Double threat

Leonardo DiCaprio's performances in both "The Departed," pictured, and "Blood Diamond" could earn him a nomination.

Catch-up seems to be the theme of this year's Oscar race for best actor.

After seven failed nominations -- the most in the academy's acting categories without a win -- Peter O'Toole seems to be the frontrunner for his role in "Venus" as a frail old actor about to feel the drop of life's cruel curtain.

At age 74, O'Toole's own health is fading (he suffers from "gastric nasties" after a hearty life), so the notoriously sentimental academy may feel like doing what it did for Paul Newman after 6 losses, Al Pacino and Geraldine Page after 7 and John Wayne after a lifetime of little academy attention: give him an Oscar regardless of his film's quality.

In O'Toole's case, his movie is superb, which helps. So do his Oscar odds: the academy has yet to subject an actor to 8 or more snubs in a row. However, O'Toole's ole drinking buddy, Richard Burton, went to his grave tied with his former "Becket" costar as the award's biggest loser, so there aren't always happy Oscar endings.

One of O'Toole's most serious rivals is a 31-year-old star who's also considered long overdue. Early on in his career, at age 19, Leonardo DiCaprio was considered an academy darling when he was nommed for best supporting actor in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"

Then, suddenly and strangely in 1997, it looked like voters struck a mysterious grudge against the star of the most successful film ever made in terms of box-office bucks ($1.8 billion worldwide) and Oscars (11). Everybody on board "Titanic," it seemed, got nominated except its "King of the World."

Furious, DiCaprio snubbed voters in return and refused to attend the ceremony where his movie sailed on to tie "Ben-Hur's" record for winning the most awards. Two years ago, however, all of that nonsense was forgotten and DiCaprio scored his first lead-actor bid for "The Aviator." But even though he won the Golden Globe, he lost the Oscar.

If this really is a year when voters may play catch-up in the best-actor race, then Hollywooders may prefer to embrace the young heartthrob among them instead of an aging star in far-away Britain.

DiCaprio has two movie options for them to choose: as a gem-chasing mercenary in "Blood Diamond" and as an undercover cop who infiltrates the mob in "The Departed." It helps to have two films in the running, as Oscar-overdue Sean Penn learned when he won for "Mystic River" the same year he wowed film critics and audiences in "21 Grams" (2003).

That's the same situation DiCaprio's "Departed" costar is in, too -- Matt Damon, who earned an Oscar for co-writing "Good Will Hunting," but has yet to win for acting. In "The Departed," he portrays DiCaprio's opposite -- a mobster who infiltrates the police -- but he may have a better chance to prevail with voters in "The Good Shepherd." That's because his role gets more screen time and is more fully etched out psychologically as he potrays an early founder of the CIA.

"The Good Shepherd" is one of the two "Good" movies out this Oscar season -- the other being "The Good German" starring George Clooney as a Yankee journalistic who gets caught up in a murder mystery while searching for his mistress in post-war Germany.

It's helmed by Steven Soderbergh, whose films have earned Oscars for other stars (Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich," Benicio Del Toro in "Traffic") and it doesn't matter that Clooney recently won in the supporting slot for "Syriana." Soon after Kevin Spacey nabbed best supporting actor for "The Usual Suspects," he triumphed as best actor in "American Beauty."

Arguably, Will Smith can be considered one of the veteran actors who is overdue for a top win. He was nommed for portraying Muhammad Ali in 2001, and has reigned as one of the box office's biggest stars of the past decade ("Men in Black," "Independence Day"). Timing is excellent for him to win now. So is the heart-tugging role he's got in "The Pursuit of Happyness" as a single, poverty-struck dad desperate to succeed at a new career.

In "Breaking and Entering," Jude Law already has a successful job as an architect, but he's a young family man whose life is in shambles, too. Only when his offices are burglarized and he hunts for the thief does he find the bigger answers to his personal woes. Law was nominated for best actor in "Cold Mountain" and for supporting in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," but "Breaking" is a more emotionally generous role.

Other chief Oscar rivals include Forest Whitaker, who gives a bone-chilling performance as the charming, demonic dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." Currently, Whitaker is the favorite to win a few film critics' awards, but there are many other movies that journalists have yet to see.

Whitaker may be a favorite with Oscar voters, too, come to think of it, considering how much they love roles based upon real people (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in "Capote," Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in "Ray"). That may help Derek Luke get the best-actor bid many Oscarwatchers believed he'd nab for "Antwone Fisher" in 2002.

Now, in "Catch a Fire," he gives another incendiary performance as Patrick Chamusso, the South African energy-plant worker who became a rebel when he could no longer endure the cruelties of the Apartheid regime.

Many film critics believe that British actor Toby Jones actually does a better job embodying Truman Capote in "Infamous" than Philip Seymour Hoffman did in "Capote," but voters might be too bored to go there again.

Both films follow the exact same story route -- the misfit Manhattan novelist heading to Kansas to write "In Cold Blood." "Infamous" is even, well, more infamous since it delves deeper into the homoerotic love between Capote and killer Perry Smith, who get a kissing scene not found in "Capote."