Oscar 2006: Acting Race Is Over Helen Mirren Faces No Threat, but What about Forest Whitaker

Helen Mirren Faces No Threat, but What about Forest Whitaker

What to say and not to say Or rather, what to wear or not to wear That is the burning question this award season for the terrific British actress Helen Mirren.

As of today, in an unprecedented success, Mirren has swept all of the critics groups awards, including New York, L.A., Boston, National Board of Review, and even the Phoenix group.

I am not so concerned about Mirren's wardrobea visionary fashion consultant could make sure that she is not wearing the same outfit to all of the ceremonies in the months to come.

However, how many versions of “thank you” can she envision She may need an inventive speechwriter to assist her. She obviously can't say the same things in each and every event. Nor can she talk about her preparation for the role or the meaning it has had for her career. More to the point, could there be a backlash Will Academy voters, by the time they vote, be tired of seeing Mirren so many times, reiterating the same (or similar) speech.

Forest Whitaker faces a similar problem, having won most (but not all) of the critics kudos for his seminal performance as tyrant leader Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” The L.A. Film Critics Association (of which I am a member) has declared a tie between Whitaker and Sacha Baron Cohen for the racy comedy, “Borat.” Other groups have also singled out the eccentric Brit comedian for his work.

Even so, it's rare that two actors, neither of whom a star, both playing royal figures, have such a lock on the acting kudosand so early in the game. Oscar predictions were made by this writer and other journalists as soon as we saw “The Queen” and “Last King of Scotland,” in late August; both films premiered at major film festivals. A number of us said, half jokingly, half seriously, why should the studios spend big bucks on campaigning for the Best Actress if the race has already been determined.

Could there be a surprise comes February 25, on the order of last year's, when Paul Haggis's inter-racial drama “Crash” grabbed the Best Picture Oscar, despite consensus of opinion and nearly uniformed praise for Ang Lee's gay cowboy romance, “Brokeback Mountain.”

Examining the Oscars annals, such an upset occurred once, in 1989, when Michelle Pfeiffer won all the critics awards for “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” yet at Oscar time, vet Jessica Tandy won the Actress Oscar for “Driving Miss Daisy.” It does help, as I pointed out in my book, All About Oscar, if the nominated performance is contained in a high-profile, Oscar-nominated picture. “Miss Daisy” was nominated and won Best Picture, but “Fabulous Baker Boys” was not.

This year, Mirren will benefit from the kudos that her movie has received in other categories (Best Picture from the Toronto critics and Screenplay recognition for Peter Morgan in several group) and the fact that it's a box-office hit. One of the best-reviewed pictures of the year, “The Queen” likely will get 5 to 9 nominations, including Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actor (Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair), Score, and others.

This is not the case of Forest Whitaker and “Last King of Scotland,” a film well-reviewed by critics but not seen by many people; as of today, it has grossed less than $4 million at the box-office.

There's no real threat to Mirren's dominance in the Best Actress category, which will include fellow countrywoman and Academy favorite Judi Dench for “Notes on a Scandal,” Meryl Streep for the comedy, “The Devil Wears Prada,” and Kate Winslet for the arthouse film, “Little Children.” Dench and Streep have received multiple nominationsand have won Oscars: the former in the supporting league for “Shakespeare in Love,” and the latter a supporting Oscar for “Kramer Vs. Kramer” in 1979 and Best Actress for “Sophie's Choice” in 1982. Though Winslet has been nominated several times before, it's unlikely that she will grab the Actress Oscar this year.

Meryl Streep's Dominance in 1979 and 1982

Speaking of Meryl Streep, the most-nominated actress in the Academy's annals (with “Devil Wears Prada,” her record will boast 14!), this intelligent, versatile actress dominated the acting races twice. The first time in 1979, when she received all the critics awards, for either “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” and for her joint work in that picture, as well “Manhattan” and “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (directed by Jerry Schatzberg)

No woman has dominated the lead acting race in such a striking manner between 1982 and this yearMirren's Year! If memory serves, such dominance occurred in 1985 in the Supporting Oscar, when Anjelica Huston was honored with all of the critics awards for “Prizzi's Honor,” directed by her father, John Huston.

Up until then, Huston was known in the industry as Jack Nicholson's on-and-off girlfriend. Though an industry child (due to her noted father director and grandfather actor, Walter Huston), Huston came out of nowhere, to use popular Hollywood parlor.

Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker does face a number of dangers and threats. As noted, “Last King of Scotland” was not particularly commercial, plus there's competition from two major actors likely to garner a Best Actor nomination: bankable star Will Smith for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and Academy favorite, Peter O'Toole, for an incredibly subtle performance in the British melodrama, “Venus.”

Smith has been nominated once before, for the biopicture “Ali,” in a year that saw another black peformer winning the Actor Oscar, Denzel Washington, playing a corrupt cop in “Training Day.” The good news for minority actors this year is that there may be three contenders: Whitaker, Smith, and Japanese thespian Ken Watanabe, for the war drama, “Letters from Iwo Jima.” A known quantity to Academy members, Watanabe has previously been nominated for a supporting Oscar in “The Last Samurai.”

The bigger question is how will the Academy handle Peter O'Toole, an actor who has been nominated seven times, all of which in the league category, beginning with “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962. O'Toole has also received an Honorary Oscar, a kudo given by the Academy to its greatest losers. You may recall that initially O'Toole was reluctant to accept the honorit's as if he knew that he was still in the run for a legit, competitive Oscar.

Oscar Trivia: If Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker win the lead acting Oscars, they'll share in common not only the kind of role they play, but also the same screenwriter: Peter Morgan is sole writer of “The Queen” and co-scripter of “The Last King of Scotland.”

Stay tuned!