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The Best Actor Oscar race is suddenly... peculiar

Ed Harris’ surprising nomination exposes the category’s general predictablity, says Mark Harris

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Javier Bardem
Bardem: Mimi Rodriguez/Retna

The Best Actor Oscar race is suddenly… peculiar

You know all that stuff we’ve been obsessively telling you since mid- November — about the Oscar race and the nominations and who’s in and out and who has momentum and what’s going on in the mind of the Academy? Well, forget all that. Scrap it. Hit delete, and then restart.

With the arrival of the nominations, the race begins again, and no conventional wisdom announced prior to Feb. 13 counts. For the next six weeks, we’re going to agree to collectively forget some rather important things — for instance, the shame of the fact that once again, you’d be more likely to see an African American blowing out the candles on Strom Thurmond’s birthday cake that you would on a list of Oscar nominees — in order to concentrate on who’s going to win. And (as if we have a clue) WHY.

Let’s take the race for Best Actor, since it suddenly seems to have become peculiar. As you know by now, the big surprise in the category is Ed Harris for ”Pollock,” who gives an excellent performance, and, importantly, did not marry a woman half his age, throw a big cheeseball wedding, and then sell the photo rights at auction. Of such dignity and self denial are Oscars made! Everyone I know is excited about Harris’ nomination — they like the performance, they like the surprise, and, suddenly, they like his chances.

So why do Harris’ competitors suddenly seem like less than inspired choices? Let’s float a theory: Because they ARE less than inspired choices. I’ll set aside Javier Bardem in ”Before Night Falls,” a remarkable piece of acting that made the final five on sheer dogged merit. But the three bigger names in the category have all been better, and will be again.

Tom Hanks is a tremendous actor, but I’ve actually heard people talk about his performance in ”Cast Away” in terms like ”You can’t look away when he’s on screen!” ‘Course not, stupid — you’ll miss the movie, and also, stealing the show from a volleyball with a face painted on it isn’t exactly grand larceny, especially in a role that’s designed to allow you to rage at the sky, weep into the soil, and basically showboat until the rescue comes. This would mark Hanks’ third Best Actor Oscar in eight years. Who else has won three Best Actor Oscars? That would be…nobody. Ever. I love Tom Hanks too, but a little restraint, please.

As for Russell Crowe — a man whose name has never been spoken in the same sentence as the word ”restraint” — he deserves the Oscar. For ”The Insider.” A year ago. But you know the rules — no takebacks, no do overs — and though his performance in ”Gladiator” is strong, it’s a stoic and unchallenging role that demands hardcore star power (which he’s got in spades), not brilliant, subtle, or inventive technique (which he’s also got, but not here).

Geoffrey Rush? Well, he takes all the big leaps in ”Quills” — he’s naked, crazy, smears poo on the walls, writes with his own blood, wears a wig, all Oscar friendly behavior. But like Hanks’ work in ”Cast Away,” the performance can feel a little big for the room, a little bit too Jodie Foster in ”Nell”; he does everything but grab a microphone and belt out ”My Way.”

So who’s the favorite? Factor in Hanks fatigue and Crowe backlash and ”Quills” ennui and the language barrier for Bardem and Harris starts looking pretty good. Until you remember that somehow, even in this undistinguished year, the Academy failed to nominate Mark Ruffalo for ”You Can Count on Me.” Anyone for a write in campaign?

Read All About Oscar 2001 for EW.com’s comprehensive Academy Awards coverage.

Or see photos from the nominated movies at People.com