Josh Young
March 22, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

Schizophrenia isn’t just the subject of A Beautiful Mind, it’s the best way to characterize this year’s Oscar race. Everyone’s got a little voice telling them it’s Denzel’s year or that The Lord of the Rings will rule. To get inside the head games, we asked four of the 5,739 eligible Academy members — a director, an actress, a producer, and a screenwriter — to show us their ballots (due March 19) and explain why they voted as they did. Because the Academy insists on absolute secrecy, we agreed not to divulge the names of our panelists. We can say three are representative of the reported demographics of the Academy (which is north of ages 18 to 49), appear to have no conflicts of interest with the nominated films, and have never once judged a figure-skating competition. One final thought: Last year’s three-member panel had a lousy average (only one of the three picked Gladiator as Best Picture), so you’d have to be as out-there as John Nash to use just these picks to decide your office pool.

THE DIRECTOR An Academy member for more than 25 years, our director leans toward old-fashioned epics when he marks his ballot (think Gladiator). ”I’m looking for something that is either so big that I can’t see it on television, or so sharp, hard, and deep that I can’t see it on television,” he says. ”If it’s a small film, it has to be breathtaking.” And he never ever considers a nominee’s body of work: ”That’s what honorary awards are for.”

— BEST PICTURE The Lord of the Rings. ”By default,” he says. ”It’s the only picture that has the stature of ‘Oscar.’ All the rest are on little subjects about little people.” Technical difficulties got in his way when considering Gosford Park: ”Almost everyone I spoke to could not comprehend many of the lines.” What little he could hear, he found corny. As for A Beautiful Mind, he feels the love story didn’t ring true. ”At the end of a film about a famous economic scientist, you don’t make it into a love story,” he says. ”How much can you distort reality before you go over the boundaries of sanity?”

— BEST DIRECTOR Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings. ”You want to reward a guy for spending five years and coming up with such a glorious dream and putting it on the big screen,” he says. Along with directorial musts like visual style, believable casting, and honest performances, our director selects directors ”by the theme [they] pick and how they handle it.” Which is his quarrel with Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. ”Scott is a fabulous director, but you have to blame him for picking material where nothing stood out in the characters you saw,” he says. ”It was all bang bang with the Americans hitting everybody and the Somalians missing everybody — even though there were 5,000 of them.”

— BEST ACTOR Denzel Washington, Training Day. ”Denzel’s portrayal was so real that it was breathtaking,” he says. ”There is an electricity about the guy when he is on the screen.” That’s what he thought was lacking in Russell Crowe. ”Crowe is a wonderful actor, but you don’t take him to your heart. You say, ‘By God, he did a wonderful job.’ But there are some actors — like Jack Nicholson or Cary Grant — that make you love them no matter what. Russell does beautiful work but he doesn’t have the final essence of magnetism.” Will Smith’s Ali was a no-win situation: ”It’s very dangerous for an actor to try to play a person we know extremely well, because he is always going to lose.” He felt Tom Wilkinson’s performance was too understated, and he didn’t see I Am Sam but knew he wouldn’t vote for Sean Penn because it’s ”one of those movies where somebody plays an idiot.”

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