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Tinseltown confused at awards time

No clear frontrunners as SAG, Globes disagree

LOS ANGELES - The drama keeps building for Hollywood's awards season, which is playing out amid a bitter writers strike and a cast of contenders that grew fuzzier after the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations were handed out yesterday.

A week ago, the road drama "Into the Wild" was left in the awards wilderness, while the tragic romance "Atonement" surged to the top of the Golden Globes pack. Now "Atonement" has been left behind by the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which handed a leading four nominations to "Into the Wild."

Directed by Sean Penn, "Into the Wild" hurtled back into the Academy Awards picture with SAG nominations for lead actor Emile Hirsch, supporting players Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook, and its overall cast.

"Atonement" leads the Golden Globe field with seven nominations, including lead-acting honors for Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan - who all were snubbed by the actors guild.

The musicals "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and "Hairspray," both with multiple acting nominations at the Globes, barely registered with the guild. "Sweeney Todd" was overlooked entirely, the guild shutting out Globe nominees Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and passing over Globe contenders John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky of "Hairspray," which was nominated by SAG only for the overall cast.

Meantime, such Globe omissions as the "Into the Wild" players and Ruby Dee - a SAG supporting-actress nominee for the crime tale "American Gangster" - now have picked up steam for the Academy Awards, whose nominations come out Jan. 22.

"Into the Wild" - starring Hirsch as a real-life idealist whose spiritual quest around North America ended in tragedy in Alaska - and "Hairspray" were joined in the overall cast category by "American Gangster," the Western "3:10 to Yuma" and the crime saga "No Country for Old Men."

With critical raves plus Globe and guild nominations for supporting actor, Javier Bardem of "No Country for Old Men" may be the closest thing to an Oscar front-runner for his electrifying performance as a ruthless killer tracking a missing cache of drug money.

Yet the guild nominations even clouded that picture. "No Country for Old Men" co-star Tommy Lee Jones missed out on a Globe nomination but will compete against Bardem in SAG's supporting-actor category for his role as a wayworn sheriff.

Usually, by this time a favorite or two has emerged in many key categories, such as Helen Mirren for "The Queen" and Forest Whitaker for "The Last King of Scotland" last year. But this season, the awards are completely up for grabs, with earlier film honors more critical than ever in sorting out the Oscar landscape.

The Golden Globes will be presented Jan. 13, while SAG hands out its prizes Jan. 27. The Oscar ceremony follows on Feb. 24.

Hollywood's party time arrives under the gloom of a Writers Guild of America strike that has dragged on for seven weeks with no end in sight.

The Writers Guild, members of which walked off the job in a dispute over their cut from programming on the Internet and other new distribution methods, has denied a request from Globe organizers to allow striking writers to work on the ceremony. The union probably will do the same if and when Oscar organizers come asking for guild members to write their show.

If the strike lingers, the Globes and Oscars also could face a shortage of stars and even nominees, who may skip the awards rather than cross writers' picket lines.

"This is going to be a personal decision made by the nominees," said Alan Rosenberg, SAG president. "I certainly wouldn't go if I were nominated and there were a job action going on."

The actors guild, which has its own labor negotiations with studios coming up next year, has been steadfast in support of the writers.

That solidarity could leave the SAG awards as the only major televised film honors that come off as planned, since the Writers Guild already has granted permission for one of its members to write that show.

"Hopefully, pretty soon everybody will get the things they need," said actor Terrence Howard, who shared in the SAG cast honor two years ago for "Crash" and helped announce nominations yesterday. "If they don't, I hope the strike will continue for two or three years if it has to." *