Oscar Watch

Best Supporting Actor

Chris Cooper, Adaptation | COOPER
COOPER

Who's up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar

When is an eight-time Oscar nominee a first-time nominee? When the person in question is PAUL NEWMAN and the category is Best Supporting Actor. Though he's received eight nods over the last 45 years (and won for 1986's ''The Color of Money''), Newman has never been recognized in this race. (Though come to think of it, the guy hasn't exactly built his career on supporting roles.) But the 77-year-old's quietly menacing turn as ''Road to Perdition'''s head gangster John Rooney should frighten enough voters into writing his name on their ballots.

Another Academy favorite, three-time nominee ED HARRIS (most recently up for 2000's ''Pollock''), stands to earn his third supporting nod (after 1995's ''Apollo 13'' and 1998's ''The Truman Show'') for his two affecting scenes as ''The Hours''' dying poet -- unless voters find the role too small. And after watching that heavy performance, they'll certainly appreciate the comic relief provided by CHRIS COOPER as dentally challenged orchid thief John Laroche in ''Adaptation.'' Though the veteran character actor has never been nominated, the 11 critics' awards he's racked up this year indicate that will soon change.

Other critics' picks could find themselves shut out of this crowded race. ALAN ARKIN picked up a prize from Boston critics for his turn as a disgruntled insurance executive in ''Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,'' but the film doesn't exactly have a high profile. Las Vegas critics winner JOHN C. REILLY delivered four strong performances this year -- in ''Chicago,'' ''The Hours,'' ''Gangs of New York,'' and ''The Good Girl.'' His ''Chicago'' role (thanks to his poignant ''Mr. Cellophane'' song and dance) has the strongest chance at a nod, though vote-splitting is certainly a danger. The same goes for ''The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'' costar VIGGO MORTENSEN, who's up against not only the aforementioned competition but also five other men from his film. WILLEM DAFOE (as porn hound and celeb hanger-on John Carpenter in ''Auto Focus''), RAY LIOTTA (vicious as ''Narc'''s corrupt police lieutenant), and ALFRED MOLINA (''Frida'''s philandering painter Diego Rivera) all have won praise, but a lack of overall support for their films could hurt.

To snag the last two slots, then, it helps to be frank. Guys named Frank, that is. DENNIS QUAID has already won a Globe nomination and a New York Film Critics Circle citation for his heartbreaking work as Frank Whitaker, the married businessman ashamed of his homosexuality in ''Far From Heaven.'' And CHRISTOPHER WALKEN, who won in this category for 1978's ''The Deer Hunter,'' provides much of the sentiment in ''Catch Me if You Can,'' playing Leonardo DiCaprio's forlorn father, Frank Abagnale Sr.

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