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Oscars offer mix of conventional fare and edgier prospects

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ This year's crop of Academy Awards contenders may not be the healthiest, but it sure is an interesting one.

With a generally so-so lineup, 2002 has produced a handful of traditional-looking candidates and a host of darker, edgier prospects that might slip into the race for lack of more conventional Oscar fare.

Hollywood's awards season, which culminates with the Oscars March 23, offers a mix of the old guard who've won before (Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep); established performers who've never won (Salma Hayek in ``Frida,'' Chris Cooper in ``Adaptation''); past winners back in the hunt after long absences (Paul Newman, Nicolas Cage); and at least one fresh face (Derek Luke in the title role of ``Antwone Fisher'').

Along with sober, smells-like-Oscar candidates such as the crime epics ``Gangs of New York'' and ``Road to Perdition'' or the impassioned literary adaptation ``The Hours,'' the field includes the zestful musical ``Chicago,'' the fantasy sequel ``The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,'' the old-school melodrama ``Far From Heaven'' and the absurdist's delight ``Adaptation.''

Oscar nominations come out Feb. 11. Here's a rundown of possible contenders in major categories:

Best Picture:

``The Hours,'' Stephen Daldry's artful adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel interweaving stories about Virginia Woolf, a despondent 1950s housewife and a troubled modern woman, is a likely competitor, along with two Irish-American mob tales, Martin Scorsese's ``Gangs of New York'' and Sam Mendes' ``Road to Perdition.''

Peter Jackson's ``The Two Towers'' is more action, less depth than last year's ``Lord of the Rings'' installment, but it might bring another nomination for the franchise.

Sam Raimi's ``Spider-Man,'' the year's top-grossing hit, probably will be viewed too much as a summer popcorn flick to merit best-picture consideration.

Though a bit lightweight, Rob Marshall's ``Chicago'' entertains well enough that it could follow last year's ``Moulin Rouge'' as a musical nominee.

Steven Spielberg's cat-and-mouse adventure ``Catch Me If You Can'' also may lack the heft, but it's an engaging romp and has better Oscar prospects than his other 2002 flick, ``Minority Report,'' which bears the stigma of a sci-fi genre generally not favored by awards voters.

The year's surprise blockbuster ``My Big Fat Greek Wedding'' is a feel-good romance adored by general audiences but may prove too much of a featherweight for awards voters.

Other possibilities: ``Antwone Fisher,'' Denzel Washington's directing debut, based on the real-life story of an angry orphan who finds solace in the care of a Navy psychiatrist; ``Frida,'' Julie Taymor's vibrant film biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; Todd Haynes' ``Far From Heaven,'' a sumptuously photographed work that updates the style of '50s melodrama maestro Douglas Sirk; ``About Schmidt,'' a darkly comic drama of late-life self-examination from director Alexander Payne; ``Adaptation,'' the latest bizarre concoction from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the team behind ``Being John Malkovich''; ``The Quiet American,'' Phillip Noyce's thoughtful rendering of Graham Greene's novel of American imperialism in 1950s Vietnam; Spike Lee's ``The 25th Hour,'' tracing the last day of freedom for a rueful prison-bound drug dealer; and Roman Polanski's comeback film, ``The Pianist,'' a somber Holocaust story that took top honors at last spring's Cannes Film Festival.

Best Actor:

Past winner Daniel Day-Lewis is the man to beat, presenting one of cinema's most black-hearted yet magnetizing villains in ``Gangs of New York.'' Like Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, whose bad guy Salieri upstaged Tom Hulce's Mozart in ``Amadeus,'' Day-Lewis' turn overwhelms a solid performance by ``Gangs'' hero Leonardo DiCaprio.

Along with ``Gangs,'' DiCaprio has a shot at a nomination for ``Catch Me If You Can.''

Three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson is a likely nominee for ``About Schmidt.'' Two-time winners Tom Hanks for ``Road to Perdition'' and Michael Caine for ``The Quiet American'' also are leading candidates.

Dual roles in ``Adaptation'' could land a nomination for Nicolas Cage, who gives his best performance since his Oscar-winning turn in 1995's ``Leaving Las Vegas.''

