Russell & Denzel Face Off in the Year's Most Controversial Oscar Race

When All the President’s Men made its way to the Oscars 25 years ago by yanking back the curtain on Watergate, Hollywood pulled off a rare feat: It captured the underhanded nature of politics. But you have to wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. After all, the only thing Tinseltown has to do is look in the mirror.

As an industry, Hollywood has always been more innately Nixonian when it comes to the brazen art of campaigning than its peers inside the Beltway. Especially during Oscar season, when not only the gloves come off, but also the tape wrapped around the knuckles. But this year’s race somehow feels uglier than usual. As issues ranging from bad-boy behavior to factual accuracy to racial politics become the main attraction, they run the risk of overshadowing achievement. Says one veteran Oscar strategist: ”I’ve been doing this for a long time and I think it’s the worst I’ve ever seen. This is the year it went too far.” And nowhere is that more true than in the most talked-about — and most loaded — category: the race for Best Actor.

What innocuously began as a five-man contest when the nominations were announced on Feb. 12 has over the past few weeks narrowed into a media-fueled title fight between ”Thunder From Down Under” Russell Crowe and ”Former Hurricane” Denzel Washington. The one thing that goes undisputed inside this ring is that both heavyweights gave Oscar-caliber performances — Crowe as schizophrenic genius John Forbes Nash Jr. in A Beautiful Mind, and Washington as brilliantly badass cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day. But in this particular bout, the blows are starting to land with bruising results.

More than in any other year since 1996’s ”Hollywood Blackout,” when Jesse Jackson protested the Oscars, race has been raised as an issue. One Oscar strategist even called EW to say what a shame it was that the race card was being played this year. (Of course, by bringing it up, he was playing a race card of his own.)

With three African-American acting nominees (in addition to Washington, there’s Best Actor contender Will Smith of Ali and Best Actress nominee Halle Berry of Monster’s Ball), some have opined that nominations aren’t enough: It’s time for an African American to win. And while superficial progress has been made since 1996 — this year Whoopi Goldberg is again hosting the ceremony and Sidney Poitier is receiving an honorary Oscar — it’s still been 38 years since Poitier became the first, and only, African American to win Best Actor.

The biggest benefactor of this campaign has been Washington, who has smartly allowed his blistering performance to speak for itself. Spike Lee has reportedly said that Washington may be the victim of a double standard — that the actor’s 1999 boxing biopic The Hurricane might have endured harsher scrutiny of its deviations from fact than A Beautiful Mind has. And NAACP president Kweisi Mfume also went public recently, saying ”Almost 90 years after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and 70 years after the advent of sound movies, we’re still at the same point, asking the same questions. Why are so many roles and so many individuals overlooked by the Academy?”