho”’s mixed reviews, Lions Gate is pushing Christian Bale. Says crazy-optimistic studio copresident Mark Urman: ”Between the Academy’s rampant Anglophilia and the extraordinary stunt involved in the (American) accent, he’s pressing all the buttons the Academy likes.”

Best Supporting Actress Samantha Morton, Judy Davis, Mira Sorvino, Dianne Wiest — all got Oscar attention for turns in Woody Allen films, so don’t rule out Elaine May’s talked-about spot as Tracey Ullman’s ditzy cousin in ”Small Time Crooks.” The late Madeline Kahn’s final role in the well-reviewed indie ”Judy Berlin” might get some notice. As for the sterling supporting women of ”Where the Heart Is” — Stockard Channing, Joan Cusack — their chances looked good on paper. Then the film came out. And when bad movies happen to good actresses, the Academy generally takes a pass. ”It should have been a ”Steel Magnolias”-(caliber) ensemble film,” says Dergarabedian, citing the flick that earned Roberts a 1990 supporting nod. It wasn’t.

Best Supporting Actor Some real contenders here. Voters may reward Joaquin Phoenix’s hot-for-sister turn as ”Gladiator”’s Emperor Commodus — but will more likely endorse the late Oliver Reed in the same film. ”It was the first time he’d been outstanding in so long,” says a rival studio exec. ”Unfortunately he died, but we won’t hold that against him.” Quadruple nominee Albert Finney is favored for the Michael Caine longevity nod as ”Erin Brockovich”’s stern-but-sweet boss. Bill Murray — who was widely seen as robbed of a nom for 1998’s ”Rushmore” — may get payback for his Polonius in ”Hamlet”: ”Not only is he due,” says ”Hamlet” producer Andrew Fierberg, ”he does just what a supporting actor should do: support.”