By Jeff Dickerson Daily Arts Editor

Paul Wong
Courtesy of USA Films
Helen Mirren in “Gosford Park.”

Supporting Actor and Actress categories often provide some of the more surprising winners in the rather mundane and pompous exhibition that is the Academy Awards. Last year’s winner Marcia Gay Harden (“Pollock”) was an Oscar shocker, as most analysts predicted either Frances McDormand or Goldie Hawn wannabe Kate Hudson to win for their work in “Almost Famous.”

All of the candidates this year have been previously nominated for an Academy Award, aside from Jennifer Connelly of “A Beautiful Mind”. The contest this year may seem competitive, but in comparison to other categories, the race for Best Supporting Actress is rather lopsided.

Connelly is without question the leading candidate in this category, having picked up the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Actress in a Supporting Role. Her role as John Nash’s wife Alicia in “A Beautiful Mind” garnered critical acclaim at the film’s release in December, and has grown since. In recent years, Connelly has drifted away from her early wholesome roles (1986’s “Labyrinth,” 1991’s “The Rocketeer”) to establish herself as more than just a pretty face, and a serious actress in movies such as Darren Aronofsky’s controversial 2000 film “Requiem for a Dream” and Alex Proyas’ 1998 sci-fi-noir-thriller “Dark City.” The only thing hindering her chances of winning is her coworker Russell Crowe, as his performance overshadows her equally skilled effort.

“Gosford Park” cast members Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren have publicly decreed their angst toward the Academy Awards, all but killing any chance they may have had at taking home the award. Both actresses have similar screen time in Altman’s latest, and Oscar voters would be splitting votes between the two. Arguably Smith is the more memorable character as the snotty Constance, Countess of Trentham. Her role is primarily for laughter and general mirth, while Mirren as Mrs. Jane Wilson is one of the few non-comedic characters in “Gosford Park.” Smith is nominated for the sixth time; the veteran English actress has won twice, for 1969’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and 1978’s “California Suite.” This is Mirren’s second nomination, having been previously nominated for her role as Queen Charlotte in 1994’s “The Madness of King George.”

In one of the most surprising upsets in Oscar history, Marisa Tomei won Best Supporting Actress for the 1992 Joe Pesci vehicle “My Cousin Vinny,” ousting favorites Vanessa Redgrave and Judy Davis. Having already won a gold trophy, Tomei is unlikely to lose another Best Supporting Actress statue (she misplaced her Oscar last September).

“In the Bedroom” was lauded for the commanding lead performances of Best Actor and Best Actress nominees Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, and the nomination of Tomei for Best Supporting Actress came as a surprise to many. Her role as Nick Stahl’s love interest is not as challenging or memorable as her competiors, making it highly unlikely for her to give another gleeful acceptance speech.

Oscar voters like to give credit to both Hollywood hits and limited release independent films, but “Iris” might be too small to earn any Academy Awards. Kate Winslet was nominated for Best Actress in 1997 for “Titanic,” rightfully losing to Helen Hunt from “As Good As It Gets.” The 26-year-old Brit has since avoided the blockbuster mentality, opting to choose more artistic films like the Marquis DeSade drama “Quills” and the UK thriller “Enigma.”

Traditionally, one of the supporting awards is the first handed out at the ceremonies. More than likely, Jennifer Connelly will take the first award of the night for her role as Alicia Nash, and the first of many Academy Awards for the odds-on-favorite “A Beautiful Mind.” While her acting was certainly noteworthy, the overlooking of Maggie Smith for the Robert Altman period piece “Gosford Park,” based on a few snide remarks, would be a poor move by Oscar voters in their continual politiking of the nominees and winners.

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