LOS ANGELES, March 21 (UPI) -- It's easy to see why "Gosford Park" -- which has seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture -- is so well-liked in the acting community since, more than any of the other nominees for this year's best picture Oscar, it laid out such a splendid feast for actors.
The other nominated pictures, of course, offered well-written and challenging roles -- the kinds of parts that give actors the opportunity to give high-impact performances.
But "A Beautiful Mind," "In the Bedroom" and 'Moulin Rouge" feature just a handful of such roles compared to "Gosford Park." And "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" -- although it features a huge cast -- is so much about exposition and spectacle that opportunities to do the thing actors love to do most, display emotional depth, are limited.
Several "Gosford Park" cast members have said they were attracted to the project by the chance to work with director Robert Altman. Helen Mirren -- who along with fellow cast member Maggie Smith is up for a supporting actress Oscar -- called Altman one of the great masters in the history of filmmaking.
The casting of such old pros as Mirren, Smith, Michael Gambon, Eileen Atkins, Derek Jacobi and Alan Bates had the effect of attracting other stars, including U.S. heartthrob Ryan Phillippe -- who were enamored by the prospect of working with the theatrical equivalent of Babe Ruth's New York Yankees, known in the late 1920s and early '30s as Murderer's Row.
Bates, in particular, has been singled out for praise for playing a butler -- a part that required him to stand silently in the background of so many scenes that in most other productions it might have been cast with a lesser actor. Of course, like the others, he had his moments to take center stage and, like the others, he nailed it.
There is no mystery behind the Screen Actors Guild's decision to honor "Gosford Park" with its trophy this year for outstanding ensemble in a motion picture.
The SAG endorsement might be the movie's best hope for a best picture Oscar.
Some Hollywood veterans think Altman has a shot at best director, but the smart money is still on Ron Howard for "A Beautiful Mind."
"Gosford Park's" best opportunity for an Oscar of any kind seems to be in the original screenplay category. Julian Fellows -- writing from an idea by Altman and "Gosford Park" cast member Bob Balaban -- wrote a razor-sharp script that Altman has called "foolproof." Fellowes won the Writers Guild of America's top original screenplay award earlier this month.
Until the SAG Awards on March 10, most observers in Hollywood figured Jennifer Connelly had a lock on the Oscar for her performance in "A Beautiful Mind." That dynamic may have changed after Mirren won the SAG Award for female actor in a supporting role, and Smith's performance was easily as Oscar-worthy as any others in the field -- so supporting actress has become a tougher call than it was two weeks ago.
Altman's son, Stephen Altman, is up for the Oscar for art direction -- one of the toughest categories to figure, since it also includes the impressive designs of "Amélie," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Moulin Rouge."
"Gosford Park's" costume design is also nominated, but the competition is pretty strong in that category as well, featuring "The Affair of the Necklace" as well as "Harry Potter," "Rings" and "Moulin Rouge."
"A Beautiful Mind," "Moulin Rouge" and "The Lord of the Rings" can each make a strong case for best picture, based on their successes during the awards season so far. Ron Howard's Directors Guild of America win, "Moulin Rouge's" Producers Guild of America win and a total of 13 nominations for "Rings" gives each a historical trend that it might ride to the winner's circle.
"Gosford Park" may have a secret weapon, though. The actors branch of the academy is the largest voting bloc, and if actors decide to reward the work of Altman and company, the Oscar could swing their way.
That's a long shot, but the Oscar race is so wide open this year, a case can be made that all of the nominees need a bit of luck to capture the top prize.