A ''Crash'' course on this year's Academy Award nominees -- We look at the Oscar contendars for the biggest races

Usually we don’t believe actors who claim to have slept through the announcement of the Oscar nominations. Heck, we’d set our alarms on full volume if we thought we had a shot at snagging one of those ”World’s Best Grandson” mugs. But when Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams — stars of Brokeback Mountain and parents of 3-month-old daughter Matilda — say they were snoozing in Los Angeles at 5:38 a.m. PST on Jan. 31, we’re going to take their word for it. ”I got up with Matilda at midnight, then three in the morning, then five in the morning, so I was actually really annoyed that my phone was going off,” says Williams, who scored a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Her Best Actor-nominated fiancé, meanwhile, swears the impending news hadn’t even been a topic of discussion lately: ”We had the cutest distraction in the world lying in between us in bed.”

Well, it’s now impossible for them, or anyone else, to ignore Brokeback‘s awards-season dominance: After sweeping the critics’ awards and taking home the top prizes at the Golden Globes, Producers Guild, and Directors Guild, the genre-defying romance earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, as well as acting nods for Ledger, Williams, and Best Supporting Actor contender Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s looking like come March 5, the Academy won’t be able to quit it. ”We live in a time when movies are sort of forced on us,” says Gyllenhaal. ”When you have good stories and people find them and they root for them and champion them, they’re just as much a part of the success of it as the movie itself.”

And when four of the five Best Picture nominees — Brokeback, Crash, Capote, and Good Night, and Good Luck — are small-budgeted movies produced outside the major-studio system, they need champions desperately. The combined box office gross of the entire field is a measly $187 million, the lowest in recent memory. Though the films’ political subject matter should provide much fodder for this year’s Oscar host, Jon Stewart, they probably won’t pull the telecast out of its recent ratings slump. ”Well, then the ratings suck. Sorry, guys,” says George Clooney, who scored a hat trick of nods for Good Night (Best Director and Original Screenplay) and Syriana (Best Supporting Actor). ”If we start doing any sort of awards based on what the ratings are going to be, then they’ve lost all credibility.”

While Brokeback is the prohibitive favorite, Crash and Good Night, and Good Luck are clear runners-up, each scoring six nods. Better yet, Clooney shared his screenplay nomination with producer and longtime buddy Grant Heslov. ”It’s that much more sweet,” says Heslov, ”because between the two of us we’ve been involved in some of the worst projects in the history of Hollywood. There was a time where I was acting in a film called Dangerous Curves, which was basically a porno film with no sex, and at the same time George was filming Return of the Killer Tomatoes.”