On the one hand, the picture with the most nominations usually takes the top prize. This year, that's "LOTR" -- as its fans have come to call it -- with 13.
"A Beautiful Mind" and "Moulin Rouge" have eight apiece. "Gosford Park" has seven and "In the Bedroom" has five.
But another historical trend works against director Peter Jackson's first screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic literary trilogy -- and in favor of "Moulin Rouge."
Director Baz Luhrmann's spectacle -- a tragic love story set in bohemian Paris at the dawn of the 20th century -- won the second-most coveted best picture trophy in Hollywood when the Producers Guild of America selected it for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producers Award.
The PGA Award has been the more reliable predictor of Oscar gold.
Before this year, of the 20 movies that collected 12 or more Oscar nominations, seven failed to win the best-picture Oscar. On the other hand, the Zanuck Award-winner has gone on to take the Oscar 10 times in the 13-year history of the PGA Awards.
At least one of those two bellwethers -- most nominations, PGA Award -- will come away from the 74th Academy Awards with a lower batting average. Both could turn out to be irrelevant to this year's race if any of the other three nominees -- "A Beautiful Mind," "Gosford Park" or "In the Bedroom" manages a best-picture win.
The 13 nominations for "LOTR" are one short of the record, 14, shared by "All About Eve" (1950) and "Titanic" (1997).
It's an especially impressive haul considering that the movie only managed one acting nomination -- for Ian McKellen's performance as the wizard Gandalf. That more or less compares with "Titanic," which counted just two acting nominations -- Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart -- among its 14.
But "LOTR," let's face it, isn't about the acting.
McKellen is considered a favorite for supporting actor, but he is in what may be the toughest of Oscar categories -- with Jim Broadbent ("Iris"), Ethan Hawke ("Training Day"), Ben Kingsley ("Sexy Beast") and Jon Voight ("Ali"). At this year's nominees luncheon, Voight said he could name "20-25" performances by other actors that could easily have taken the place of any of the nominated performance.
Jackson's chances for a directing Oscar are complicated by a building juggernaut of support for Ron Howard, who won the Directors Guild of America's top feature film award for "A Beautiful Mind." There seems to be general agreement that if Howard doesn't win Robert Altman will, for the class-conscious murder-mystery "Gosford Park."
Likewise, Jackson and his collaborators may well keep their seats when the Oscar is presented for adapted screenplay. That honor is likely to go to Akiva Goldsman for "A Beautiful Mind" -- regardless of the current controversy about whether the movie whitewashes the true nature of its subject, math genius John Nash who suffered from schizophrenia.
Howard Shore is in a tough fight for the original music score prize with John Williams ("A.I. Artificial Intelligence," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"), James Horner ("A Beautiful Mind") and Randy Newman ("Monsters, Inc.").
Williams has won so often, he's considered a favorite any time he shows up on the list of nominees. Horner, who won for "Titanic," is benefiting from an aggressive marketing campaign by Universal Pictures. Newman has been nominated so often without ever winning that the law of averages dictates he will win eventually.
"LOTR" is also up for best song, "May It Be" by Enya. Newman is also up for best song, along with Diane Warren ("Pearl Harbor"), Sting ("Kate & Leopold") and Paul McCartney. The academy went with pop stars the last two years, Bob Dylan for "Things Have Changed" ("Wonder Boys") and Phil Collins for "You'll Be in My Heart" ("Tarzan").
As usual, the art direction, cinematography, costume design and visual effects categories are loaded with worthy nominees, making it almost impossible to project winners. "LOTR's" main competitors in those fields -- "Gosford Park," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Moulin Rouge" -- could end up splitting the booty among themselves.
If "LOTR" cleans up in the tech-design awards -- presented relatively early in the telecast -- that will be a sign that the picture is headed for a big night. If it doesn't already have a clutch of statuettes heading into the final hour of the telecast, it shapes up as an Oscar-night disappointment.
It is conceivable -- if not likely -- that "LOTR" could even set a new record for futility at the Academy Awards. "The Turning Point" (1977) and "The Color Purple" (1985) are tied for the "distinction," having won no Oscars despite 11 nominations.
It's doubtful that Jackson is spending any energy worrying about the 74th Academy Awards. He's deep into post-production on "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
The second of his "Rings" trilogy is due in theaters around Christmas -- and will, in all likelihood be the subject of endless rounds of Oscar stories this time next year.
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