LOS ANGELES, Feb 27: Hollywood is turning all eyes on its own brand of gold medal Oscar gold with more questions than answers about likely winners in the week leading up to the world's top film awards.
Can the cowboys of gay romance ''Brokeback Mountain'' this year's most-nominated movie with candidates in eight categories lasso best film away from its main rival, race relations drama ''Crash?'' Or, will those two movies split the vote among some 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and allow George Clooney's politically charged ''Good Night, and Good Luck,'' Steven Spielberg's ''Munich'' or morality tale ''Capote'' to sneak in and steal their glory? ''For those of us who follow this stuff, it's a lot of fun because for many years, it seemed winners were pre-ordained,'' said Richard Roeper, film critic for the popular ''Ebert&Roeper'' movie review television show.
''This year, there really is going to be that moment when they open the envelope and you're going to think, 'I don't know what they are going to say.''' The only shoo-in for victory in a major category at the March 5 Oscar ceremony seems to be Philip Seymour Hoffman as best actor for his portrayal of Truman Capote in ''Capote.'' But not so fast, the experts said.
Even Hoffman, who has won several critics' honors and the Screen Actors Guild trophy this year, is meeting a last-minute charge by ''Hustle&Flow'' star Terrence Howard.
They face Heath Ledger playing one of the gay cowboys in ''Brokeback,'' Joaquin Phoenix as singer Johnny Cash in ''Walk the Line'' and David Strathairn as newsman Edward R. Murrow in ''Good Night.''
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
The best actress race is far too close to call between favorites Reese Witherspoon playing singer June Carter in ''Walk the Line'' and Felicity Huffman in the role of a man who is nearing a sex change operation in ''Transamerica.'' Hollywood sweetheart Witherspoon has walked away with many major actress honors this year but is facing an equally popular rival in Huffman, who is campaigning strong.
''There's going to be an upset on Oscar night someplace so where is it going to come from? I'm going to go out on that limb and say, 'Felicity will win,''' said Tom O'Neil, a veteran Oscar watcher for TheEnvelope.com.
Other nominees are previous winners Judi Dench for ''Mrs.
Henderson Presents'' and Charlize Theron in ''North Country,'' as well as Britain's Keira Knightley with ''Pride&Prejudice.'' Final Oscar ballots are due tomorrow.
The most wide-open races in the top categories are the supporting actor and actress categories. Twenty-four Oscars will be awarded during the broadcast, which will take more than three hours.
Among supporting actors, Clooney playing a weary CIA agent in ''Syriana'' appears to be the favorite. The thinking is that if he doesn't win anything for ''Good Night,'' the supporting actor honor would be his consolation prize.
But Paul Giamatti won the SAG award for playing a boxing manager in ''Cinderella Man'' and many Academy members think he was robbed last year when he was not nominated for ''Sideways.'' Michelle Williams as a spurned wife in ''Brokeback'' could challenge conventional thinking in the best supporting actress race and beat the odds-on favorite, Britian's Rachel Weisz, who plays a social activist in ''The Constant Gardener.'' Newcomer Amy Adams of ''Junebug'' also has a lot of support.
Beyond the races, the big questions are whether first-time host Jon Stewart can wow audiences and who will, or won't, make the list of fashion do's, and don'ts, on the red carpet.
Stewart is known for his political satire on TV's fake news program ''The Daily Show,'' and in a year when message movies dominate the races, he may be a perfect host.
The fashion parade up the carpet outside the Kodak Theatre where the event is held is expected to show the sophisticated glamour of old Hollywood, of Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall.
''We're going to see more variety than we've seen in the past,'' said Patty Foxx, fashion coordinator for the show.
Floor-length gowns with warm shares of copper and olive will mix with vivid fuchsias and lilacs. The women will, of course, drip in diamonds, and the men will don their tuxedos.