For all the latter-day talk of war and toning down the Oscars, there was little sign of temperance when it came to campaigning for the little gold statues this year. The nominees were out in full gale force, attending private screenings and parties to razzle-dazzle the Academy voters, adorning every magazine cover in sight, practically taking up residence on David Letterman and Jay Leno's couches. Best Actress nominee Renee Zellweger has officially pronounced herself tired of talking, period, and frankly, we're tired of hearing her talk. Same goes for Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, fellow nominees. Ladies, we love you, but it's only the movies, after all; could you kindly get a grip? Kidman, whose role in "The Hours" took three weeks of filming, has spent three solid months campaigning for Best Actress. Something is wrong with this picture.
On the bright side, there has been none of the dirty dealing and whisper-mongering that sullied last year's Oscar race. That's because Miramax's Harvey Weinstein could hardly play nasty against himself; his studio made most of the films that are up for the big award. In fact, Weinstein got called on the carpet by the Academy for overstepping only once, this time for running a lengthy ad signed by former Academy president Robert Wise, a respected director, endorsing Martin Scorsese for Best Director for "Gangs of New York." Apparently Academy voters don't like to be told how to vote.
But who are they kidding? It's a mad, mad, mad, mad Oscar race. Here are our picks for the winners.
"Chicago" -- Unfortunately for the gamblers among you, there's no contest here. This musical has been the leading contender for months, a favorite going into the awards season in December and the winner nolo contendere since sweeping 13 nominations in February. It's the kind of solid entertainment that the conservative Academy members adore, and Miramax's ubiquitous advertising has solidified the feeling of its inevitability. It's also a fun movie and reminds voters of the musicals they used to love.
"The Pianist" -- If there were a runner-up in this contest, this would be it. This somber but uplifting Holocaust drama is the sort of noble effort on a topic of substance that the Academy feels good about rewarding. It won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, and at a key juncture it serves as a reminder of the devastation of war.
"The Hours" -- An admirable, moving film liked more by female voters than by many of their their male counterparts. But it will most likely be rewarded in the acting categories -- it doesn't stand a real chance against "Chicago."
"Gangs of New York" -- Ten nominations notwithstanding (we're still getting over our surprise), this epic, violent tableau of 19th-century Manhattan has deeply divided voters. Some admire the magnificent feat of re-creating the jagged thrum of old-time New York life, but many others wonder: Where's the story?
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" -- Way, way down on the list of possible winners, this spectacular second installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy seems to have fallen off the radar into an abyss as deep as the one that swallowed Gandalf. Its fans can only hope the last installment fares better in the coming year.
Jack Nicholson -- The much-beloved and thrice-decorated Nicholson had the edge from the start. The critics lauded his performance as a dull retired insurance executive in the satiric "About Schmidt," and the actor has many, many friends in the Academy. But here's the thing: The critics liked "About Schmidt" more than did Academy members, who didn't fall as hard for writer-director Alexander Payne's deadpan view of middle America. Nicholson might still snag the prize, but this mixed reaction leaves an opening for . . .
Daniel Day-Lewis -- whose performance as Butcher Bill in "Gangs of New York" was by far the most memorable element of the film. Day-Lewis came from several years of semi-seclusion (apparently learning to make shoes in Italy -- we're not kidding) to create a character as terrifying as he was endearing, literally wrapped in the American flag. The Academy loves to reward ostentatious, scenery-chewing performances, and this is one for the ages: oily hair, dragging mustache, makeup, filthy frock coat. One voter noted that what Day-Lewis did isn't acting, per se: "It's being a force of nature." Plus he won a Screen Actors Guild trophy, so he's a top contendah. But let's not rule out . . .
Adrien Brody -- who, in playing Jewish pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, had to lose 30 pounds and relive the misery of the Warsaw Ghetto. Young Brody, 29, gets points for suffering for his art and learning to play the piano respectably -- plus his performance is undeniably moving. Also in his favor, "The Pianist" came out after most of the competing films, so it is more likely to have been fresh in the minds of Academy voters.
Michael Caine -- Despite the actor's overt campaign for the award, he's an unlikely winner. As Caine feared, his performance as a jaded British correspondent in Vietnam is so subtle and organic that it appears effortless, and voters may believe it was. Also, this is "The Quiet American's" only nomination, so historically the odds are not in his favor.
