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Oscar Night: Not So Crystal Clear?

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Given the lock that Peter Jackson and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” appear to have on Best Director and Best Picture, it’s little wonder that ABC is saving its heavy promotion for the fact that Billy Crystal is hosting the Oscars.

Even the Academy’s new, earlier date (one month earlier, to be exact) has done little to build up the suspense. And by squeezing the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild of America Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the British Film Academy Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards all into the first eight weeks of the new year, the Academy Awards are looking more like a final toast rather than the definitive statement in honoring what Hollywood accomplished last year.

That is, except in one race that has yet to be called: Best Actor.

It initially appeared to be a two-way race between Sean Penn and Bill Murray. But Johnny Depp’s win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last Sunday has helped shake things up.

Penn was perceived as an Oscar shoo-in as the troubled father in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River.” But his absence — perceived as apathy — when his name was called at the Golden Globes, coupled with his vocal anti-Bush administration stance on Iraq, may have damaged his chances, according to conventional wisdom. (For as liberal as Hollywood is perceived to be, the Academy is actually composed of several older — read: conservative — members.)

And while Globe comedic actor winner Murray was also singled out at Briton’s BAFTA ceremony for his role as an innocent abroad in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”, the biggest surprise came from Depp, for his role as a swishy, drunken buccaneer in “Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Depp is a favorite with his fellow actors, and it might also help that the movie was a huge hit (not to mention a very popular attraction at Southern California’s Disneyland).

Of those remaining, Ben Kingsley, up for “House of Sand and Fog,” has won before, for 1982’s “Gandhi” (a movie that has not aged well in people’s minds), while Jude Law in “Cold Mountain” would only succeed in winning this year’s “Adrien Brody award” — for surprising the crowd should his name appear in the envelope Sunday night.

In the Best Actress race, South African-born Charlize Theron, who transformed her physical look to play real-life prostitute serial killer Aileen Wuornos for “Monster,” is perceived as the strongest candidate, despite some critics’ mixed feelings about the movie itself.

Theron’s chief rival is believed to be sentimental favorite Diane Keaton, especially given the fact that Keaton’s playing a mature woman who finds love after a bumpy journey (“Something’s Gotta Give”).

Then again, how much of a stretch was the role for the “Annie Hall” Oscar winner in the minds of Academy voters? In deciding between Theron and Keaton, they may actually wind up splitting the vote and opening the door for either dark-horse Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”), Samantha Morton (“In America”) or Naomi Watts (“21 Grams”).

In contrast to recent years, when in the post-9/11 and Iraqi War environment the glitz was downplayed in favor of a more somber mood — as host Steve Martin said last year of the Academy’s decision not to broadcast red-carpet star arrivals: “That’ll show ’em!” — this year promises to bring back the glamour.

And, who knows? Perhaps even a few surprises.