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The (Fantasy) Oscar Race Begins!

Is it too early to be talking about the Academy Awards? Absolutely, but has that stopped the Hollywood rumor mill? Not a chance

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The 86th Academy Awards (airing March 2, 2014, on ABC) are still more than half a year away, and most of the fall awards-bait movies haven’t been seen by a single Academy voter. But a few of the potential matchups are so sexy — and historic — that a narrative of Oscar season is beginning to take shape even though, for now, it’s just wishful thinking. Consider it the film-industry version of fantasy football.

So what exactly has the town in such a tizzy? Here’s the inside line on what’s being whispered about over lunch tables around L.A., and why this awards season might just be one for the ages.

Julia Vs. Sandra
Also known as Starmageddon. Two of the highest-grossing actresses in history could go head-to-head for the first time in the Best Actress category next year. In August: Osage County (out Dec. 25), based on the acclaimed Broadway play, Julia Roberts leads an ensemble cast as the angry, wounded eldest sister in an epically dysfunctional family. In Gravity (Oct. 4), Sandra Bullock stars as an astronaut set adrift in space while grappling with memories of her child’s death. Each actress already has one Oscar — Roberts for 2000’s Erin Brockovich and Bullock for 2009’s The Blind Side — so their Academy bona fides are certainly solid. But both may have to watch their backs for Cate Blanchett, who has secured early frontrunner status for her portrayal of an unraveling trophy wife in this summer’s Woody Allen drama, Blue Jasmine.

Historic Best Actor Race
When Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for Training Day in 2002, he was only the second African-American (after Sidney Poitier) to do so. Just over a decade later, an unprecedented four of the five nominees in that category next year may be black men: Forest Whitaker for his role as a White House servant in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (which debuted at No. 1 at the box office in its first week in theaters); Idris Elba as future South African president Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Nov. 29); Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man in antebellum America who’s forced into slavery in 12 Years a Slave (Oct. 18); and Michael B. Jordan, who plays a victim of a transit-cop shooting in this summer’s lauded indie Fruitvale Station. The odds that all four men will get nods may be slim. But if even three of them make the cut, it would still set a record.

The Return of Robert Redford
Robert Redford has never won an acting Oscar and hasn’t even been nominated for one in 40 years. (He was up for The Sting in 1974 but lost to Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger.) Now, after decades of working mostly as a director and producer, Redford, 77, returns as the sole actor in All Is Lost (Oct. 18), playing an unnamed man whose sailboat hits a shipping container, stranding him at sea and forcing him to face the possibility of his own death. If he were nominated and won, Redford would become the oldest Best Actor winner in history. The current titleholder is the late Henry Fonda, who won for On Golden Pond at age 76.

Meryl Vs. Oprah
The Actress of Her Generation could find herself battling the Queen of All Media. Meryl Streep stars opposite Roberts in August: Osage County, playing the sharp-tongued, pill-popping matriarch of the family. The size of the role could land her either a lead or a supporting nomination. A report last week claimed that The Weinstein Company, which is releasing the film, wants to position Streep in Supporting Actress to prevent a showdown with Roberts. (A Weinstein source says no determination has been made. Regardless, Academy voters could place her in whichever category they choose.) If Streep ends up with a supporting nod, it will put her on a collision course with Oprah Winfrey, who’s getting buzz for an equally substance-abusing role as a boozy, truth-telling wife opposite Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Streep holds the record for the most Oscar nominations (17). Winfrey was nominated only once, for Supporting Actress in The Color Purple, in 1985. Intriguingly, Streep was nominated that same year for Best Actress for Out of Africa. They both lost.

George Clooney Gets Everything
It’s a long shot, but George Clooney could be up for six Oscars (and competing with himself for Best Picture) this year. Academy members are eager to see The Monuments Men (Dec. 18) — co-written, directed, produced by, and starring Clooney — about an American-led team in World War II out to protect Europe’s art and architectural treasures from the Nazis. He also produced Best Picture contender August: Osage County and has a supporting role opposite Bullock in Gravity. If he gets a nod for each, he’ll tie a six-decade record for most nominations in a single year. The record holder? Walt Disney, in 1953. To win a Best Actor Oscar, though, Clooney may have to beat out any of the aforementioned performers as well as Tom Hanks, who’s a possibility for both Captain Phillips (Oct. 11) and Saving Mr. Banks (Dec. 13), in which he plays…Walt Disney. It couldn’t get more perfect if we scripted it.