Finding Neverland: Clive Coote
January 07, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Best Actor 2005: Oscar’s likely contenders

This year’s competitive Best Actor category has only four open slots, and the guys who manage to claim them, by virtue of luck, talent, and strong performances, can probably expect little more on Academy Awards night than the opportunity to sit somewhere near Jamie Foxx. There’s no point in even pretending to debate Foxx’s chances of being nominated for his electrifying performance as Ray Charles in Ray; on top of everything else, consider the range of emotions he expressed without ever showing us an actor’s favorite communicative tool, his eyes. He’s in.

After that, the fight begins, and the results could make Academy history by creating a Best Actor race in which, for the first time ever, all five nominees are in contention for playing real people. Here’s how it could happen: Start with Johnny Depp, whose restrained, gentle work as playwright/author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland is clearly worthy of a second consecutive Best Actor nomination (he was up for Pirates of the Caribbean last year). Throw in Leonardo DiCaprio, looking for his second nomination 11 years after he was up for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Although critics have been divided on the subject of how convincingly he storms through 20 years of Howard Hughes’ life, momentum for the movie could carry him into the final five. Add Kinsey‘s Liam Neeson, whose understated work as the anguished sexual research pioneer Alfred Kinsey may return him to the Best Actor contest for the first time since Schindler’s List 11 years ago. And if the quintet is completed by either Don Cheadle, who’s overdue for some Academy recognition and has gotten great reviews for playing Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of Hotel Rwanda, or Javier Bardem, who transforms himself into quadriplegic right-to-die advocate Ramón Sampedro in The Sea Inside, the race will proceed without a fictional character in the bunch.

Not so fast, though. With Bardem’s movie choking at the box office, Cheadle’s off to a late start, and Neeson’s running out of gas, there could be room for either Paul Giamatti, who, after being overlooked for last year’s American Splendor, has a real shot at getting noticed as the sad-sack heart and soul of critics’ darling Sideways. And since Oscar loves to nominate veterans, don’t count out a tip of the hat to 74-year-old Clint Eastwood for his this-is-why-they-invented-the-word-grizzled work as Million Dollar Baby‘s trainer. As much as we’d love to see Jim Carrey up for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, maybe he’s just not the Academy’s type. We’re also ruling out The Assassination of Richard Nixon‘s Sean Penn (won last year, doesn’t need it, borderline movie), The Woodsman‘s Kevin Bacon (strong work, but hurt by too much competition), and Beyond the Sea‘s Kevin Spacey (it’s Ray Charles’ year, not Bobby Darin’s). Our final guess: Bardem and Neeson are disappointed as Cheadle and Giamatti sneak in to join Depp, Foxx, and DiCaprio.

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