Oscar Watch

Best Actor

Nicolas Cage, Adaptation | CAGE
CAGE

Who's up for the Best Actor Oscar

Let's get two sure things out of the way immediately. It will surprise absolutely nobody to hear that JACK NICHOLSON, three-time winner and grand not-so-old man of the Academy, is -- unless he confesses to having caused the collapse of Enron -- going to become the first man ever to score a 12th nomination, thanks to his performance as a circumspect Midwestern retiree in ''About Schmidt.'' And we can say with almost as much conviction that his competition will include past winner DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, whose extravagant performance as Bill the Butcher in ''Gangs of New York'' has already taken top honors from critics' groups in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles (where he tied with Nicholson).

Who fills out the category? Two-time Best Supporting Actor winner MICHAEL CAINE gives his best lead performance in decades as the expatriate journalist of ''The Quiet American.'' (We'd like his chances even better if anyone could see this great-looking film in theaters; time will tell if Miramax's decision to pull it after an Oscar-qualifying run was a shrewd maneuver or just the latest buzzkill in its history of inattention to the movie.) And ''Adaptation'''s NICOLAS CAGE, another past winner, also seems likely to overcome an Academy handicap (starring in a comedy) by pulling off two deft performances in the same film.

The fifth slot could go to another veteran -- ROBIN WILLIAMS and TOM HANKS are both Academy perennials, but ''One Hour Photo'' and (despite DreamWorks' aggressive trade-ad campaign) ''Road to Perdition'' both seem to have faded from voters' memories. (The same holds true for HUGH GRANT, a deserving contender for ''About a Boy.'') A ''Chicago'' sweep could put RICHARD GERE in the first Oscar race of his 28-year film career, although we think he would have been wiser to campaign for Best Supporting Actor. LEONARDO DICAPRIO is charming the socks off moviegoers in ''Catch Me if You Can,'' but his less impressive ''Gangs of New York'' work may hurt him. Instead, our hunch is that a relative newcomer will complete the roster. That could mean KIERAN CULKIN if enough Oscar voters watch their ''Igby Goes Down'' DVDs, CAMPBELL SCOTT (though Artisan failed to capitalize on early heat for ''Roger Dodger''), or ''Antwone Fisher'''s DEREK LUKE if the movie picks up steam. SAM ROCKWELL has won raves as Chuck Barris in ''Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,'' but scoring a nod for playing a marginal pop-culture figure can be tough (Jim Carrey couldn't do it as Andy Kaufman). That leaves our dark horse: ADRIEN BRODY, who carries every scene of Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama ''The Pianist'' and just won Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics. If he gets in the race, even Jack should watch his back.

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