Oscar's journey to middle-earth may have taken three years, but the smart money says the golden guy will finally arrive on Feb. 29. To hear most Oscar watchers tell it, the Academy will bestow several statuettes on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, not necessarily for this chapter but as a thank-you for all 558 minutes of the trilogy. Or will they? We've asked three of the 5,803 voting-eligible Academy members to break their vow of silence and give us some inside look at the key races. (Hey, it's not like they're sharing their screeners on the Web.) The verdict was the Rings team's worst nightmare: Two of the three aren't hailing The Return of the King. (Please note: This sampling is about as unscientific as you can get.)
THE PRODUCER A past Oscar winner (as producer of a best picture), our producer believes smaller films fared so well this year because of the preferential voting system used in the nomination process, in which a first choice carries more weight than a second, and so on. ''I vote to nominate films I want recognized and not films that I know will be recognized,'' he says. ''I know I could be throwing my vote away, but by putting something in the top slot I can help a worthy film be nominated.'' On the final ballot, he checks off his most deserving:
BEST PICTURE MYSTIC RIVER Our producer calls Mystic River and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World the two best films of the year. To recognize both, he's splitting his vote. ''It's always peculiar when you vote picture one way and director another, but you do it to honor two movies when there isn't a singular standout.'' Though Rings wasn't a consideration (''All those armies and those hobbits and the technical hoo-ha...I just didn't like it''), he predicts it will prevail. ''The sheer number of people who worked on the movies, assuming they are Academy members, will power it to a win.''
BEST DIRECTOR PETER WEIR, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD First, a caveat: ''Sofia Coppola is really talented and she will one day win the Oscar, but this is not her year,'' he says. ''Lost in Translation is charming and funny. There is an improvisational feel which makes it fresh, but you do slightly have the sense that she is flying by the seat of her pants.'' He feels the exact opposite about Weir's navigational skills. ''He tells the story with tremendous style, and the craftsmanship is stunning.''
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR TIM ROBBINS, MYSTIC RIVER Robbins ''is the heart and soul of that picture,'' the producer says. ''You do not see him acting.''
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS SHOHREH AGHDASHLOO, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG ''I was one of the few people who did not like Renee Zellweger's performance in Cold Mountain,'' he says. ''She is in a different movie [from her costars], with that Beverly Hillbillies accent. But she will win. She works for it, and she didn't get it for Chicago.'' To our producer, Aghdashloo was nothing short of a revelation. ''She was fantastic,'' he says. ''I've never seen her before, and given what happens to supporting-actress winners like Anna Paquin, Mira Sorvino, and Juliette Binoche, I'll probably never see her again.''