HOLLYWOOD, CALIF — "The envelope please."
When presenters whisper the loaded words in the best-actor category on tonight's Oscarcast, the winner most likely will be someone who portrayed a character with a mental or physical defect.
If you're trying to guess, that clue won't narrow the field much: Four of the five nominees played such a role, accelerating a trend that American film critics and historians say has come to dominate the world of cinema.
The lopsided odds in favor of characters with serious physical or mental problems partly reflect Hollywood's marketing penchant for milking every drop of success from previous seasons - seven of the past eight best-actor Oscars have gone to such roles.
But the trend also reflects Americans' long-established affinity for misfits and the downtrodden, built on a key premise of classic dramatic structure.
"It has been a truism since Greek tragedy that audiences empathize with such fallen people because they mirror their own wounds - so they ennoble them and try to raise them up with compassion," says Mel Shapiro, professor in the School of Theater, Film, and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Add that to the success of recent American films, and you see why Hollywood is sticking with a formula that works ... at least for now."
This year's crop of actors portraying the afflicted are Geoffrey Rush as a pianist suffering mental breakdown in "Shine," Billy Bob Thornton as a mildly retarded killer in "Sling Blade," Ralph Fiennes as a bandage-wrapped burn victim in "The English Patient," and Woody Harrelson as a paralyzed porn king in "The People vs. Larry Flynt."
Just last year Nicholas Cage won the best-actor Oscar for his portrayal of an alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas." Before that, it was Tom Hanks as a simpleton ("Forrest Gump") and an AIDS victim ("Philadelphia"). Al Pacino won as a blind man ("Scent of a Woman"), Anthony Hopkins as a cannibalistic psychopath ("Silence of the Lambs"), Daniel Day Lewis as a man with cerebral palsy ("My Left Foot"), and Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant ("Rain Man").
The seeds of the phenomenon were planted early in Hollywood history, says Jeanine Basinger, film professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Suave and sophisticated Cary Grant never won a best-actor Oscar. Hero-meister John Wayne didn't win one until he put on an eye-patch and used crude language as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit." Humphrey Bogart was passed over for the Oscar in his signature tuxedo-and-fedora roles ("Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon").
"It has always been true that the academy opts for what I call 'broken down' performances," she says. "The clich has always been that audiences want to see and actors want to play the guy with the lisp, limp, hump, eye patch."
More recently, Anthony Hopkins's role as a repressed butler in "Remains of the Day," or as a British aristocrat in "Howard's End," were by-passed in favor of psychopathic criminal Hannibal Lechter.
The desire to portray the offbeat role comes as much from the actor's preference as from the demand of the audience, acting coaches say.
"Actors adore playing characters with handicaps and physical/mental quirks, because they offer mannerisms and affectations they can sink their teeth into," says UCLA's Mr. Shapiro.
"Actors who play troubled characters have a chance to show what they do in a way that is more visible because it is busier on the screen," adds Clay Steinman, a professor of communication studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "Geoffrey Rush's ["Shine"] is one of the busiest I've seen in years."
Mr. Steinman says the academy likes to reward actors who play people with problems because "it shows the industry has a conscience ... though from its history of sexist and racist and violent images, it has no conscience at all."
Others take digs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for not being a reflection of American tastes.
ELECTED to academy for life, the 3,500-plus voting members become eligible to join when they have garnered a sufficient number of screen credits. On average, they are older than the US population and more conservative, says academy member Delia Salvi, a film professor at UCLA. Long-held, traditional views of acting make it hard for the academy to reward the subtler roles of typical human beings that rely on deep emotion because such roles are less "showy," she says.
"The academy has an inferiority complex about artful roles that require the full range of human emotions," says Ms. Salvi. "They prefer the role that is more one-dimensional and over the top. After a while, screenwriters quit writing about normal people."
Not true, says Phil Pines, an actor since age 11 and a 25-year academy veteran. "I categorically deny that the academy has a penchant for rewarding aberration," he says. What he looks for, overall, is honesty and "a convincing interpretation [of the role] that holds up beginning to end."
Academy member Eva McVeigh, who has acted in films from "High Noon" to "King Kong" and "The Graduate," says, "I now look for the actor who has to dig deeper [than affected mannerisms]."