In an off year, some Oscar contenders are slowly coming into focus


The Oscar derby, in danger of being canceled because of a lack of participants, is slowly coming to life.

Danny Glover's mesmerizing performance in "To Sleep With Anger" is a shoo-in. So, too, are Glenn Close's Sonny von Bulow and Ron Silver's Alan Dershowitz, both in "Reversal of Fortune."

Close, a five-time nominee for such films as "Fatal Attraction" and "Dangerous Liaisons," can't miss with her sad, lonely, possibly suicidal Newport heiress. It's the kind of restrained but heartbreaking work that always turns Academy members' heads. All that's left to be determined is: Should Close be nominated as best actress or supporting actress? The real stars of the films are Silver and Jeremy Irons as suspected killer Claus von Bulow; Close, who spends most of the film in a coma (but still manages to narrate), is more of a supporting player, the possible victim whose regal, icy presence permeates every frame.

This doesn't matter. Oscar is notorious for mistaking glorified cameos for leads. Ask Close. She was a supporting player in "Dangerous Liaisons" but still wound up in the best-actress category in '89, alongside Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Melanie Griffith and Jodie Foster, the winner.

And what about Irons, whose dual roles in "Dead Ringers" were scandalously overlooked by Oscar? As Claus the louse, he gets to age on screen and play the definitive aristocratic rotter. The Academy has to take notice, no?

Somehow, I think Irons will be overlooked again. He's superb as usual in the sumptuously designed and executed docu-melodrama, but the role is, essentially, a cakewalk for him, a fun masquerade as a hilariously smug gold-digger. Oscar likes to see its favorites sweat for the brass ring; that Irons doesn't could cost him a much-deserved nomination.

Other nominations are certain to come from "The Godfather III," with Al Pacino and Diane Keaton, Kevin Costner's impressive "Dances With Wolves," and "Awakenings," with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams; but if they don't, Oscar will have to fly in the face of tradition and flesh out the nominees with performances given in the first half of the year. Once again, it's easier to pull together the actor categories than the actress, another reflection of the absurd paucity of worthy roles for women.

Possibles for best actor: Nick Nolte ("Q&A;"); Glover ("To Sleep with Anger"); Dennis Hopper ("Flashback"); Richard Gere ("Internal Affairs"); Fred Ward ("Henry & June"); Jason Patric ("After Dark, My Sweet"); Nicolas Cage ("Wild at Heart"); Silver ("Reversal of Fortune"); Peter Falk ("Tune in Tomorrow"); Michael Caine ("A Shock to the System").

Supporting actor: Bruce Davison ("Longtime Companions"); Paul Winfield ("Presumed Innocent"); Luis Guzman ("Q&A;"); Alun Armstrong ("White Hunter, Black Heart"); Lloyd Bridges ("Joe Versus the Volcano"); Graham Greene ("Dances With Wolves"); Al Pacino ("Dick Tracy"); and current front-runners Joe Pesci ("GoodFellas") and Bruce Dern ("After Dark, My Sweet").

Best actress: Close ("Reversal of Fortune"); Laura Dern ("Wild at Heart"); Cybill Shepherd ("Texasville"); Annie Potts ("Texasville"); Madonna ("Dick Tracy"); Helen Mirren ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover").

Supporting actress: Billie Whitelaw ("The Krays"); Diane Ladd ("Wild at Heart"); Uma Thurman ("Henry & June"); Sheryl Lee Ralph ("To Sleep With Anger"); Lorraine Bracco ("GoodFellas").

Many are extreme long shots. All of the 'Wild at Heart" people could be snubbed because David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" was snubbed in the Emmy competition. "Q&A;'s" knockout ensemble may be overlooked because the film was such a downer and appeared so early in the year.

"Texasville" and "Presumed Innocent" didn't perform at the box office, and "Dick Tracy" is a cartoon fantasy that will most likely fall prey to Oscar's hypocritical dislike of big-budget fantasies. No one saw Hopper's counterculture cutup in "Flashback." Too bad. It was a career benchmark.

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