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EW's early picks for the Academy Awards

EW’s early picks for the Academy Awards — Spring roles we deem Oscar-worthy, from ”Erin Brockovich”’s Julia Roberts to ”Hamlet”’s Bill Murray

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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.

Box office behemoths Erin Brockovich and Gladiator 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.

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.

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.”