Adrien Brody proved in last year’s Oscars that, every once
in a while, the Academy is still capable of pulling a rabbit out of
its Kodak Theatre-sized hat. Brody’s smooch with Halle Berry
may have made the greatest impression on shocked global audiences,
but Brody (“The Pianist”) was also given almost no
chance of winning the award against frontrunners Jack Nicholson
(“About Schmidt”) and Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of
New York”).

Julie Pannuto
(Courtesy of Sony)
Julie Pannuto
(Courtesy of Disney)
Julie Pannuto
(Courtesy of Miramax)

This year, Sean Penn and Bill Murray find themselves the leading
contenders for the golden boy, but don’t expect Johnny Depp,
Ben Kingsley or Jude Law to pull a “Brody” this time
around. By the end of the night, either Penn or Murray will be 8.5
pounds heavier.

The list of the five nominees for Best Actor is a curious, bold
lot this time around. Usually ignorant of non dramatic performances
and comedic actors in general (just ask Jim Carrey), the Academy
broke precedent by recognizing two rather comedic roles —
Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black
Pearl” and Murray in “Lost in Translation.”

As Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp proved that good acting is
possible in a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Going against the
wishes of his director, producer and just about every one else on
the film set, Depp played Sparrow as a heroic version of Keith
Richards, always drunk and always entertaining. Although set up as
a supporting character (much like Denzel Washington was when he won
for “Training Day”), Depp steals every scene and,
ultimately, the spotlight as well from pseudo-protagonist Orlando
Bloom. It is the type of brilliant performance usually overlooked
by Academy voters, so the nomination alone should be considered a
victory for first-time nominee Depp.

The comedy-challenged Academy also found time to bestow a
first-time nom on legendary comedic actor Bill Murray. To begin
with, it can still be considered a travesty that Murray did not
receive a nomination, let alone win, in 1999 for his darkly comic
turn in “Rushmore.” However, with critical darling
“Lost in Translation,” Murray finds himself playing a
real human being for what may be the first time in his career, and
the Academy just may be ready to fully honor him for it. Roles in
“Ed Wood” and “Cradle Will Rock” proved
Murray’s dramatic worth, yet that side of his talent reaches
its pinnacle in the little moments of “Translation,”
like the way he slowly closes Charlotte’s (Scarlett
Johansson) door after leaving her to sleep or how his face crumbles
during a photo-op as he watches Charlotte enter an elevator,
possibly leaving him forever.

While the Oscars ultimately overlooked “Cold
Mountain” in many of the categories Miramax expected it to
garner nominations in, Jude Law somehow overcame the collapse to
collect his second Academy Award nomination. Anthony Minghella
directed Law to his first nomination in the much more complex role
he played in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and once again
Minghella has helped Law’s leap to stardom. As Inman, Law
mainly plays it straight among a series of eccentric supporters,
using his innate beauty as a way of drawing in the audience but
backing it up with superb emotional fragility. Law has no shot this
year, but Minghella will certainly help him reach the Kodak again
in the future.

Is anyone else sick of seeing Ben Kingsley nominated? Well,
I’m certainly not. “House of Sand and Fog” may
have suffered from excessive visual imagery, but the performances
were top notch and led by the chameleon-like abilities of Kingsley.
“Sexy Beast” had Kingsley show he could be the meanest
of motherfuckers, the anti-Gandhi if you will. “Sand and
Fog” integrates the two roles. Kingsley’s ex-Iranian
Colonel is deadly serious and willing to do anything for his
family, but in the end, compassion overwhelms him and Kingsley
overwhelms viewers with the humanity of tragedy. It’s a role
deserving of another Oscar, but Ben need not make room on his
mantle.

And then there was Sean Penn, a man now with his fourth
nomination but still no Oscar win. 2003 was a paramount year for
Penn as he wowed audiences first with “Mystic River”
and then in “21 Grams.” “Mystic” earns Penn
the nomination even while his role in “Grams” better
exemplified the depths of his talent. With the mysterious death of
his daughter in “Mystic” Penn embodies pent-up rage,
shakily walking the Boston streets waiting to erupt on something or
someone. His body tattoos tell you he can be trouble; that look on
his face as he eyes a suspect, friend or both proves it.

Both Murray and Penn picked up awards at January’s Golden
Globes for Comedy/Musical and Drama respectively, proving
themselves as frontrunners and setting up an Oscar night showdown.
With a series of critic association’s prizes and a win at the
British BAFTA Awards, Murray has suddenly stole the favorite status
from Penn. Call it the pessimist in me, but I expect the
traditionally traditional Academy to honor the notorious Hollywood
“bad boy” in his Eastwood-directed crime drama over the
comedic genius in his Coppola-directed mood piece.

A shame? Maybe. But it’s an honor just to be
nominated.

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