Nicolas Cage -- Again, the Academy skews too conservative to embrace the quirky, through-the-looking-glass ethos of "Adaptation," Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's wildly original interpretation of "The Orchid Thief." Actors loved Cage's double portrayal of writer-brothers Donald and Charlie Kaufman, and it was the actor's first truly remarkable performance in years, since he won the Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas." Overall, lack of support for the film will hurt him.
Nicole Kidman -- She certainly had the most steam early in the Oscar season. The elegant Australian has risen to become the Queen of Hollywood of the moment, dethroning Queen Julia. In the past two years, Kidman has come through her divorce from Tom Cruise with dignity and taken on one daring role after another. Her vanity-free, nose-enhanced portrayal of writer Virginia Woolf in "The Hours" is another strong example, and the press clearly loves her. And there's this: She has campaigned madly. Her main rival, however, has been advancing from the rear . . .
Renee Zellweger -- Talk about adorable! Zellweger's performance as Roxie Hart in "Chicago" nailed the movie's success. Such a skinny thing! And who would ever have believed that she could sing! And dance! Zellweger has charmed the pants off the Academy, since in person she seems every bit as sweet and ingratiating as she appears on screen. She has been delivering one remarkable performance after another since we first met her in "Jerry Maguire" ("Nurse Betty," "Bridget Jones's Diary"), and she seems solidly on track to become a major star. Hollywood may want to give her a boost, and let's not forget how much the town adored the movie. Finally, Zellweger has campaigned her tootsies off, too.
Julianne Moore -- Another dogged campaigner, and with good reason, since she's nominated twice this year. This respected actress is in the running for "Far From Heaven," in which she gives a painfully controlled portrayal of a '50s housewife whose husband turns out to be gay. This film has its avid proponents, but plenty of others were only lukewarm about it. She's more likely to win in the supporting category.
Diane Lane -- This former child actress is much beloved in the Hollywood community and had some early momentum. In a less competitive year, she might have had a real shot at the statuette for her spot-on portrayal of a suburban wife who allows herself to be drawn into a reckless affair in "Unfaithful." She hits every emotional note, especially in a scene where she rides a train home from a tryst with her lover with conflicting emotions of guilt, lust and panic playing across her face. If Nicole and Renee split the vote, Lane could win, but her momentum has waned as the awards season has dragged on. Also, the movie was solid B material. Hollywood is waiting for Lane to find a movie that deserves her.
Salma Hayek -- We'd vote her least likely to win. "Frida," the story of painter Frida Kahlo, was nearly ignored otherwise by the Academy and other award-givers. Hayek got the nomination as a salute for her passionate pursuit of the project as much as for the performance itself. That will have to be reward enough.
Chris Cooper -- The teeth, the teeth! How can you not vote for a guy who removed his front teeth for his art! (What's that -- they were prosthetic?) Never mind, Chris Cooper still stole "Adaptation" in his role as orchid thief John Laroche. And hear this: Stealing scenes from Meryl Streep is no easy feat. Cooper has delivered years of wonderful supporting performances and has never been recognized by the Academy. This would be the year. He wins, or we'll eat our hat, no teeth.
Christopher Walken -- On the other hand, the Academy loves this guy. He's one of them. Walken gives the most subtle, poignant performance in "Catch Me if You Can" as con man Frank Abagnale's father, a more vulnerable version of the rogue he's played many times. The Academy loves Comeback Kid stories, and Walken has successfully reinvented himself in recent years, singing and dancing on MTV and hosting "Saturday Night Live." Don't count him out.
John C. Reilly -- In a year when this talented, under-recognized actor appeared in three nominated movies, is there a reason why the Academy nominated him for his least visible role, the one in "Chicago"? There is! It's because the Academy has fallen in love with "Chicago." Reilly, who is far more affecting in "The Hours" and also appears in "Gangs of New York," is unlikely to win here.
Ed Harris -- The actor has too small a part in "The Hours," in which he plays a painter dying of AIDS, to be a real contender. Some found his performance over the top, and he's done more significant work recently, such as in "Pollock."
Paul Newman -- The Academy loves this old war horse, but his movie, "Road to Perdition," ran out of gas early in the Oscar race. Newman has won before, and this is not his year.
