Jamie Foxx as a blind soul singer. Liam Neeson as a maverick sex researcher. Johnny Depp as the sensitive turn-of-the-century author of Peter Pan. The only thing that could make this year's Best Actor Oscar category more intriguing would be, say, a quadriplegic Spanish fisherman fighting for the right to die. Oh wait, got that one too.
This year, the juiciest Oscar race by far is the leading-actor category. Some 20 names are already being tossed around (nominations will be announced Jan. 25) from A-listers Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Sean Penn (The Assassination of Richard Nixon) to indie actors Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) to foreign heartthrobs Javier Bardem as that Spanish fisherman (The Sea Inside) and Gael Garcìa Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries). With so many men in so many Oscar-friendly (read: tortured character) roles, this year's Best Actor race is getting mighty interesting. Indeed, the campaigning has already begun in many cases well before the films have even been released.
Take Leonardo DiCaprio. Last month, he accepted an award at the Hollywood Film Festival for his performance as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator a film that doesn't hit theaters until Dec. 17 and wasn't shown at the festival. ''Leo showed up to be honored for a role that almost no one has seen,'' chuckles a publicist who's pushing one of Leo's competitors. ''I love watching major movie stars do the dance.'' Neeson isn't waiting for Kinsey to premiere, either; he did ''the dance'' on Primetime Live Oct. 14 nearly a month before his movie opens chatting about sex to promote his role as Alfred Kinsey, the 1940s sex researcher. ''I don't see Liam as someone who flaunts himself unnecessarily,'' notes one studio head. ''But it's so competitive that you have to create a profile for your film early.''
Even before it opened last month, Jamie Foxx was on TV to build buzz for his performance as Ray Charles in the biopic Ray. He appeared on Oprah and David Letterman, and also hosted a CBS special on the late singer (highlighted by clips from the movie). ''It's good timing for them, with Ray passing away [in June],'' another studio head coolly observes. And the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea doesn't unspool until December, but that hasn't kept Kevin Spacey from stumping early. A soundtrack with Spacey singing Darin's standards hits stores in November, and he will be doing a multicity concert tour.
For those few actors whose movies have already opened like Carrey's Eternal Sunshine, Jeff Bridges' The Door in the Floor, Kevin Kline's De-Lovely, and Jim Caviezel's The Passion of the Christ the Oscar campaign can be summed up by three little letters: DVD. ''It's the Seabiscuit strategy,'' explains one Hollywood publicist. ''You put a movie out on DVD and, hopefully, you get a nomination.''
Of course, not everyone is jumping into the campaign fray so aggressively. ''We're going to do something really unusual,'' says Toby Emmerich, president of production at New Line, which has The Sea Inside. ''We're going to buy advertising in newspapers and on television, release the film in theaters, send screeners to the Academy members, and hope they hear good things and watch it. But don't tell the competition this is our secret plan.''