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Best Supporting Actor

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Here’s yet another category for which Steven Soderbergh should have a tough time picking a winner, since the two front-runners (and one long shot) are actors he directed. As Julia Roberts’ boss in Erin Brockovich, ALBERT FINNEY was a memorable foil, while BENICIO DEL TORO, Traffic’s conflicted Mexican cop, revealed a previously unseen gentleness. WILLEM DAFOE should earn his second supporting-actor nomination (after 1986’s Platoon) for his devilish turn as a Method night crawler in Shadow of the Vampire. The first contender to rack up two critics’ awards was JOAQUIN PHOENIX, recognized by the National Board of Review and broadcast critics for his work in three films: Gladiator, Quills, and The Yards. Since he’s eligible for only one nomination, his best chance will be with Gladiator. The up-for-grabs fifth slot could go to Del Toro’s Traffic costar MICHAEL DOUGLAS, though his lead performance in Wonder Boys seems a better bet. Last year’s winner, MICHAEL CAINE, may get a nod for Quills, but it’s a less showy role than his Cider House Rules doctor. FRED WILLARD scores big laughs as Best in Show’s color commentator, but this might not feel enough like a true performance to merit attention. The Contender’s sharky president JEFF BRIDGES scored a Golden Globe nomination, but once Thirteen Days goes wide, he’ll likely lose votes to BRUCE GREENWOOD, who plays his more popular predecessor, John F. Kennedy.

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Hired to play a drug lord in Shaft, JEFFREY WRIGHT ended up stealing all his scenes. His Peoples Hernandez — stiletto sideburns, venomous fey accent — was the character everyone talked about.

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