''Rings,'' Denzel, Halle gather Oscar momentum. Some think the BAFTAs and NAACP Image Awards are new Academy Award race omens, says Gary Susman
Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, ...
Credit: Lord of the Rings: Pierre Vinet

Savvy Oscar prognosticators turned their eyes toward a couple of awards ceremonies over the weekend that aren’t usually thought of as Academy Award weather vanes — but perhaps should be. On Sunday, at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, ”The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” picked up trophies in five of the 13 categories it was nominated for, including Best Picture. On Saturday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave out its 33rd annual Image Awards, including a Best Actor prize to Denzel Washington and a Best Actress prize to Halle Berry.

Until recently, the BAFTAs weren’t a blip on the Oscar voters’ radar. They were seen as an insular set of awards that naturally tended to favor British artists over American ones. (Four years ago, for instance, the big BAFTA winners were ”The Full Monty” and the Queen Victoria bio ”Mrs. Brown,” which went all but ignored by Oscar.) Last year, however, the ceremony was moved to late February, a week before final Oscar ballots are mailed out, and it correctly forecast the winners in five of the eight major Academy Award categories. What’s more, the BAFTAs have predicted the Best Picture winner four out of the last five years.

This year’s BAFTA results certainly add to the impression that ”A Beautiful Mind”’s Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are locks to win Oscars (for Best Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively). And Judi Dench’s (”Iris”) victory over Sissy Spacek (”In the Bedroom”) for Best Actress suggests that if anyone can upset Spacek at the Oscars, it’ll be Dench and not ”Monster’s Ball”’s Berry — so says Newsday film critic Gene Seymour.

The BAFTAs may even add to the buzz ”Rings” would need to beat ”Mind,” says Reel.com’s Jeffrey Wells: ”The ‘Lord of the Rings’ people will take every straw they can grasp at.” Wells adds that the ”Rings” victory is one more instance of ”Mind” losing ground ”bit by bit” after controversies over the film’s apparent whitewashing of John Nash’s sex life and the questionable originality of the gimmick that screenwriter Akiva Goldsman uses to depict Nash’s schizophrenia.

The NAACP Image Awards, in contrast, don’t normally have much bearing on the Academy Awards race (only five of the more than 40 categories awarded by the NAACP are film-related). This year, though, with three African-American actors nominated for Oscars for leading roles for the first time in 29 years, the Image Awards suddenly seem relevant. This despite the fact that Berry won for ”Swordfish,” not ”Monster’s.” ”The interracial sex angle [in ‘Monster’s’] probably played worse to NAACP voters than mainstream viewers,” Seymour speculates. ”There may be more resistance to that from black moviegoers than white moviegoers,” including the majority of Academy voters.

Seymour says that Washington, who has won the Image award three years running and five of the last seven, now has even stronger momentum to upset Crowe and win for ”Training Day.” ”Even with the BAFTA thing, I still sense that there’s a groundswell out there for Washington,” he says.

”The NAACP awards are one more reminder of what Oscar has been missing for the last several years,” agrees Tom O’Neil, the awards expert who hosts GoldDerby.com. O’Neil says that both the BAFTAs and the NAACP Image awards could have some impact, given their timing. ”They’re in everybody’s sights while Oscar ballots are arriving in the mail this week. If these two awards line up with the guild awards [such as the Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild Awards] coming out over the next few days, they’ll add to the oomph these rivals have as they push toward the finish line.”

A Beautiful Mind
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