There are many roads to a Best actor nomination: Play a genius. Do an accent. Play a madman. Age 40 years on screen. Of course, it helps if you do all of those things — and do them brilliantly — which is why we’re betting on A Beautiful Mind’s RUSSELL CROWE becoming the first actor since William Hurt to land in this race three years in a row. But Crowe shouldn’t clear a place on the mantel next to his Gladiator statuette just yet. For one thing, the awesome Aussie will have to get by DENZEL WASHINGTON, headed for his fifth Oscar nomination — and his first for playing a villain; his performance as an evil narcotics detective in Training Day has already won top honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the American Film Institute. And WILL SMITH’s impressive transformation into boxing legend Muhammad Ali should be impossible for the Academy to ignore. We’d put money on that three-way race — and then it gets tough.

In the Bedroom’s TOM WILKINSON isn’t a household name, but his powerful, restrained work as a tormented father has already won him the Best Actor prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. His failure to get a Golden Globe nomination is reason No. 947 we can never really take the Globes seriously; we don’t think the Academy will make the same mistake. BILLY BOB THORNTON gave a pair of great performances as grim loners in The Man Who Wasn’t There (for which he got a Globe nomination) and Monster’s Ball; with three nominations on his resume already, he’s a strong contender, but a split vote could fatally damage his chances. SEAN PENN can never be counted out, but his I Am Sam treads familiar very-special-people ground.

Older Academy voters may not be quite ready for JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL in the transgendered rock opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch; KEVIN SPACEY’s work in The Shipping News is probably too muted for such a showy year; and although we loved GUY PEARCE in Memento, the movie opened a looong time ago — and his Leonard Shelby is not the only one with short-term memory problems. That leaves one natural choice: GENE HACKMAN, showing unexpected comic flair as the shifty patriarch of The Royal Tenenbaums. If the movie continues to play strongly, he’ll be impossible to ignore.

For your consideration


For your consideration

Is anything harder, in 2001, than for an actor to move us with unironic romantic sincerity? We’ve thought EWAN McGREGOR rocked since Trainspotting, but his emotionally exuberant, heartfelt work in Moulin Rouge positively dazzled us. Actors, of all Academy voters, shouldn’t miss a chance to reward such a genuinely bold, risky performance. (And he sings, too.)