By Stephen M. Silverman
January 28, 2004 11:48 AM

Not that gambling should be encouraged, but just for the record, the bookmakers at Britain’s Ladbrokes have tapped “The Lord of the Rings” and its director, Peter Jackson, to take the Oscar gold for Best Picture and Best Director come Feb. 29, say reports.

Meanwhile, Jackson and the rest of the nominees are expressing their shock and gratitude following Tuesday’s nominations. New Zealand schoolgirl actress Keisha Castle-Hughes (at 13 the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee, for “Whale Rider”) told New Zealand’s National Radio that her mother broke the good news to her at 3 a.m.

“I was like, I thought I was still sleeping. I thought I’ll be happy in the morning,” she said. Then the phone started ringing, from America. “They were yelling down the phone at me … and I realized it was real.”

And her reaction? “It’s just amazing. It’s overwhelming.”

As for Ken Watanabe, 34, up for a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as the fierce warrior Katsumoto in “The Last Samurai,” “I was just lying down, staring into space, when the envelope was delivered (with news of my nomination),” Watanabe told a news conference Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Sofia Coppola, 32, whose “Lost in Translation” earned four nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay, told The New York Times that all the sudden attention Tuesday morning was “really hard to digest. When you’re starting with something personal, when you’re not thinking about the audience, it’s exciting when people connect to what you’re thinking about. There’s nothing better than that.”

Diane Keaton, who won as Best Actress for Woody Allen’s 1977 film “Annie Hill,” is up again for “Something’s Gotta Give” (costarring Jack Nicholson, who for once wasn’t nominated).

“It’s fantastic for actresses of my generation,” Keaton, 57, said in a statement. “It means we can still be in romantic comedies, and if they’re well-written and directed and acted, it works and it makes money.”

As for frontrunner Jackson, 42 — who is about to leave the Tolkien trilogy behind and film a great big remake of “King Kong” — he’s quoted in the New York Post saying that the leading 11 nominations for “The Return of the King” came about because “people respond to the performances, to the reality of the situations on screen and the depth of it. It feels real to them.”

So will winning an Oscar.