Best Actor, 2003
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of the corresponding films.)

Johnny Depp
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl


Other actors respect him for making a sturdy, lively career without sacrificing his offbeat sensibility; he even made this callow, money-grubbing project seem like something cheeky and unique. His fizzy turn as Jack Sparrow was the toast of the summer, but he never would have been remembered this long if his peers didn't respect the achievement.

Bill Murray, who beat Depp for the Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, gets his own fair share of laughs without being deprived those catch-in-the-throat dramatic scenes that Oscar perennially prefers. Solitary funnymen sometimes pull surprises in overly serious fields (see Lee Marvin, Art Carney), but Murray is stealing too much thunder among voters who like to laugh.
Ben Kingsley
House of Sand and Fog

Boy, that Ben Kingsley sure can act, huh?
Yes, he sure can, and he's already got a statuette and four nominations to prove it. So that settles that, right? Aghdashloo's the revelation, the film's been a disappointment, and Kingsley's name isn't on anyone's tongue.
Jude Law
Cold Mountain

Boy, that Jude Law sure can act, huh?
Yes, he sure can, and he's got a whole, illustrious career ahead of him to keep proving it. Plus, not everyone thinks Cold Mountain was Jude's finest hour (and clearly the film itself wasn't Oscar's cup of tea).
Bill Murray
Lost in Translation

Sean Penn was expected to sweep up the critics' awards, but Murray surprised him with the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, the Boston Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics. And despite his reputation within the industry as a grump and a recluse, it's not like Sean Penn is running for Homecoming King, either. I suspect more Hollywood lonelyhearts and burnouts can relate to this role than to either of Penn's 2003 powerhouses. But it'll be close.
As I said, Murray's made a few enemies in his day. His acerbic speech at the Globes didn't go over with everybody, and despite the excitement over Rushmore in '98 (which didn't land a nomination), he doesn't have Penn's longstanding reputation. Did I mention it'll be close?
Sean Penn
Mystic River

This has looked like Penn's year since the release schedules appeared last winter. With Mystic River and 21 Grams showing tonally disparate but comparably intense sides of Penn's prodigious talent, it's a great chance to honor this four-time nominee at a suitable moment, rather than waiting for another I Am Sam to come along. When Meryl Streep was recently asked what actor she'd most like to work with, she said Sean Penn. When Julianne Moore was asked, she said Sean Penn. Clint Eastwood broke Globes protocol (if there is such a thing) to hop the stage and sing his praises. People Who Know think this guy's a genius. But it'll be close. Clint wouldn't have had the opportunity if Sean had shown up himself - and, true though it may be, we've heard the family illness story before at awards times. Not everyone seems avid to vote for a no show, or if he does show, to hear a lecture about Iraqi suffering under U.S. action. But honestly, Hollywood can get over this stuff in a heartbeat. If Penn loses, it won't be because of any weakness in his own candidacy, it'll be because Bill Murray's candidacy is so strong. Did I mention it'll be close?

WHO WILL WIN: Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
Voters know that Penn is a phenomenal actor, and they hear tell from critics that his Jimmy Markum is a phenomenal performance. But I think they'll feel Murray's performance more, and that could make a decisive difference.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Jude Law, Cold Mountain
In an astonishingly rich field - easily the equal of the other three races combined - I could stand any of these contenders taking a prize. But I feel most partial to Law, because his immaculate performance arrived the most unexpectedly. Imagine the pressure to play this part as floridly as his illustrious castmates play theirs, as lavishly as Minghella directs and writes and John Seale photographs - but Law opts for extreme subtlety throughout the film, even when the camera's too far away to pay much attention, and even when his costars are gnoshing the Romanian scenery. It's a delicate, involving enactment of an archetypal role, similar to what Adrien Brody achieved last year. Murray and Penn are eminently deserving choices, but their directors were clearly their greatest champions; Law is at least as good with no one around he could count on to help.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Fox Searchlight did their best for In America, and though the campaign yielded a trio of nominations, Paddy Considine deserved equal recognition as the doting father, choked but sensitive, leonine but still breakable. And on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, The School of Rock's Jack Black did Johnny Depp one better, not only putting over a deliriously inspired comic tour-de-force, but also bringing out the best in a green ensemble and making his whole film come alive in a way Pirates never really does.

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