January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Double the pleasure, double the fun? Not if you’re an Oscar contender. This year there are several notable actors, including Tom Hanks, John Travolta, and Sean Penn, who turned in not just one but two Oscar-worthy performances. Which is fine, except that in what’s shaping up to be a particularly tough-to-call Academy Awards race, such double exposure could lead to trouble.

Multiple nominations in a single year are hardly new. Most recently, Holly Hunter won the Best Actress Oscar for The Piano in 1994, the same year she was nominated for supporting actress in The Firm. But in this year’s murky contest, two-timing it with Oscar voters could backfire. ”When somebody has more than one noteworthy performance in a given year,” says a spokesperson at Warner Bros., ”they run the risk of dividing the Academy.” Which is why Hanks, wanting to keep the emphasis on his lauded turn in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, specifically requested that Warner not mount a Best Actor campaign for him for You’ve Got Mail. Says Heidi Schaeffer, Hanks’ publicist, ”It just seems that [Ryan] would be the natural place for the focus to be.” Given his clout, the two-time Oscar winner didn’t encounter any resistance from Warner. ”We respect Tom’s wishes,” says the studio spokesperson.

On the other hand, Travolta, who’s been nominated twice — for 1977’s Saturday Night Fever and 1994’s Pulp Fiction — but has never taken a statuette home, has decided to gamble on doubling his odds. He’s okayed Best Actor campaigns for both Touchstone’s A Civil Action and Universal’s Primary Colors. Most observers agree that Action, which is enjoying generally good reviews as well as strong box office (it’s currently No. 1), remains his best shot, despite a Golden Globe nod for Colors. That’s why the dual run has raised some eyebrows. ”You should back one horse,” insists an Oscar-campaign specialist at a rival studio. Then again, Travolta’s decision was not as easy as Hanks’. As another Oscar strategist notes, ”You’re talking about two big roles — there’s no obvious choice.” To avoid overlapping, Touchstone parent Disney and Universal are coordinating their Travolta campaigns, making sure, for example, that they don’t run ”For Your Consideration” ads in the trades the same day. ”We didn’t want any embarrassments,” notes Disney senior VP Terry Curtin, ”so we shared our calendars and our strategies.”

Other double-jeopardy candidates include Nick Nolte, who’s won acclaim for his starring role in Lions Gate’s Affliction and his ensemble work in Fox’s World War II drama The Thin Red Line; Penn, for a supporting role in Line, as well as a starring role in Fine Line’s Hurlyburly; and Geoffrey Rush (Best Actor for 1996’s Shine), a supporting-actor suitor for the Tudor-era movies Elizabeth (Gramercy) and Shakespeare in Love (Miramax). Nolte and Penn are being considered for both acting categories — much to the relief of their studios. There was never a competition with Fox, Lions Gate president Mark Urman says of Nolte’s Affliction campaign. ”We knew we had Nolte in a leading role, and that he was a supporting actor in the other film.” However, Rush is dueling with himself in the supporting-actor field. ”It’s a tough one, because he gave two great performances, one dramatic, one comedic,” says Gramercy president Russell Schwartz. ”We’re both pushing [for a nomination].”

But several veteran Oscar publicists say that when drama and comedy face off in a supporting category, the laughs often win. Which makes Rush’s frantic theater owner in Shakespeare the stronger possibility. Notes a longtime Oscar campaigner, ”Those filthy teeth alone could get the voters’ attention.”

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