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Oscar pool a bit shallow

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A scene from New Line Cinema's "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," shows the Fellowship preparing for battle. -AP

2002 isn't a stellar year for Tinseltown, as the field of potential Oscar nominees illustrates. As studio marketing arms begin the annual rite of hyping their most promising prospects, writer David Germain gives a rundown of the films and actors that rose above the mounds of mediocrity that characterized this year's Hollywood output.

This year's crop of Academy Awards contenders may not be the healthiest, but it sure is an interesting one. With a generally so-so lineup, 2002 has produced a handful of traditional-looking candidates and a host of darker, edgier prospects that might slip into the race for lack of more conventional Oscar fare.

Hollywood's awards season, which culminates with the Oscars on March 23, offers a mix of the old guard who've won before (Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep); established performers who've never won (Salma Hayek in "Frida," Chris Cooper in "Adaptation"); past winners back in the hunt after long absences (Paul Newman, Nicolas Cage); and at least one fresh face (Derek Luke in the title role of "Antwone Fisher").

Along with sober, smells-like-Oscar candidates such as the crime epics "Gangs of New York" and "Road to Perdition" or the impassioned literary adaptation "The Hours," the field includes the zestful musical "Chicago," the fantasy sequel "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," the old-school melodrama "Far From Heaven" and the absurdist's delight "Adaptation."

Oscar nominations come out on February 11. Here's a rundown of possible contenders in major categories:

Best picture

"The Hours," Stephen Daldry's artful adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel interweaving stories about Virginia Woolf, a despondent 1950s housewife and a troubled modern woman, is a likely competitor, along with two Irish-American mob tales, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" and Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition."

Peter jackson's "The Two Towers" is more action, less depth than last year's "Lord of the Rings" installment, but it might bring another nomination for the franchise.

Though a bit lightweight, Rob Marshall's "Chicago" entertains well enough that it could follow last year's "Moulin Rouge" as a musical nominee.

Steven spielberg's cat-and-mouse adventure "Catch Me If You Can" also may lack the heft, but it's an engaging romp and has better Oscar prospects than his other flick, "Minority Report."

The year's surprise blockbuster "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" may prove too much of a featherweight for awards voters.

Other possibilities: "Antwone Fisher," Denzel Washington's directing debut, based on the real-life story of an angry orphan who finds solace in the care of a Navy psychiatrist; "Frida," Julie Taymor's vibrant film biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," a sumptuously filmed work that updates the style of 1950s melodrama maestro Douglas Sirk; "About Schmidt," a darkly comic drama of late-life self-examination from director Alexander Payne; "Adaptation," the latest bizarre concoction from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze; "The Quiet American," Phillip Noyce's rendering of the Graham Greene novel; Spike Lee's "The 25th Hour," tracing the last day of freedom of a convict; and Roman Polanski's comeback film, "The Pianist," a Holocaust story that won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival.

Best actor

Past winner Daniel Day-Lewis is the man to beat, presenting one of cinema's most black-hearted yet magnetizing villains in "Gangs of New York."

In addition to his hero role in "Gangs," Leonardo DiCaprio has a shot at a nomination for "Catch Me If You Can."

Three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson is a likely nominee for "About Schmidt." Two-time winners Tom Hanks for "Road to Perdition" and Michael Caine for "The Quiet American" also are leading candidates.

Dual roles in "Adaptation" could land a nomination for Nicolas Cage, who gives his best performance since his Oscar-winning turn in 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas."

Other possibilities include newcomer Derek Luke, "Antwone Fisher;" Edward Norton, "The 25th Hour;" Richard Gere, "Chicago;" Robin Williams, "One Hour Photo;" Al Pacino, "Insomnia;" and Pierce Brosnan, "Evelyn."

Best actress

Nicole kidman, who plays Virginia Woolf, and two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who plays a contemporary variation of the Woolf character Mrs. Dalloway, both have strong prospects for "The Hours."

Their co-star, Julianne Moore, is being pushed by "Hours" distributor Paramount in the supporting category to avoid clashing with her powerful performance in "Far From Heaven," which should earn her a best-actress nomination.

Salma hayek emerges as a contender in the title role of "Frida." With a spirited performance in "Chicago," Renee Zellweger might follow Kidman, star of "Moulin Rouge," as the second straight actress in a musical to earn a nomination.

Best supporting Actor

If the award were given for multiple roles, John C. Reilly might be a lock, with impressive parts in "Gangs of New York," "The Hours" and "Chicago." Individually, the roles may be too small to gain attention from academy voters.

Paul newman is a safe bet for his gracious presence in "Road to Perdition." He could wind up competing against "Perdition" co-star Tom Hanks, who delivers an engaging supporting role in "Catch Me If You Can."

Strong candidates include scene-stealers Chris Cooper in "Adaptation" and Ed Harris in "The Hours."

Other possibilities: Alfred Molina, "Frida;" Denzel Washington, "Antwone Fisher;" Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

Best supporting Actress

"The Hours" co-stars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore could be competing against each other, Streep for "Adaptation," Moore for "The Hours" itself (Streep is a best-actress contender for "The Hours," while Moore is a best-actress prospect for "Far From Heaven").

Cameron diaz is a contender for "Gangs of New York." Past Oscar winner Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt" and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" deliver performances that should draw them awards attention.

Other possibilities: Patricia Clarkson, "Far From Heaven;" Miranda Richardson, "Spider;" Michelle Pfeiffer, "White Oleander;" Susan Sarandon, "Moonlight Mile;" Samantha Morton, "Minority Report;" and Emily Watson, "Punch-Drunk Love."

Best director

Remarkably, Martin Scorsese has not won an Oscar. This could be his year for "Gangs of New York," which is by no means his best film but does make for an impressive blend of the true grit of his early work and the epic scope that academy voters love.

Sam mendes - who won the best-director prize for his first film, "American Beauty" - is in the running for his second, "Road to Perdition." Peter Jackson may be in line for a nomination again for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," part two of his trilogy.

Other prospects: Stephen Daldry, "The Hours;" Todd Haynes, "Far From Heaven;" Steven Spielberg, "Catch Me If You Can;" Julie Taymor, "Frida;" Spike Jonze, "Adaptation;" Roman Polanski, "The Pianist;" and Rob Marshall, "Chicago."

(The Associated Press)


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