By Lyle Henretty Daily Arts Editor

Paul Wong
Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Do British men often take home Oscars? Do they, Gandalf?

The Best Actor in a Supporting Role has been the most consistently astute category in the 74 year Oscar history. Except when the occasional mind-numbing work of camp receives the award (Jack Palance took home the little bald guy in 1991 for “City Slickers”) more top-end performances have been rewarded in this category than its more prestigious “leading” counterpart (Roberto Benigni, for the love of God?). This award has helped character actors achieve immortality (Joe Pesci for 1990’s “Goodfellas”) and allowed superstars to sink their teeth into meatier roles (Sean Connery took home the award in 1987 for “The Untouchables”).

This year’s race pits five very good actors against one another, though, as usual, the showier roles will probably take home the gold. This almost certainly rules out Ethan Hawke and his role as a stunned rookie cop in “Training Day.” Hawke’s Jake Hoyt does little but react to Denzel Washington’s ferocious Detective Alonzo Harris, as the older man (nominated this year for Best Actor) volleys flawlessly between street-wise cop and homicidal monster. The fact that Hawke actually spent more time on-screen than Washington yet didn’t receive a nomination for Best Actor, is telling of how close attention the academy was paying to him. While Hawke does a fine job, the flimsy role and even flimsier reviews the film received (as a whole, though the acting was almost universally praised) makes him the first name to cross off in your office Oscar poll. Followed, shortly thereafter, by Jon Voight.

Voight is as good as he’s been in years as infamous sports announcer Howard Cosell in Michael Mann’s “Ali,” though the biopic sunk like a ship at the box office. Like Hawke, Voight is likely to be overshadowed by his leading actor, as many view Will Smith’s turn as “The Greatest” to be his finest performance to date. It’s also not in Voight’s favor that he seems to randomly choose roles out of a hat, and his bad choices seem more glaring than his good. His masterful early work in “Midnight Cowboy” and “Deliverance” seems to have an equal (yet opposite) counterpart in “Anaconda” and “Varsity Blues.” Voight needs to screw his acting head on straight before receives any more awards.

Jim Broadbent, on the other hand, has made nothing but good choices this year, appearing in both Best Picture nominee “Moulin Rouge,” as well as “Iris”, for which he was nominated. The main problem is that he is more well-known for his “Rouge” turn, and his chameleon change between the two films is just too astonishing. Broadbent’s breathtaking, loopy turn as father-figure/pimp to Nicole Kidman in Rouge offsets the subtlety of his work in “Iris.” His quieter role as the lifelong companion to writer Iris Murdoch will likely be stomped by a pair of knights who utilized their Shakespearean roots to create the most epic of figures.

Thus, the race comes down to Sirs Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley for their two most larger-than-life performances to date. Literally, for McKellen, who plays J.R.R. Tolkien’s sage wizard Gandalf a full four feet taller than his Hobbit counterparts in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” While the fantasy hero is certainly not the artistic achievement of McKellen’s career, his graceful command of the role is a factor in elevating the film from a mere nerdy special-effects extravaganza to an all-out epic masterpiece. Gandalf is as regal and poised as an older Henry V, with some of the same vices. As an added bonus, McKellen was robbed of a Best Actor Statue for 1998’s “Gods and Monsters” by a little scary Italian man who shall remain nameless.

The only Oscar nomination for Jonathan Glazer’s masterful black comedy/character study was for Kingsley’s pit bull of a low-level gangster, Don Logan. Kingsley plays Logan like an outgrowth from Richard III’s hump. He chomps through other characters with biting anger by spitting their words and actions back at them with the vigor of an angry child. He wants his way, and his temper tantrums may include putting a cigarette out in your eye. The fact that the academy singled out Kingsley from this criminally overlooked gem should work in his favor, as should the constant buzz that has surrounded his performance since the film’s release last June. Many Oscar voters respond positively to an about-face in characterization, and Logan is a far cry from Kingsley’s Oscar-winning “Gandhi.” Logan is as ruthless and cutting as Gandhi was calm and good. This is Kingsley’s race to win.

Unless the un-nominated Steve Buscemi (who gave the performance of his career in “Ghost World”) takes home a surprise (and quite impossible) victory, look for Kingsley to take home the gold in a fairly just category. Either that, or Ethan Hawke will win in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ attempt to get millions of Americans to switch off their television sets before things really get ugly.

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