Julianne Moore -- The double nominee is the favorite in a very tough category. If she were to win an Oscar this year, this is the likely bet, for her delicate and sad portrayal of '50s housewife Laura in "The Hours." Only seven actors in Oscar history have been nominated for two awards in different movies the same year: Fay Bainter, Teresa Wright, Jessica Lange, Sigourney Weaver, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson, and only Weaver and Thompson were shut out. Odds are in Moore's favor to win something. If she loses here it will be to . . .
Catherine Zeta-Jones -- And if it's a "Chicago" sweep, Zeta-Jones will take this award. She shocked and awed audiences with her spectacular singing and dancing as murderer-cabaret performer Velma Kelly. Was it really acting? Who cares? Zeta-Jones grabbed the spotlight in a movie where a lot of shining was going on.
Against her: There could be a jealousy issue. Zeta-Jones has an embarrassment of riches -- married to the sexy Michael Douglas, pregnant with their second child, she's gorgeous, she sings, she dances and she's made a boatload of money on those cell-phone commercials. Meow.
Meryl Streep -- We love Meryl, we do, most sincerely, but this is not her year. Her career is filled with inspired, even landmark performances. In "Adaptation" she plays New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, and doggone it if she doesn't make it look too easy. Also, the movie does not have enough fans.
Queen Latifah -- If anyone from "Chicago" wins in this category, it's Zeta-Jones. Latifah wasn't even expecting the nomination, so she should be pleased with that much.
Kathy Bates -- The past winner ("Misery") is magisterial in her fearless nude hot tub scene in "About Schmidt," but the competition this year is too tough.
Rob Marshall -- He gets our vote for most likely. He won the Directors Guild Awards, and it feels as if "Chicago" could sweep this year. While it may not be the most ably directed movie of the year, "Chicago" owes much to Marshall just for getting the musical to the screen. He has the edge, but . . .
Martin Scorsese -- could still win. The director has never taken an Oscar -- how could that be? -- and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein has been working mightily to correct that historic injustice. The problem may be that Harvey Weinstein has been working too mightily to correct that injustice. Getting two-time Best Director Robert Wise to sign a lengthy endorsement stepped over the line for some appalled Academy members, and the move could backfire. Also, "Gangs" was a movie members liked but didn't love.
Roman Polanski -- He would have had a real shot for "The Pianist," a Holocaust film that evokes the director's own traumatic childhood, a true career achievement. We say "would," because the timely (or untimely) release of heretofore secret grand jury proceedings in which a 13-year-old described her 1977 rape by Polanski could scare off the most fervent "Pianist" supporters. That said, the now-grown woman, Samantha Geimer, has asked the state to forgive Polanski (he would face charges if he returned to the United States). The state says No Thanks. Probably the Academy will concur.
Stephen Daldry -- He might have had a shot in a non-"Chicago," non-Scorsese year. "The Hours" is a complex film whose success owes much to Daldry, but he still probably won't win.
Pedro Almodovar -- The critics went mad for his quirky but moving "Talk to Her," but it's a small film and foreign, after all.
Charlie Kaufman seems most likely to win for his mad-genius-level work in adapting "Adaptation." Writers particularly adore this daring descent into the fear and loathing of the creative process, and this is the category in which the movie is most likely to be recognized. In a world gone insane, Bill Condon could win for "Chicago," but -- isn't it a musical? Other nominees, unlikely to win are: David Hare for "The Hours"; Chris and Paul Weitz for "About a Boy"; and Ronald Harwood for "The Pianist."
Tough call, this one. Almodovar could take the award for "Talk to Her." So could the gifted Todd Haynes for "Far From Heaven." Even Nia Vardalos of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is not entirely out of the question, since the Academy loves to reward popular hits. We don't think, however, that "Gangs of New York," penned by at least three scribes and probably more, or the sexy, whimsical "Y Tu Mama Tambien" by Carlos and Alfonso Cuaron, have a real shot at the statue.
porting Actor category for their roles in "Road to Perdition" and "Catch Me if You Can."Long shots in this year's competition are Salma Hayek (with Alfred Molina, above) for "Frida," and Diane Lane (with Richard Gere) for "Unfaithful."Julianne Moore is up for two Oscars: Best Actress for "Far From Heaven," above, and Supporting Actress for "The Hours."Pedro Almodovar is a Best Director nom-
inee for his Spanish-language "Talk to Her."