By EW Staff
January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

How come nobody writes good parts for men anymore? Last year Hollywood’s most respected male stars found themselves stalking ballplayers, goofing with Martians, and flaking out on the island of Dr. Moreau. While the Best Actress category is overrun with contenders, Academy voters will be hard-pressed to find five lead actors to draft as nominees. Not surprisingly, this year’s front-runner hails from Australia: GEOFFREY RUSH [A](Shine), who has already cornered the market on critics’ awards — from New York, L.A., and the Broadcast Film Critics — for his Rain Man-esque portrayal of classical pianist David Helfgott. The lack of competition is good news for TOM CRUISE [B] (Jerry Maguire). The reigning golden boy showed Hollywood even more money this year — Mission: Impossible has grossed $180 million, and Jerry Maguire is expected to gross at least $130 million. The enthusiastic reviews he earned for Maguire allow the Academy to pay tribute to his box office clout while applauding his acting skill.

Even though — or maybe because — he spends half the movie in disfiguring makeup, RALPH FIENNES’ [C] desert lover in The English Patient should be part of that movie’s Oscar putsch. And although he’s playing a raunchy pornographer — not the sort of hero Hollywood usually champions — WOODY HARRELSON [D] has a good shot with The People vs. Larry Flynt. Some credit goes to director Milos Forman, who helped both Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) to Oscar gold.

In the fifth slot, write down DENZEL WASHINGTON [E] (Courage Under Fire), but use a pencil. His performance as an anguished Army officer drew praise last summer, but both Washington and the film were missing in action among the critics’ awards and Golden Globe nominations. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS’ ringing truth-and-honor speeches in The Crucible might seem to be the stuff Oscar likes, but he also failed to capture a Globe nod. LIAM NEESON did, for playing the title terrorist in Michael Collins, but the movie itself has fallen off Hollywood’s radar.

Who else to turn to? KENNETH BRANAGH in Hamlet? The movie’s too heavy and he’s not a Hollywood favorite. JOHN TRAVOLTA in Phenomenon? He’s terribly popular, but the movie’s too light. NATHAN LANE in The Birdcage? MGM/UA is hyping him for Best Actor, while many voters would consider his drag queen a supporting role. And then there’s BILLY BOB THORNTON, who plays a grim Gump in the independent Sling Blade. If you’re asking yourself, ”Billy Bob who?” then you too could be an Academy voter.



The National Society of Film Critics honored EDDIE MURPHY as The Nutty Professor, but such broad comedic roles are a hard sell to the Academy. Too bad. Murphy’s weighty performance was a veritable buffet of comic craft — his one-man dinner was worthy of several nods, since he played the merry mom, the gruff grandma, the brutish brother, and the flatulent father. Each one was a gas.