We know the deal. You didn’t cash in on an Internet IPO, so you’re hoping to get rich the old-fashioned way: by winning the office Oscar pool. This guide should help, but before you go gangbusters and buy that JumboTron for the maid’s room, be warned that this year’s Academy Awards race (winners will be announced on the March 26 ABC telecast) is the tightest in years, with hardly a shoo-in in the bunch. The race is also one of the most refreshing. Not just because of the 11-year-old nominee who sees dead people or a certain major movie star nominated for his mind-blowing departure in Magnolia, but because the nominees across the board seem to represent a quantum shift in moviemaking. Who knew that suburban despair (that old warhorse) could be made so fresh in American Beauty? Or that a ghost story like The Sixth Sense could still surprise us? Or that anything could seem as beautifully bizarre as The Matrix? The only real losers this year are the people who didn’t get to see the nominated films. As for you, when you retire with your Oscar pool winnings, you can see all the movies you want.
For Him The Kiwi hottie who fattened up to play The Insider’s Jeffrey Wigand provides the emotional soul of a dark film. There’s also sentiment that he deserved a nod in ‘97 for L.A. Confidential. Against Him Crowe is such a chameleon that voters may not realize what a stretch his role is. 3-1 Odds
For Him The 79-year-old former stuntman’s matter-of-fact work as Midwesterner Alvin Straight in David Lynch’s The Straight Story is a genuine career capper. Against Him Oscar history says it’s nearly impossible to win Best Actor on your movie’s sole nomination (see Denzel Washington). 12-1 Odds
For Him His quirky portrayal of insanely jealous guitarist Emmet Ray in Oscar fave Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown is experimental acting at its finest. Against Him The nomination was a surprise to start with, and even Allen fanatics have to admit that Sweet is not the Woodman’s best work. 15-1 Odds
For Him Four years after snagging Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects, the ace actor brings his unique charm and smarm to American Beauty’s leading (dead) man; could anyone else have played the part? Against Him Voters may choose to spread the wealth and reward an Oscar virgin. 5-2 Odds
For Him As The Hurricane’s unjustly imprisoned Rubin Carter, he’s the fiery center of an inspiring (if not entirely accurate) story. Against Him The ”poetic license” snafu hurts; Oscar history says it’s nearly impossible to win Best Actor on your movie’s sole nomination (see Richard Farnsworth). 4-1 Odds
With Washington’s buzz fading fast, Spacey looks to repeat — but watch out for Crowe.