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The hunt for gold in February

As the 2006 awards season approaches, the time draws near for the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences to announce its selections for the year’s greatest achievements in film. The 79th annual Academy Awards airs on ABC on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m., and while nominations will not be officially announced until Jan. 23, here’s a rundown of some of the most likely nominees in the six biggest categories:

Best Supporting Actor:

This category should be particularly exciting, since there is no frontrunner. Ben Affleck, who received critical praise for his portrayal of television’s George Reeves (Adventures of Superman) in Hollywoodland, finally seems to have escaped the gargantuan critical and box office failure of Gigli and should earn his first acting nomination. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy’s dramatic turn as aging soul man James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls has been one of the most talked-about roles of the year. Three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson is likely to claim his 13th nomination for his performance as Boston mob boss Frank Costello in The Departed, with Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) also earning recognition.

Best Supporting Actress:

For her stunning, star-marking performance as jilted soul singer Effie White in Dreamgirls, expect former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson to dominate this category. Months before Dreamgirls even hit theaters, Hudson’s performance was being discussed as possible Oscar bait, and the unanimous acclaim the film – and her portrayal – has earned has only increased her chances of going home a winner. All of the other contenders seem weak in comparison, but look for past winner Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal), Catherine O’Hara (For Your Consideration) and a pair of Babel stars (Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi) to also make the cut.

Best Actor:

The way the awards season has been going so far, the smart money is on Forest Whitaker’s captivating performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Despite Whitaker’s apparent lead in this race, other contenders are gaining momentum. Will Smith is certain to receive his second nomination in this category for his performance as a struggling single father in The Pursuit of Happyness, and Leonardo DiCaprio will be recognized for his complex portrayal of an undercover cop in The Departed. Either of these two could easily overcome Whitaker to claim the prize. In the other two spots, expect Peter O’Toole, who has been receiving strong support for his role in Venus, and Ryan Gosling, likely to receive his first nomination for Half Nelson. Best Actress:

Two words: Helen Mirren. Sweeping every critics group and firmly positioned as the frontrunner for the Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild prizes, Mirren’s performance as Elizabeth II in The Queen is virtually a lock to take home the Oscar. No other performance has garnered as much attention in this category, and since the Academy is unlikely to award the film itself, a dramatization of the events immediately following the tragic death of Princess Diana, this is its chance for acknowledgement. Perennial Oscar favorite Meryl Streep should score her 14th nomination as a fashion maven in The Devil Wears Prada, while Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Penelope Cruz (Volver) and Kate Winslet (Little Children) are expected to round out the remaining spots.

Best Director:

Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) should finally win his first directing award for The Departed, which many are citing as one of the best films of his career. However, Clint Eastwood, who defeated Scorsese in receiving this award for Million Dollar Baby in 2004, is likely to land double nominations for his twin World War II epics Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Aside from the Scorsese-Eastwood rematch, Paul Greengrass (United 93), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and Academy Award-nominated writer Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) should round out the directing list.

Best Picture:

With strong support across the board, The Departed seems the frontrunner for Oscar gold. However, this category is known for its surprise wins, such as the notorious 1999 triumph of Shakespeare in Love over the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan. Scorsese’s crime epic faces stiff competition from the recently released musical Dreamgirls and the ubiquitous Little Miss Sunshine, which emerged as one of the most critically lauded films of the year. While these three are guaranteed to duke it out for Best Picture, the final two slots will likely be filled by Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima, which was named best film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.