And the nominees will be…

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If you're looking for suspense ahead of this year's Academy Award nominations, which take place Tuesday morning starting at 5:30 a.m. PT, you probably shouldn't bother with the best picture race.

Because of unprecedented consensus among Hollywood's major guilds – which share many voters with the academy – it seems like nominees in this category have already been anointed.

"Babel," "The Departed," "Dreamgirls," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen" were all nominated by the producers' and directors' guilds, and each film had a strong showing among voters at the screen actors' and writers' union awards, too. They figure to continue their hot streak with Oscar nominations.

That doesn't mean Tuesday's Oscar selections are without drama. In fact, there are several cliffhangers that will have even the most pampered stars and cranky studio execs out of bed before dawn, without complaint and with mugs full of latte.

For starters, there's the Leo question: Will Leonardo DiCaprio be nominated in the lead or supporting actor category for "The Departed"?

And then there's the Jennifer Hudson riddle: Will the breakout "Dreamgirls" star, and Golden Globe winner for best supporting actress, find herself pushed into the lead actress race at the Oscars.

Here's a rundown of what could unfold in the key categories:

BEST PICTURE
Sure, it looks like the five slots are already locked up. But don't be completely surprised if another film slips in, like "United 93" or "Letters from Iwo Jima."

The Oscars have a peculiar voting system, unlike any other awards show, and that often results in some shockers. Voters use a preferential ballot on which they rank their five choices in each category according to peer group -- actors vote on actors, directors on directors -- plus everybody pipes in on best picture.

It's a complicated scoring method, but simply put: only No. 1 and No. 2 votes really count. For example, "Babel" might get listed in fourth or fifth place on everybody's ballot for best picture, then find itself bumped from the race if "Letters from Iwo Jima" is the top-ranked choice of one-sixth of the academy plus one voter. That's the actual math formula used by accountants.

Bottom line: potential nominees don't need widespread support, just passionate backing from a small fraction of the academy.

"I think 'Iwo Jima' definitely has a chance," says Pete Hammond of HollywoodWiretap.com and Maxim. "It just needs a slight core of support and it has it."

Another film with an ardent group of backers is "United 93."

But Robert Osborne, author of the official Oscar book, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and host of TV channel Turner Classic Movies, believes there's another film with the chance to break into the top five. "I think the only thing that could possibly get in there is 'Little Children,'" he says.

What about Globes' darling "Borat?"

"I don't think 'Borat' will get number one votes," Hammond says. "I don't think that the artisans of the craft of filmmaking in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will determine that 'Borat' is the best picture of the year. I don't get that vibe. I think 'Children of Men' has it, but its campaign came much too late. It has lot of admirers, but I don't think it has enough number-ones."

BEST DIRECTOR
Likely nominees for best director include Martin Scorsese ("The Departed"), Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel"), Stephen Frears ("The Queen") and the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine"), who were nominated by the directors' guild.

Hammond believes the "Sunshine" duo is vulnerable to being bumped in favor of Clint Eastwood, who helmed both "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima." "I've talked to so many directors who tell me how impressed they are by Clint Eastwood's achievement doing two movies," he says. "They're blown away by it."

Very often the director's branch surprises Oscar watchers by nominating a foreign helmer of an art-house hit, and at least one is likely to get in: Gonzalez Innaritu.

But another entry is possible, too. Pedro Almodovar was nominated in 2002 for "Talk to Her" and now has "Volver" in the running, which will probably be nominated for best foreign film, along with "Pan's Labyrinth." That film has particularly strong support within the academy, which means there's a good chance its director, Guillermo del Toro, could squeak in.

BEST ACTRESS
Most Oscarologists believe the best-actress lineup is already firmed up: Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal"), Helen Mirren ("The Queen"), Meryl Streep ("Devil Wears Prada") and Kate Winslet ("Little Children").

"If anyone breaks through that five it's Maggie Gyllenhaal," says Hammond. "There are a number of voters who watched that movie and liked it a lot." But she didn't get nominated by the Screen Actors Guild, which is a bad omen."

