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Oscar Is As Oscar Does : Even Forrest Gump could figure out that ‘Gump,’ ‘Pulp’ and ‘Quiz’ are the big guns this year. But, let’s not forget those who won’t make Oscar’s cut.

<i> Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic</i>

If wide-open races are traditionally characterized by thrills and excitement, why don’t those qualities surround this year’s tussle for Oscar nominations, which is universally conceded to be nothing if not unpredictable?

Though academy ballots will go into the mail on Jan. 13, with nominations announced a month later, Hollywood does not seem to be burning up with award fever. Paradoxically, the industrywide lack of enthusiasm and the uncertain nature of the selectees both stem from the same cause: There simply aren’t that many Oscar-type films out there to speculate on.

Rubbing salt in that particular wound is the fact that several of the year’s most noteworthy motion pictures are, for one reason or another, not going to be factors.

For instance, Linda Fiorentino’s high-voltage bitch goddess display in “The Last Seduction,” beyond a doubt one of the five top female performances of the year, is ineligible because the film debuted on HBO and not at a suburban multiplex.

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And Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Red,” the almost unanimous choice of critics groups around the country as best foreign-language film, has been ruled ineligible to even compete in that category. Sadly, the academy lacks the energy and willpower to revamp its rules in a way that adequately reflects the increasingly multinational nature of foreign film production.

And don’t even bring up “Hoop Dreams,” a serious contender in the best film category in critics’ voting, which can’t be certain of even getting a nomination in the best documentary category because of the traditionally contrarian nature of that nominating committee.

Not everything, of course, about this year’s nominations is uncertain. Even a savvy child could rattle off the three films that are all but guaranteed a best picture nod.

“Forrest Gump,” which unexpectedly struck a nationwide nerve of enormous proportions, is at the top of everyone’s list in that category. Coming right behind is Cannes top dog “Pulp Fiction,” the favorite of the blood-and-guts contingent. And though its lack of substantial box-office numbers could hurt it, “Quiz Show” is part of the inevitable Big Three.

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The last two slots are more of a mystery, though the talk is strong that the why- can’t- Hollywood- do- this- anymore light romantic comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral” will overcome the handicap of an early release and get a nomination.

After that, what? Will a nod go to “The Shawshank Redemption,” more beloved inside Hollywood than anywhere else? Or to either “Nell” or “Legends of the Fall,” old-fashioned but considerably flawed? Or to the longer-than-long-shot “Hoop Dreams”? Though each of these has its adherents and its possibilities, the most probable choice is the Paul Newman-starring “Nobody’s Fool,” an accomplished late starter.

As always, the best director nominees should echo best picture, but only up to a point. Two Roberts--Zemeckis for “Forrest Gump” and Redford for “Quiz Show"--will be picked, but Quentin Tarantino, though likely, is much more of a question mark, given the persnickety nature of this branch’s old-boy membership.

Here, too, contenders for the final two places are diverse. Most often mentioned are Robert Benton for “Nobody’s Fool” and Mike Newell for “Four Weddings,” with Woody Allen for “Bullets Over Broadway” and Edward Zwick for “Legends of the Fall” being more distant possibilities. And if the academy feels exotic, it could bestow its largess on “Red’s” Kieslowski or strike a putative blow for freedom by picking suppressed Chinese director Zhang Yimou and his “Gone With the Wind"-like “To Live.”

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When it comes to the best actress category, it’s round-up-the-usual-suspects time, as the same actresses the academy traditionally looks fondly on will likely snare most of the nominations this year as well.

Jodie Foster, a perennial favorite, is a certainty for “Nell,” and Jessica Lange looks equally likely for her saved-from-the-shelf performance in “Blue Sky.” Ditto Susan Sarandon for either “The Client” or “Safe Passage,” and though some observers think Meryl Streep was just too darn athletic for rarefied academy tastes in “The River Wild,” she has been gone too long to pass up.

Fighting for the final position should be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s love-it-or-hate-it title role in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” Sigourney Weaver in “Death and the Maiden,” Miranda Richardson in the little-seen “Tom and Viv,” possibly Julia Ormond in “Legends of the Fall,” but most likely Meg Ryan in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Light actresses who reverse themselves and suffer onscreen are traditionally difficult for the academy to resist.

Though this year’s most obvious nominee, Tom Hanks in “Gump,” won best actor last year, most of his competition hasn’t been up for awards for quite some time. Paul Newman is a lock for “Nobody’s Fool,” as is John Travolta for “Pulp Fiction.” And the only question about Terence Stamp in the vampy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is whether voters will place him in the supporting category or not.

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Three other actors--Tommy Lee Jones in “Cobb,” Ralph Fiennes in “Quiz Show” and Hugh Grant in “Four Weddings"--are likely but it is doubtful all of them will be picked. And a pair of fine British actors--Nigel Hawthorne in what might be the performance of the year in “The Madness of King George” and Albert Finney in “The Browning Version” and “A Man of No Importance"--may be hampered by being in little-seen vehicles.

If Stamp does end up in the supporting actor category, he will face the odds-on favorite, Martin Landau in “Ed Wood.” Other fairly sure nominees are Paul Scofield (a best actor winner nearly three decades ago) for “Quiz Show,” Samuel L. Jackson for “Pulp Fiction” and Gary Sinese for “Forrest Gump.” Both Morgan Freeman and James Whitmore are contenders for “Shawshank,” and though Chazz Palminteri was more than deserving in “Bullets Over Broadway,” the field may simply be too crowded for him.

Palminteri’s “Bullets” co-star, Dianne Wiest, is on the top of all the supporting actress lists, and her competition looks to be remarkably diverse. Kirsten Dunst, tiny and undead, should be helped to an “Interview With the Vampire” nomination by her performance in the very different “Little Women,” as Jessica Tandy in “Nobody’s Fool” will be aided by her starring role in “Camilla.”

Someone from “Gump,” probably good soldier Sally Field, should also make the list. The other possibilities, if members see the films, include Rosemary Harris in “Tom and Viv” and Cannes winner Verna Lisi in “Queen Margot.” More distant possibilities still are Claire Danes, with a fine death scene in “Little Women,” and Roma Maffia, the best thing about “Disclosure.”

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In the two screenplay categories, it’s the originals, as usual, where filling out the five slots is the most problematic. Quentin Tarantino’s idiosyncratic script for “Pulp Fiction” is a sure choice and, though comedies often do not get picked, both Woody Allen for “Bullets Over Broadway” and Richard Curtis for “Four Weddings” are likely. After that, it’s probably “Ed Wood” and a total toss-up for the last position.

In adaptations, on the other hand, the problem is an excess of possibilities. Once again “Forrest Gump” and “Quiz Show” are certainties, with “Nobody’s Fool” and “Little Women” right behind them. After that, “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Legends of the Fall” and even “Death and the Maiden” will doubtless have their advocates. It’s been that kind of a year.


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