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Betting favorites

Times Staff Writer

With only hours left to go before the Academy Awards are handed out, this should be a tense and combative time, the air thick with rival prognostications. But instead of partisans enthusiastically cudgeling each other in defense of their favorites, an unaccustomed sense of unity prevails. So noticeably absent in the rest of the world, has peace broken out in the Oscar wars?

In the sense that there is a rare key category unanimity among veteran academy predictors, the answer is yes. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any earthquakes in tonight’s event; it means that the ones that do occur will rattle more windows than usual.

Best picture. If there is anyone who doesn’t think that “The Return of the King,” the last part of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is going to take home the top prize, that person has yet to step forward. Fighting against one film would be difficult enough, but the other nominated pictures have to compete against a highly respected three-parter that was made against considerable odds, and that is a battle even Aragorn would have difficulty winning.

Best director. Though logic would dictate otherwise, the picture and director Oscars do not always go to the same film. And the winner of the Directors Guild of America award does not always go on to take the Oscar. This year, though, both things seem fated to happen when “Rings"-master Peter Jackson wins the prize. The only possible chance for an upset would appear to be “Mystic River’s” canny Clint Eastwood, who took one of these home for “Unforgiven” a decade back.

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Best actor. With his un-nominated work in “21 Grams” reinforcing the powerful impression he made in “Mystic River,” this appears to be Sean Penn’s year. He’s been nominated three times before, even for something as insubstantial as “I Am Sam” but has yet to win. Only the widely admired Bill Murray might have the ability to be a spoiler with what looks like the performance of his career in “Lost in Translation.”

Best actress. This has come down to a two-person race, with the favorite, the shape-shifting Charlize Theron in “Monster,” the beneficiary of the academy’s weakness for actors who sacrifice their looks. Breathing down her neck is Diane Keaton, whose well-liked-veteran status will help the chances of her “Something’s Gotta Give” performance. A long shot as she was in her film is “Whale Rider’s” Keisha Castle-Hughes, but the Oscars are a place where dreams can come true.

Best supporting actor. With three acting nominations, the most of any film this year, “Mystic River” looks to be the only film to receive two acting awards when Tim Robbins, a respected veteran who’s never been nominated before, wins in this category. If he hadn’t won for “Traffic” in 2000, Benicio Del Toro might provide the kind of opposition none of the other nominees appear able to muster.

Best supporting actress. With three nominations in three years (“Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Chicago” before this), Renee Zellweger is right on track for a victory, and her Ma Kettle c’est moi performance in “Cold Mountain” should do it for her. Two of her competitors (Marcia Gay Harden and Holly Hunter) have won already, often a disadvantage, but there is a lot of admiration for Shohreh Aghdashloo’s work in “House of Sand and Fog,” and that is likely where any upset chances lie.

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Best documentary. Now that the documentary branch has gotten its act together and come up with five viable choices, picking the winner has become more difficult. The favorite, in part because of director Errol Morris’ reputation as the documentarian of our time, has to be “The Fog of War,” but two films, the duplicitous “Capturing the Friedmans” and the father-fixated “My Architect,” have had strong emotional pulls on audiences and either could win. Even the Spanish-language “Balseros,” seven years in the making, has a shot, though having subtitles is not an advantage in this category.

Best foreign language film. Speaking of subtitles, this is a category where many observers are unhappy about the choices, because the category’s committee has by and large fallen back on the kind of middle-of-the-road cinema the rest of the academy is tentatively moving away from. Given its writing nomination, Canada’s “The Barbarian Invasions” has to be the favorite, but there is considerable interest in the Czech World War II epic “Zelary,” which looks to be a potential spoiler.

Best adapted screenplay. A trickier call than it seems at first. This is the second “Rings” cycle nomination for Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, and given how well “The Return of the King” is likely to do in other categories, it could be the favorite here. But most observers think that Brian Helgeland’s crackerjack “Mystic River” script is likely to come out on top if hobbit fatigue strikes the academy at this point. Also having an outside chance is Gary Ross’ script for “Seabiscuit,” though it looks more likely that that film’s forces will line up behind John Schwartzman’s cinematography.

Best original screenplay. Though no film can be completely written off, this looks to be a two-movie race between Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and the Sheridan family’s “In America.” With one written by the daughter of a venerated director and the other by a director and his two daughters, both have warm family stories to entice voters. Though “In America” could pull an upset, “Lost’s” getting enough support to garner a best picture nomination will likely be the deciding factor.

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