Ian McKellen stands as the favorite in his category -- His early decision to campaign for Supporting rather than Lead gives him the edge, says Dave Karger
Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings, ...

Today’s prediction: Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actor
How on earth could a guy who hadn’t won a single award all season now be considered a front-runner for an Oscar? Easy, when his first name is Sir and he stars in ”The Lord of the Rings.” Up until last week, Ian McKellen had been largely ignored by critics’ groups and voting bodies — competitors like Ben Kingsley and Jim Broadbent had won the lion’s share of the early awards, along with eventual Oscar snubbee Steve Buscemi. But McKellen wisely advised New Line to switch his campaign from Best Actor to Best Supporting Actor, so that he would be considered a member of an ensemble. And ironically, that decision made him stand out even more. Before long he’d won nominations from BAFTA, SAG, and the Oscars and surged to the head of the pack for the big prize. His win last week at SAG was no surprise; it just sealed the deal.

Best Actress
Don’t you just love how unpredictable this year’s Oscar race is? (I actually hate it, but I tell myself I love it so I don’t go completely crazy.) First, Halle Berry wins the National Board of Review prize in December, making her the favorite. Then Sissy Spacek counters with bicoastal wins from the New York and L.A. critics groups. For the next month she continues her streak, racking up prizes from the AFI and the Golden Globes, among others. Then, Judi Dench’s victory at the BAFTA awards and “Moulin Rouge’s” surprise Producers Guild win for Best Picture indicate that Dench and Nicole Kidman are forces to be reckoned with as well. And finally, Berry returns with an upset over Spacek to steal the SAG trophy, often seen as the most accurate indicator of Oscar success. The bottom line: Spacek’s lead may still be intact, but it’s getting smaller by the day.

Best Actor
So this race features the good-guy actor in the bad-guy role (Denzel Washington) versus the bad-guy actor in the good-guy role (Russell Crowe). But perhaps it’s actually more complicated than that. True, Washington is the relative veteran, having earned his fifth nomination. And unlike Crowe, he’s never won in the lead category, which may make voters want to give it to him this time. And yes, Crowe doesn’t exactly come off as gracious after the whole BAFTA debacle (and that SAG speech wasn’t the picture of warmth either), but to his credit, he has kept a sense of humor about the incident and even apologized to the BAFTA producer he accosted. And many Oscar voters EW has spoken to in the past few weeks have indicated that such external factors won’t influence their choices. Instead, they say, they’re more likely to consider a nominee’s past work, but the most important consideration is the performance at hand. One thing’s for sure: Whoever ends up victorious, it’s bound to be close.

Best Director

What does Ron Howard’s Directors Guild award victory for ”A Beautiful Mind” mean for the Oscar race? Possibly a lot, but possibly not much. On the one hand, it indicates that Howard’s chances may be stronger than those of ”The Lord of the Rings” helmer Peter Jackson, who was also up for the DGA prize. But it doesn’t mean he’s a sure thing. Absent from the DGA nominee list was Robert Altman, who won awards from the Golden Globes and the AFI for ”Gosford Park.” Despite the omission, he’s still a force to be reckoned with at the Academy Awards. Perhaps the best evidence that the DGA and the Oscars don’t always add up? Howard himself. Back in 1996, he picked up the DGA prize for ”Apollo 13.” At the Oscars, he wasn’t even nominated.

Best Picture
Is it time for us Oscar analysts to completely rethink this year’s biggest race? After weeks of declaring ”The Lord of the Rings” and ”A Beautiful Mind” as the two certain competitors for the top statue, we were all surprised by the Producers Guild’s naming ”Moulin Rouge” as Best Picture last week over fellow nominees ”LOTR” and ”Mind.” It’s especially interesting considering that in its award’s 12-year history, the Producers Guild has correctly forecasted the Oscar winner nine times, including the last two winners, ”Gladiator” and ”American Beauty.” So that makes ”Moulin” the likely winner now, right? Not so fast. This year, the Guild vastly expanded its membership to include associate producers, meaning the organization has a smaller overlap with Oscar voters. And besides, the Producers Guild three years ago gave its award to ”Saving Private Ryan,” which went on to lose the Oscar to ”Shakespeare In Love.” The bottom line: It’s now more of a three-way race, but no pre-Oscar award is a perfect predictor.

Best Supporting Actress
The Screen Actors Guild awards are usually a pretty good indicator of who might win an Academy Award. But this year, it’s almost guaranteed that the SAG prize for Best Supporting Actress will have no bearing on its corresponding Oscar race. Why? Because only one of the Oscar nominees is also up for the SAG award in this category: ”Gosford Park” maid Helen Mirren. Rather than agreeing with the Academy and naming her costar Maggie Smith, Kate Winslet from ”Iris,” and Marisa Tomei from ”In the Bedroom,” SAG instead went with ”Bandits” scene stealer Cate Blanchett, ”The Shipping News” ancestor Judi Dench, and ”I Am Sam” tyke Dakota Fanning. As for front-runner Jennifer Connelly? She was mistakenly submitted in the lead category, just as Benicio Del Toro was last year for ”Traffic.” If she were to win that trophy over Sissy Spacek and Halle Berry — like Del Toro beat out Russell Crowe at SAG — she’d be even more of an Oscar lock than she is now.

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