Actors' awards: sleepers, front-runners

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This year's nominations for "best actor" and best supporting actor" are a mixed bag. With so many apples, oranges, and bananas to compare, it's hard to say who will come out on top.

In the "best actor" race, it's my guess that Dustin Hoffman has the edge for "Kramer vs. Kramer," a sensitive film in which he gives a sensitive, no-nonsense performance. Jack Lemmon impressed a lot of people with his old-pro portrayal in "The China Syndrome," but Lemmon's work doesn't burrow into your heart the way Hoffman's does. Also, "The China Syndrome" was slighted in the "best picture" category, which doesn't help the actors who might have ridden to victory on its coattails.

Roy Scheider has a weird sort of presence in "All That Jazz," but here the lovability quotient is lowest of all. As for Al Pacino, everybody knows he's an uncommonly gifted performer, but ". . . And Justice for All" was an uncommonly disappointing movie, and its hysteria probably foredooms Pacino's bid as best actor.

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The dark-horse candidate, of course, is Peter Sellers in "Being There": a dignified, subtle, and immensely difficult portrayal that just might come from behind and win the race. But perhaps that would make too much sense for Hollywood to bear.

The "supporting actor" contest has lots of likely contenders. Robert Duval represents "Apocalypse Now," which also featured performances by Marlon Brando (unimpressive) and Martin Sheen (very impressive indeed). Duval would be a respectable winner, as would Frederic Forrest, whose performance was the best thing about "The Rose."

A couple of grand old men are also on hand: Mickey Rooney for his delicate work in "The Black Stallion," and Melvyn Douglas for his crusty warmth in "Being There." To cap things off, there's a grand young man -- eight-year-old Justin Henry from "Kramer vs. Kramer." He's the youngest nominee in academy award history, though nine-year-old Jackie Cooper was nominated for "Skippy" in 1930, and 10-year-old Tatum O'Neal won the Oscar for "Paper Moon" in 1973.

Despite the precedent set by Tatum, young Master Henry is the longest shot in this year's race. Duvall and Douglas probably have the edge, coupling their own popularity with estimable vehicles. But Rooney and Forrest are running close behind. It could be a photo finish.

Next week -- best-actress awardsm

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