Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

Our way early look at Best Actor contenders

It could be veterans’ day at the Oscars next year. Jack Nicholson’s turn in ”About Schmidt” (pictured) could lead to a 12th acting nomination, a feat equaled only by Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep, and the rest of this category could easily be filled by previous winners: Tom Hanks as a conflicted Mob enforcer in ”Road to Perdition”; Nicolas Cage, who plays twin screenwriters in ”Adaptation”; ”The Quiet American”’s foreign correspondent Michael Caine; Daniel Day-Lewis as ”Gangs of New York”’s murderous Bill the Butcher; ”The Emperor’s Club”’s prep-school teacher Kevin Kline; Al Pacino as ”Insomnia”’s sleep-deprived cop; and Robin Williams as the creepy counterman of ”One Hour Photo.”

That’s not to say a mere past nominee or two couldn’t also make the cut: Two-time nominees Edward Norton (as a drug dealer in ”25th Hour”) and Ralph Fiennes (playing the emotionally disturbed title character in ”Spider”) will try for a hat trick. Greg Kinnear shoots for nod No. 2 as Bob Crane in ”Auto Focus”; ditto Leonardo DiCaprio, recognized for 1993’s ”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” with ”Gangs of New York” or (more likely, per early buzz) ”Catch Me if You Can.”

The rest of the competitors might all receive their first nominations. Richard Gere shows off his musical-theater skills in ”Chicago.” From earlier in the year, Dennis Quaid and Hugh Grant earned some of the best reviews of their careers for ”The Rookie” and ”About a Boy,” respectively. Three young up-and-comers — ”Antwone Fisher”’s Derek Luke, ”Igby Goes Down”’s Kieran Culkin, and ”The Pianist”’s Adrien Brody — all fill tough title roles, while Campbell Scott (who comes with Oscar pedigree courtesy of his late father, George C.) is winning raves as misogynist ”Roger Dodger.” Anthony LaPaglia plays a fire chief post-9/11 in ”The Guys,” while Sam Rockwell embodies ”Gong Show” host Chuck Barris in ”Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” directed by George Clooney, himself a possibility for ”Solaris.” Finally, Adam Sandler and Eminem could earn nods for their turns in ”Punch-Drunk Love” and ”8 Mile.” Maybe.