BEST ACTOR
The lead actors' race is far more wide open, with only two shoo-ins: Forest Whitaker ("Last King of Scotland") and Peter O'Toole ("Venus"). Will Smith is a serious contender, but Osborne says that "Pursuit of Happyness" hasn't generated as much industry support as anticipated.

Ryan Gosling ("Half Nelson") is this year's art-house darling, and he was nominated by SAG, so there's a good chance he'll be rubber-stamped by the academy. "Letters from Iwo Jima" star Ken Watanabe could make the cut.

"I think Sacha Baron Cohen could get in," says Hammond. Cohen wasn't nominated by SAG, but Hammond attributes that to a lack of early campaigning. Lately, he's been tub-thumping aggressively around Hollywood, but he only did one Q&A screening with SAG members in L.A. the night before ballots were due. (Most other contenders attend screenings to dish with members of SAG's nominating committee of 2,100 voters early on in the contest and on both coasts.)

Hammond believes an even longer shot is possible: Daniel Craig ("Casino Royale") -- "somebody who had no campaign, but they really like his movie."

Confusion reigns over the candidacy of DiCaprio, who was submitted to the SAG awards by Warner Bros. in the supporting category for "The Departed" and in lead for "Blood Diamond." Now support for his role in "Blood Diamond" has waned and many believe he can win the lead-acting prize if voters promote him to the top race at the Oscars for "Departed," the frontrunner for best picture.

The academy doesn't have an eligibility committee like the Golden Globes, which placed DiCaprio in lead for both "Departed" and "Blood Diamond," thus contributing to the star's category confusion. At the Oscars, voters can put an actor in either race and usually look for guidance from the "For Your Consideration" ads run by the studios. Unlike the Globes, actors may only be nominated once per Oscar category.

"Voters are confused by his campaign, or lack of it, over being specific," says Hammond.

The trade ads for "Departed" group DiCaprio with Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg under a heading for "The Actors," even though it's clear that Wahlberg is considered a supporting player. Possibly Nicholson and Damon, too.

Confusion also surrounds where to nominate Brad Pitt for "Babel." While trade ads target him for supporting, voters might promote him to lead based upon his placement in the reminder list sent to academy members, which features movies alphabetically and lists their stars according to the way they appear in a film's final credits. At the end of "Babel," when the credits roll, Pitt gets top billing.

Osborne believes that Pitt has a strong chance to be nominated for lead. He was nominated in the supporting slot at the Globes, but was snubbed by SAG, which only agreed with the Globes on one nominee: Eddie Murphy ("Dreamgirls").

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Aside from the DiCaprio and Pitt question marks, there are lots of candidates in the running. Sure bets seem to be Murphy and Alan Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine").

Other contenders are Nicholson and Wahlberg, Michael Sheen ("The Queen"), Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children"), Michael Caine ("Children of Men") and Djimon Hounsou ("Blood Diamond").

Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen are the only actors from "The Departed" that have been firmly promoted as supporting candidates.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Leaders in the race for best supporting actress include "Babel" stars Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kinkuchi, Cate Blanchett ("Notes on a Scandal"), Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada"), Toni Collette ("Little Miss Sunshine") and longshots Shareeka Epps ("Half Nelson"), Vanessa Redgrave ("Venus"), Vera Farmiga ("The Departed"), Carmen Maura ("Volver") and Catherine O'Hara ("For Your Consideration").

Suspense surrounds the glowing 10-year-old ingenue Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), who was nommed by SAG but snubbed by the Globes. SAG is much more kid-friendly than the academy, which has given nominations to only about half of the young people nominated by the guild.

None of that may matter, since a supporting actress victory already seems to be locked up by Dreamgirl Jennifer Hudson, who wowed Hollywood with a glowing, heart-felt acceptance speech at the Globes. However, it's clear that she's really the lead star of "Dreamgirls," so it's possible voters might push her into the top race.

Will they?

"Yes, there's a chance, but no," says Hammond cheekily. "And you can quote me on that!"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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