3900 os oscar poll best actor

Russell Crowe Richard Farnsworth Sean Penn Kevin Spacey Denzel Washington
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By Michael Wilmington

In this "loaded" category, two wonderful performances - Sean Penn's as shiftless but virtuosic (and fictional) '30s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, and Richard Farnsworth's as an intrepid, real-life septuagenarian, Alvin Straight, in David Lynch's The Straight Story - are in films too small, too commercially unsuccessful and too unawarded so far to have a serious shot.

That leaves three contenders: Russell Crowe as "The Insider's" besieged Wigand; Kevin Spacey as Beauty's Lester Burnham, the suburban husband who chucks his job and tries to retreat into carefree adolescence; and the strong favorite, Denzel Washington as The Hurricane's Rubin Carter, the real-life '60s middleweight champ whose New Jersey murder conviction was overturned on grounds of racial bias. Under ordinary circumstances, Washington - a greatly respected actor who gave what many think was the performance of his life in The Hurricane - would be a shoo-in. But the media controversy over the facts behind this movie - whether Carter's lawyers received their due and even over Carter's actual guilt or innocence - kept the movie (once an Oscar favorite itself) from any other nominations and may hurt Washington as well. That's a shame, because docudramas are almost never accurate. And whatever happened in life, Washington's acting remains strong, true, vibrant and unforgettable.

The likeliest beneficiary, if Washington falls victim to "truth squads," is Spacey, who delivered another of his customary crisp, beautifully articulated, deliciously alert and spry comic performances - as a buttoned-down man going over the edge. And if voters balk at two Spacey wins in too short a time, Crowe's haggard hero/victim role was considered a huge stretch for this charismatic, macho star.

My pick: Denzel Washington in The Hurricane.

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.

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