By EW Staff
Updated February 19, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Sean Penn, Laura Linney, ...
Credit: Penn: Merie W. Wallace;

Who’ll win Best Actor in 2004?

Throughout awards season, best-actor honors have been split almost evenly between ”Mystic River”’s Sean Penn and ”Lost in Translation”’s Bill Murray; the prelims culminated in Golden Globes for both, but we expect Penn to prevail here. He’s a four-time nominee who has achieved iconic status without ever winning (no, not even for ”Dead Man Walking”); he gave two standout performances last year (see also ”21 Grams”); and his work as ”River”’s bereaved and enraged father was both moving and menacing, a combo few actors can master. In Murray’s favor, he’s an underrated star in an underappreciated genre (comedy); and given his work in ”Groundhog Day” and ”Rushmore,” this should be his third nomination, not his first. But Penn’s emotionalism probably beats Murray’s minimalism, and the presence of Johnny Depp in ”Pirates of the Caribbean” skims off some of Murray’s comedy votes. As for ”House of Sand and Fog”’s Ben Kingsley and ”Cold Mountain”’s Jude Law, their emotionally constricted roles aren’t the best ticket to the podium.