Other possibilities include newcomer Derek Luke, ``Antwone Fisher''; Edward Norton, ``The 25th Hour''; Richard Gere, ``Chicago''; Dennis Quaid, ``The Rookie''; Adrien Brody, ``The Pianist''; Sam Rockwell, ``Confessions of a Dangerous Mind''; Robin Williams, ``One Hour Photo''; Al Pacino, ``Insomnia''; Kevin Kline, ``The Emperor's Club''; Pierce Brosnan, ``Evelyn''; and John Cusack, ``Max.''

Best Actress:

Nicole Kidman, who plays Virginia Woolf, and two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who plays a contemporary variation of the Woolf character Mrs. Dalloway, both have strong prospects for ``The Hours.''

Their co-star, Julianne Moore, is being pushed by ``Hours'' distributor Paramount in the supporting category to avoid clashing with her powerful performance in ``Far From Heaven,'' which should earn her a best-actress nomination.

Salma Hayek emerges as a contender in the title role of ``Frida.'' With a spirited performance in ``Chicago,'' Renee Zellweger might follow Kidman, star of ``Moulin Rouge,'' as the second straight actress in a musical to earn a nomination (Zellweger also was nominated last year, for ``Bridget Jones's Diary'').

A relatively light field could open the door for a dark horse, including Diane Lane, ``Unfaithful''; Jennifer Aniston, ``The Good Girl''; Maggie Gyllenhaal, ``Secretary''; and Samantha Morton, ``Morvern Callar.''

Best Supporting Actor:

If the award were given for multiple roles, John C. Reilly might be a lock, with impressive parts in ``Gangs of New York,'' ``The Hours'' and ``Chicago.'' Individually, the roles may be too small to gain attention from academy voters.

Paul Newman is a safe bet for his gracious presence in ``Road to Perdition.'' He could wind up competing against ``Perdition'' co-star Tom Hanks, who delivers an engaging supporting role in ``Catch Me If You Can.''

Strong candidates include scene-stealers Chris Cooper in ``Adaptation'' and Ed Harris in ``The Hours.''

Other possibilities: Alfred Molina, ``Frida''; Denzel Washington, ``Antwone Fisher''; Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, ``The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers''; Dustin Hoffman, ``Moonlight Mile''; Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert, ``Far From Heaven''; Barry Pepper, ``The 25th Hour''; and Christopher Plummer, ``Nicholas Nickleby.''

Best Supporting Actress:

``The Hours'' co-stars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore could be competing against each other, Streep for ``Adaptation,'' Moore for ``The Hours'' itself (Streep is a best-actress contender for ``The Hours,'' while Moore is a best-actress prospect for ``Far From Heaven'').

Cameron Diaz is a contender for ``Gangs of New York.'' Past Oscar winner Kathy Bates in ``About Schmidt'' and Catherine Zeta-Jones in ``Chicago'' deliver performances that should draw them awards attention (unfortunately for Hope Davis in ``About Schmidt'' and Queen Latifah in ``Chicago,'' Bates and Zeta-Jones may overshadow their co-stars' potentially awards-worthy roles).

Other possibilities: Patricia Clarkson, ``Far From Heaven''; Miranda Richardson, ``Spider''; Michelle Pfeiffer, ``White Oleander''; Susan Sarandon, ``Moonlight Mile''; Samantha Morton, ``Minority Report''; and Emily Watson, ``Punch-Drunk Love.''

Best Director:

Remarkably, Martin Scorsese has not won an Oscar. This could be his year for ``Gangs of New York,'' which is by no means his best film but does make for an impressive blend of the true grit of his early work and the epic scope that academy voters love.

Sam Mendes _ who won the best-director prize for his first film, ``American Beauty'' _ is in the running for his second, ``Road to Perdition.'' Peter Jackson may be in line for a nomination again for ``The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,'' part two of his trilogy.

Other prospects: Stephen Daldry, ``The Hours''; Alexander Payne, ``About Schmidt''; Todd Haynes, ``Far From Heaven''; Denzel Washington, ``Antwone Fisher''; Steven Spielberg, ``Catch Me If You Can'' or ``Minority Report''; Sam Raimi, ``Spider-Man''; Spike Lee, ``The 25th Hour''; Julie Taymor, ``Frida''; Spike Jonze, ``Adaptation''; Roman Polanski, ``The Pianist''; Phillip Noyce, ``The Quiet American''; and Rob Marshall, ``Chicago.''
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