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'Crash' or 'Good Night' can still beat 'Brokeback' at the Oscars

January 17, 2006 |  3:20 pm

After sweeping the Golden Globes, "Brokeback Mountain" is now, officially, ahead for the best picture Academy Award, yes, but this is an Oscar race like we've never before seen.

Within a few weeks the whole derby will shut down for more than a month — something that's never happened. A few years ago, when the Oscars moved up to February in order to be in the shadow of sweeps and get higher TV viewership, the guild awards rescheduled to January in order to remain out front. Now this year comes the Winter Olympics in February. The Academy Awards don't want to compete with that, so they moved the other way — to March.

In between the guild kudos and Oscars will be a long stretch when nothing happens on the awards scene, giving stubborn Hollywooders lots of time to change their minds. Furthermore, there will be an extra week in between the announcement of nominations and winners. That's another wild card. Remember, just a few years ago when "The Pianist" snuck up on "Chicago" to win best director, actor and screenplay? Lots of Oscarwatchers said, "Oh, if only there was just one more week in the Oscar race, I bet you that 'The Pianist' would've won best picture, too!"

All "Crash" or "Good Night, and Good Luck" need in the next two weeks is a lucky break at the guild awards and the momentum of the derby can shift abruptly. The producers' guild unveils its best picture on Jan. 22 and directors name their champ on Jan. 28. Both awards are considered excellent tea leaves of the Oscars' eventual choice. Indeed, many academy voters actually look to them for guidance.

The producers' guild sometimes surprises Hollywood by opting for small films like "The Crying Game," probably because they represent such a great return on investment. Certainly, "Crash" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" reflect the same.

The directors' guild members almost always slobber over actors-turned-directors. Heck, Ron Howard won for helming "Apollo 13" and he wasn't even nominated at the Oscars. That bodes well for George Clooney.

But Clooney also has something else going for him at DGA too. The vast majority of its 13,000 members work in TV, not feature films. Clooney came from TV — "E.R." — and his "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a film about the early glory days of television.

Paul Haggis has strong pluses at DGA too. For decades he has toiled in the TV trenches, directing and writing scads of TV shows. He not only knows many members personally, he represents their ultimate career dream: he's crossed over into feature films fantastically and despite great odds. He continued to helm "Crash" even after suffering a heart attack while shooting. His reward was a little movie that hung on in theaters for months and months, gradually building an audience to become one of the top-grossing dramas of 2005. His studio is now ardently behind his awards campaign, blitzing Hollywood with more DVD screeners than any movie in kudos history.

Besides, DGA already has given Ang Lee its top award — for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Members have permission to stray from "Brokeback" this year, if they wish.

So — do you see how utterly fascinating this current Oscar derby is?