Page last updated at 08:57 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Oscar hopefuls vie for contention

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

With three months to go before the 2009 Academy Awards, Hollywood insiders have begun identifying this year's most likely contenders.

Clint Eastwood at the 2005 Oscars
Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby success took many in Hollywood by surprise
Intriguingly, though, some of this year's leading candidates are still under wraps.

It is not uncommon for awards hopefuls to make their debuts late in the year, effectively gazumping others that open before them.

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby proved the sense of this strategy, appearing from nowhere in late 2004 to land the best picture Oscar in 2005.

Making predictions this year is a riskier business than usual, however, due to the sheer quantity of high-profile pictures yet to screen.

This will inevitably place additional pressure on Academy voters, who only have until 12 January to watch all the eligible titles, make their choices and complete their nominations ballots.

Even at this early stage, though, it appears that some films, directors and actors are considered as definite contenders.

BEST ACTRESS

Take Meryl Streep, for example, who many feel is certain to land her 15th Oscar nomination for her imperious turn in Doubt.

Meryl Streep in Doubt and Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
Streep (l) and Hathaway (r) appeared together in The Devil Wears Prada
John Patrick Shanley's film, adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, tells of a nun, played by Streep, who accuses a priest, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, of abusing a child.

Anne Hathaway could also be in the running for her spiky performance as a recovering drug addict in Jonathan Demme's family drama Rachel Getting Married.

Having been overlooked last year for A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie might go one better with her role as an anguished mother in Clint Eastwood's period drama Changeling.

Little-known Melissa Leo, meanwhile, is getting a lot of attention for her role as an unlikely human trafficker in independent film Frozen River.

It is entirely possible, however, this category could feature a sizeable smattering of British talent.

Four-time nominee Kate Winslet is heavily tipped for her role as a discontented 1950s housewife in Revolutionary Road.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Sally Hawkins
Scott Thomas (l) and Hawkins (r) are among the British stars in contention
Directed by her husband Sam Mendes, the domestic drama sees the four-time Oscar nominee reunite with actor Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since Titanic.

Kristin Scott Thomas could also be in with a shot for her moving portrayal of a woman recently released from prison in the French-language drama I've Loved You So Long.

Rising star Sally Hawkins, meanwhile, could well cap off a remarkable year with a nomination for her upbeat turn in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky.

BEST ACTOR

This category is already shaping up to be the battle of the unpopular presidents.

Josh Brolin in W and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
Will Academy members plump for Brolin's Bush or Langella's Nixon?
Will veteran actor Frank Langella be recognised for his towering performance as the disgraced Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon?

Or will voters be more inclined to celebrate Josh Brolin's comic turn as outgoing commander-in-chief George Bush in Oliver Stone's W?

Sean Penn is bound to be in the running for his performance as gay politician Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's Milk.

There is also a lot of support for the little-known Richard Jenkins, a reliable supporting player given a leading role at last in immigration drama The Visitor.

What of Brad Pitt, though? Early word is he is excellent in David Fincher's effects-laden fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as a man who literally lives his life backwards.

Then there is Mickey Rourke, the former 1980s heart-throb who makes a stunning comeback as the over-the-hill title character in sports drama The Wrestler.

Benicio Del Toro in Che and Sean Penn in Milk
Che and Milk see Del Toro (l) and Penn (r) play controversial real-life figures
One should not rule out Clint Eastwood either, who is said to give a commanding performance as a Korean war veteran in Gran Turino - his second film in a typically busy year.

Leonardo DiCaprio might merit a nomination for Revolutionary Road, while Will Smith's latest drama Seven Pounds may see him land a third best actor nod.

Given the unwieldy nature of Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic Che, however, Benicio Del Toro is probably an outsider at best for his portrayal of iconic revolutionary Che Guevara.

BEST PICTURE & BEST DIRECTOR

Frost/Nixon and Doubt, both adapted from award-winning plays, look strong contenders for a best picture nomination.

Ayush Mahesh Khedeker in Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle (r)
Slumdog Millionaire could land director Boyle (r) his first Oscar nomination
That is good news for John Patrick Shanley and Ron Howard, who could well be up for the best director prize for their respective endeavours behind the camera.

British director Danny Boyle could achieve the same double feat for his Indian drama Slumdog Millionaire - an invigorating crowd-pleaser that wowed audiences at the Toronto and London Film Festivals.

The Visitor, The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married would also have their supporters were they to land best picture nods.

Nominated for Letters from Iwo Jima last year, Clint Eastwood could receive another best director citation.

Will it be for guiding Angelina Jolie in Changeling, however, or for directing himself in Gran Turino?

Woody Allen's return to form with the spirited romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona could see him land his seventh nomination in the best director category.

Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Australia, directed by Baz Luhrmann
Australia is the first film from Baz Luhrmann (r) since Moulin Rouge!
Given the remarkable success of Batman sequel The Dark Knight, meanwhile, there might be a surprise inclusion for British film-maker Christopher Nolan.

With Benjamin Button still under wraps and Baz Luhrmann's Australia only just unveiled, though, the best picture category is as open as it has ever been.

Perhaps that explains why Stephen Daldry was put under such pressure to complete The Reader, his post-war drama starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, in time for it to be eligible for Oscar contention.

All will be revealed when the 2009 Academy Award nominations are announced in Los Angeles on 22 January ahead of the ceremony itself on 22 February.

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