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Crowe and Hanks are contenders in a wide open Best Actor race

But Fiennes, Rush, and Damon also gave Oscar worthy performances in smaller films, says Mark Harris

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Ralph Fiennes, Sunshine

Crowe and Hanks are contenders in a wide open Best Actor race

A few weeks ago in this space, I picked Julia Roberts in ”Erin Brockovich” as the actress to beat in this year’s Oscar race. That was reinforced on Wednesday, Dec. 6, when she won the first contest of the awards season, the National Board of Review’s Best Actress prize. Now it’s time to look at the race for Best Actor, and end my winning streak as a prognosticator at one. Not only is there no front runner, there’s not even a single slam dunk nominee. Let’s start with three who have a better than even shot at the final five.

GEOFFREY RUSH in ”Quills.” A showboating role as the Marquis de Sade in a prestige film (it won the National Board’s Best Picture prize) and a good track record (a win in ’96 for ”Shine,” a supporting actor nomination in ’98 for ”Shakespeare in Love”) help his chances.

TOM HANKS in ”Cast Away.” It’s a role that’s almost TOO tailor made for the Oscars — for an hour, Hanks’ only on screen competition in this desert island drama is a beach ball with a face painted on it. And with Best Actor wins in ’93 and ’94, he’s an Academy favorite. But it’s wrong to call Hanks a lock: After all, he’s been snubbed twice since that double win, missing out on nominations for ”Apollo 13” and ”The Green Mile,” despite Best Picture nominations for both films.

RUSSELL CROWE in ”Gladiator.” Does the whole homewrecker/ bad boy thing hurt him? Sure — a little. Hollywood being Hollywood, though, it hurts Meg Ryan more, and besides, Crowe didn’t exactly have a Mr. Nice Guy image to begin with. A long roster of nominations for ”Gladiator” and a strong minority that feels he should have won last year for ”The Insider” should tug him to a second consecutive nomination.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that Rush, Crowe, and Hanks are in. Who gets the final two slots? Voters could easily decide to hand nominations to one unknown and one old favorite. In the first category, the most promising candidates are: Mark Ruffalo, a young stage actor who’s drawn rave reviews for his work in the small scale drama ”You Can Count on Me” (a film whose chances seem to be surging right now — don’t be surprised if the New York or L.A. critics’ groups give it a mention); Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor who just won the National Board’s top prize for playing gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the upcoming ”Before Night Falls”; and Jamie Bell, the teenage star of ”Billy Elliot.” Never heard of them? Doesn’t matter — Hilary Swank wasn’t exactly a household name this time last year.

As for old favorites, there are none more venerable than Sean Connery, whose performance as a J.D. Salingeresque writer in Gus Van Sant’s ”Finding Forrester” has people buzzing about what, believe it or not, would be his first ever Best Actor nomination. (Connery was a best supporting actor winner for ’87’s ”The Untouchables.”) Michael Douglas has great reviews for ”Wonder Boys” in his arsenal, and sympathy over the movie’s box office failure could actually help him to a second best actor prize (he won in ’87 for ”Wall Street”). Four time nominee Denzel Washington could make it five for ”Remember the Titans,” his biggest hit ever, although the film may be slightly too broadly drawn for Academy tastes. And Ed Harris, twice nominated as a supporting actor, could ascend to the top category with his labor of love ”Pollock,” which he also directed.

To make it an even dozen, let’s throw two final names into the hat: Matt Damon, whose work in ”All the Pretty Horses” could make him a contender for a third nomination (he won for writing ”Good Will Hunting” and was also up for acting), and Ralph Fiennes, who has the virtue of playing three roles in the epic ”Sunshine.” And to screw things up even further, let’s ask why Billy Crudup, who gave great performances this year in both the indie ”Jesus’ Son” and Cameron Crowe’s ”Almost Famous,” isn’t being talked about more.

And your nominees are…?