This Oscar Could Be Pirate's Gold

Sean Penn's harrowing performance in Mystic River is deserving, but Johnny Depp's rock-star buccaneer will be tough to beat

By Ronald Grover

Alas, that tinselly buzz of suspense and anticipation usually associated with the Oscars seems to be missing this year. Maybe it all went to the Presidential primaries and caucuses. Or blame it on the Academy moving the awards ceremony up a month -- or the fact that many of the big races seem like a lock. But as Hollywood prepares for its Big Night on Sunday, Feb. 29, nobody in their right mind would -- or should -- bet against Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for Best Picture, and Peter Jackson, its director. Both the film and Jackson have been honored already. Jackson won the Directors' Guild award, and the film grabbed the Golden Globe.

For Best Actress, count on the heavily favored Charlize Theron for Monster, who won the Screen Actors' Guild prize on Feb. 22. Any woman as beautiful as she who can convincingly portray an evil, ugly monster deserves to win, in my book. Also heavily favored: Renee Zellweger, who played a spunky, roughneck Southerner in Cold Mountain, and Tim Robbins for his turn as a disaffected grown-up child-abuse victim in Mystic River. They each won a Best Supporting SAG award for their strong performances and are likely to repeat with Oscars. No argument from me: Theron, Zellweger, and Robbins all turned in solid performances.

POPULAR ALL-AROUND.

  In fact, the only big award that's shaping up as a genuine horse race is Best Actor -- and here it gets interesting. I think Sean Penn has a strong chance to win. The 43-year-old one-time bad boy has been nominated three other times, and his performance as the anguished father of a slain 19-year-old daughter in Mystic River was -- speaking as the father of a 19-year-old -- as moving and heartfelt as anything I saw on the screen last year.

But, Academy voters have a way of surprising, and the biggest surprise could be a shaggy-haired Johnny Depp lugging that eight-pound piece of hardware off the stage for his campy portrayal of pirate Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Depp already surprised most of Hollywood on Feb. 22 by winning the SAG award for Best Actor, beating Penn and Bill Murray, whose sullen turn as a washed-up action star (don't ask) has some folks thinking he should be rehearsing an acceptance speech. Why did Depp win? Probably because the vote was split among Penn, Murray, and Ben Kingsley, who gave a great performance in Dreamworks' House of Sand and Fog. Stranger things have happened: In 1999, the lightweight comedy Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture statue because Academy voters split between Steven Spielberg's gritty classic Saving Private Ryan and the Robert Benigni heart-warmer Life is Beautiful.

CROWD-PLEASER.

  So Depp could be this year's Shakespeare in Love. More often than not, the SAG award winner goes on to win the Big One. Moreover, SAG voters make up a sizable block of the Academy's 6,000-odd voters. And Depp, despite his earrings and street-person dress, is genuinely well-liked in Hollywood. Plus, his film is definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Besides, this is Hollywood, where dreams come true, and this just may be Depp's time to dream. Not only do the SAG folks like him, but so does most of America, at least according to Blockbuster. When the rental outfit polled nearly 43,000 of its customers about their Oscar favorites, Depp was the clear winner, with 49% of the vote. Murray was a distant No. 2 with 29%, and Penn further back with 15%.

If the Academy is paying attention to the box office (and you know it does), it's worth noting that Depp's flick has done $187 million in the U.S. -- eclipsing the other two films -- and is selling like gangbusters on video and DVD.

GOOD NEWS FOR MICKEY.

  So, I'm now leaning toward Depp as the one who should win, even though comedic actors usually don't take top prizes. Truly, Penn gave a better performance in my view. But Depp was the best thing about Pirates of the Caribbean, lighting up the screen every time the camera moved his way. There's no denying that this guy, who became a heartthrob on TV's 21 Jump Street and a mini-sensation with Edward Scissorhands, can really act.

A win for Depp would be nice news for Disney (DIS ), which is putting out no small number of corporate fires at the moment (see BW Online, 02/25/04, "Disney's New Thriller: Eisner on Ice?"). DVD and video sales of Pirates will no doubt jump again if Depp saunters up to the stage. Disney has already signed him for a sequel, probably at less than what he'd command after placing Oscar on his mantle.

Sean Penn stole my heart. But Johnny Depp kept me entertained. And maybe that's what the Academy Awards really ought to be about anyway. After all, it is the entertainment business. And a rowdy, staggering pirate with more than a passing likeness to a drugged-out rocker is entertaining. Go ahead, Hollywood. Give Depp an Oscar.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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