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Sunday, March 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Picking the Oscar winners: Hunk factor no shoo-in for guys, but glamour gals fare well

Seattle Times movie critic

It's no easy task to pick Oscar winners, particularly in the acting categories. Let's face it: Everyone nominated did fine and thoroughly original work. So, to make sense of this year's slate, we look to the past to identify various factors that seem to contribute to winning an Oscar. In recent years I've identified the Waitress Factor, an uncannily accurate predictor of success in the best-actress category. (In a nutshell, actresses playing waitresses win. Always. End of story.) Alas, no one got nominated for playing a waitress this year, so we'll have to turn to some other predictors ...

The "I Did My Own Singing, Damn It" Factor

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, nominated for best actress and best actor for "Walk the Line," did their own singing. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily going to help them in their quest for Oscar gold. Over the past 25 years, only one actress has won for a role that featured significant singing (Sissy Spacek, in "Coal Miner's Daughter"), and many have lost, including such luminaries as Julie Andrews ("Victor/Victoria"), Michelle Pfeiffer ("The Fabulous Baker Boys"), Meryl Streep ("Postcards from the Edge"), Nicole Kidman ("Moulin Rouge") and Renée Zellweger ("Chicago"). (For the record, Pfeiffer was robbed. Or maybe crooning "Makin' Whoopie" while writhing on top of a piano in a red dress was reward enough in itself.)

For actors, the record is even grimmer: Oscar, it appears, does not like guys who sing. Few have been nominated; none have won. (Jamie Foxx, who won for "Ray" last year, lip-synched to Ray Charles' performances.) On a side note, the academy does, however, seem to like men who play the piano, whether they're actually playing or not: F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus"), Geoffrey Rush ("Shine"), Adrian Brody ("The Pianist") and Foxx all tickled the ivories to Oscar glory. Perhaps the ideal Oscar movie would feature a pianist who falls in love with a waitress. Hollywood, take note.

The Hotness Factor

Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp — all nominated, most more than once, but none have won. Warren Beatty — yes, kids, he was hot a few decades back — never won an acting Oscar despite several nominations. Paul Newman had to wait through four decades and seven nominations before he finally won. Does Oscar have a bias against excessively handsome movie-star types? Is there no end to the world's injustices?

This is not to say that incredibly good-looking men never win Oscars — Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington won recently, to name two — but that the academy tends to smile on male actors who look more like regular guys. And who might this affect? George Clooney, nominated for "Syriana" (for which, note, he gained significant weight and wore a unflattering beard), is better-looking than any man has a right to be, particularly in a tuxedo. This may have to be enough for him, at least this year.

In the best-actress category, a strange reversal has been demonstrated. Recent winners have been tended to be young glamour-girl types, often first-time nominees: Hilary Swank (twice), Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman. Who might this benefit? Possibly 20-year-old Keira Knightley, so charming in "Pride & Prejudice," but more likely 29-year-old Reese Witherspoon, who's deserved this since "Election" and looks fetching in an evening gown, to boot.

The Full Frontal Factor

Felicity Huffman, nominated for best actress for "Transamerica," has a rare distinction that can't yet be called an Oscar factor, as nobody's done it before to my knowledge. Playing a man in the process of transgender surgery, she has two full-frontal nude scenes: one as a man (thanks to an alarmingly realistic prosthetic) and one as a woman.

Should Huffman win, expect numerous actresses to call their agents demanding just such a role — or, should I say, just such a part. Fellow nominee Keira Knightley ("Pride & Prejudice"), however, in an impressive show of Oscar one-upmanship, is currently appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine wearing only a navel stud. Whether this will increase her cachet among Oscar voters is questionable; whether Jane Austen would approve is less so.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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