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Tom Wilkinson and Casey Affleck face-off in murky Oscar niche

John Anderson
Newsday (MCT)

Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney

There are at least two rules about Oscar's supporting-actor category: One, it's always more interesting than the other races, and, two, it's always a bit confusing - a grab bag of performances Academy voters don't know what else to do with.

As usual, this year's list includes names that don't seem to belong there. (Isn't Casey Affleck the lead in "The Assassination of Jesse James "?) Actors from comedies, which never get much Oscar attention (Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"). The lifetime-achievement-type candidate (Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"). And the actor who might have been a lead if he had more lines or better hair, and for whom a supporting award is like a warm-up for best actor honors later. (Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"; see also: George Clooney, "Good Night, and Good Luck.")

This year there's also Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton"), whom one hesitates to declare beloved, but whose filmography - "In the Bedroom," "Shakespeare in Love," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and, recently, "Cassandra's Dream" - has proven him an actor's actor. In "Michael Clayton," he plays the mentally unstable colleague of Clooney's title character and has a genuinely supporting role. Being based in the U.K., Wilkinson says, allows him a distanced view of the Oscar hysteria.

"It's important to a lot of people, isn't it?" he asked by phone, with astounding British understatement. "I have to say, living here in London and being a rather detached member of the show business community, I always find it a little bit peculiar the amount of excitement generated by this whole thing. The fact that until recently it was almost not going to happen was, to some people, a terrible tragedy."

It's not exactly coal mining, but the awards season can be tough on actors. "I think it's OK to be excited about a film you're excited by," said Hoffman, who had also been considered a potential best actor nominee this year, for either "The Savages" or "Before the Devil Knows Your Dead." "If there's a film you did that you truly do like, and it gets caught up in that hoopla, I think it's OK."

Awards hoopla is one thing, but box-office hoopla is another. "Michael Clayton" did far less well (a respectable if unremarkable $46.5 million domestically) than Oscar nominees are supposed to do. On the other hand, it got seven nominations, more than it was supposed to get.

"I always thought it was a good film," said Wilkinson, 59. "I don't know why that happened, because it always struck me as a film that would be very catchy, for no other reason than it includes a very good performance by a very famous actor in the middle of it - a movie star, George.

"It did quite decent business, but everyone thought it would have done a little bit better. I can't really explain that, although it's not a movie aimed at the 14-year-old market."

He's realistic about the odds. "I haven't seen the competition, but I know it's very good," said Wilkinson, whose performance in "In the Bedroom" earned him a best actor nomination in 2002. "My chances of winning an Oscar are very minimal - Javier Bardem seems to be carrying everything before him. I think I need better hair and need to shout more. That would solve a lot of problems."

Still, Wilkinson will be in Hollywood on Oscar Night. And he'll be wearing ... ?

"Same thing I wore last time," he said with a laugh. "No new tuxedoes, thank you very much."

___

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR NOMINEES

Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"

Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"

Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"

Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"

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