WHO'S grittier, Leonardo DiCaprio as a rugged mercenary chasing the "Blood Diamond" or DiCaprio as a gangland infiltrator stalking Jack Nicholson in "The Departed"? Which director gave the most compelling history lesson, the Clint Eastwood who directed "Flags of Our Fathers" or the one who unsealed "Letters From Iwo Jima"?
And when you feel like a nut, do you reach for Will Ferrell in existential mode ("Stranger Than Fiction") or with his puerile pedal to the metal ("Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby")?
With award season now at full throttle -- on Thursday, nominations will be announced for the Golden Globes -- it seems there could be a glut of big names competing with themselves for the affections of voters.
"Definitely, there's quite a few instances of that this year, more than I recall in past years," said Philip Berk, president and a three-decade member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Globes. Why? Berk said it could be the wide array of mature-minded projects for the year, the quick turnaround for a number of films, the fact that actors these days work for multiple studios or a simple quirk of the release schedule. There's also the good number of ensemble-cast films that have drawn on some of the same faces.
Hugh Jackman got strong notices for his performances in "The Prestige" and "The Fountain" (and even popped up in the hit animated film "Happy Feet" this year). He said Tuesday that "it's a weird time in Hollywood" and that the uncertainty makes top stars "jump at a truly great script when they see one." That leads to deep rosters of all-star talent on projects such as "The Departed," "All the King's Men" and "The Good German," to name just a few.
"I think the days when lead actors only take lead roles is gone," he said, noting that Scarlett Johansson "chased the role in 'The Prestige' because it was just a good role and these days you try to get as many as you can."
Jackman admitted he was a bit anxious about having a flurry of movies hitting theaters in short order ("You don't want people watching the trailers to say, 'Oh, that guy again?' ") but that in the end the impulse to grab quality projects trumps everything else. "And if you end up having a couple of roles that compete with each other for critical attention, well that's sort of a high-end problem to have, now isn't it?"
In the history of the Globes, no actor or director has been nominated twice in the same category in the same year, Berk said, and although there is no rule forbidding it, he added that he would be shocked if anyone heard his or her name called twice in the same category.
Even if the roles are not the sort that could compete head to head in one category, voters sometimes tend to parse their support. It'd be human nature for a voter to cast his or her vote for an actor in one lead category and then, say, withhold it in a supporting field just to keep things equitable in his or her own mind.
If anyone could defy the odds and turn in the double play in one category, it could be DiCaprio this year. On Tuesday, the 32-year-old actor was nominated twice in the best actor field at the 12th annual Critics' Choice Awards for his work in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and in "Blood Diamond," the socially conscious thriller directed by Edward Zwick.
But DiCaprio is hardly the only star who has multiple horses in the race. There's Matt Damon ("The Good Shepherd," "The Departed"); Cate Blanchett ("The Good German," "Babel," "Notes on a Scandal"); Alec Baldwin ("The Good Shepherd," "Running With Scissors," "The Departed"); Kate Winslet ("Little Children," "All the King's Men"), Christian Bale ("Hard Times," "The Prestige"); Michael Caine ("The Prestige," "Children of Men") -- and the list goes on.
Eastwood leads the off-camera talent for the strongest pair of projects, but not far behind is screenwriter Peter Morgan, who had two projects that received royal receptions from critics: "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland."
If the Golden Globes did give DiCaprio two nominations in the lead actor category, how would that echo in the Oscar race in the weeks to come? Warner Bros. released both "The Departed" and "Blood Diamond" and has shown no sign of picking one over the other. That's not how it has worked in the past. At the height of the studio system, a major talent, say a Bette Davis, could have been nominated for multiple roles in the same year in the same category, but the studios would typically put their resources behind the one they viewed as the best bet to carry the day.
Hollywood loves to hand bouquets of awards to one film and one actor when the work meets the perceived threshold of historical merit. But the community also likes to keep things tidy and keep the trophy value high.
The Oscars put in place some rules to prevent a repeat of the awkward double dipping for Barry Fitzgerald; he was nominated twice for the same role (once as best actor, once as best supporting actor) for the 1944 film "Going My Way" (he won for supporting actor; costar Bing Crosby took home the lead actor award).
The only person to win two Oscars for the same role did it with special circumstances. Harold Russell was given the award for best supporting actor for his role in "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and then an honorary Oscar for inspiring the troops returning from World War II, for whom the double-amputee's screen presence was a powerful moment.
Today, with many actors hopscotching between studios, the actor can get caught in a squeeze between two projects that have competing campaigns to win an award for the same person. It's going to happen more often, if recent history is an indication.
With multimedia successes and busy calendars, the stars of today can fill their mantel quicker. Take Jamie Foxx, who is a trophy magnet of sorts (last week he was nominated for three Grammy Awards for his fledgling R&B; singing career). Foxx owns the record for the most Golden Globe nominations in one year, with three for 2004: best film actor in musical or comedy for "Ray," best supporting actor for a drama for "Collateral" and best actor in a movie made for television for "Redemption: The Stan 'Tookie' Williams Story."
The actor said he "absolutely" sees more and more actors revving up their workloads and creating a wider field of potential double threats at award time. "Everybody is out there and bringing their A game and swinging for the fences."
The packed resumes may be exciting for actors, but what about the forced debate that comes with it to choose favorites among their work? Foxx was asked if choosing between roles is like asking a parent to pick a favorite among his children.
He laughed and pulled out another sports metaphor.
"No way. It's like basketball. One time you shoot a three-pointer, another time you do a lay-up ... it's whatever you need, and it's all good."
Jackman has a more traditional Hollywood philosophy. Anyone who asks him to dissect and rank his roles will probably get an answer that changes from day to day. "I'm an actor, you know, and actors never really tell the truth, right?"