I'd just like to thank...

Not so fast. Very little is clear-cut about this year's Academy Awards, except that the British should be worried. At least, that's what they're saying in Hollywood. By Daniel Jeffreys
One thing is guaranteed about this year's Oscars: Nicolas Cage will win for Best Actor or the Hollywood community will be shocked. "He can't be beat," says Owen Lieberman, the movie critic at New York's Entertainment Weekly since 1981. "I'd bet my paycheck on that."

Cage has won almost every pre-Oscar award for his portrayal of an uncompromising alcoholic on a terminal drinking spree. Despite tough competition from Sean Penn's mesmeric performance in Dead Man Walking, Cage has been annointed.

After that, the word on the street is confusion. "There will be surprises across the board," says Hollywood publicist Melanie Hodal, the president of DDA Los Angeles. "I think Babe could win Best Picture."

That would be an achievement for the Australian barnyard fable about a talking pig, especially as it faces such tough competition. Sense and Sensibility, Apollo 13, and Braveheart all have a strong case as does Il Postino, only the fourth foreign-language movie to get a Best Picture nomination.

"I think Il Postino could easily win," says the Hollywood producer Fred Zollo. "I don't think Massimo Troisi [the lead], will win Best Actor but he refused a heart transplant in the middle of shooting the film so it could be finished on time. Then he died 24 hours after his last scene. That makes the film a sentimental favourite." Il Postino was directed by Britain's Michael Radford, who was nominated for Best Director.

British talent is represented in every leading category of the awards but most Hollywood insiders think the UK will come up empty. "Emma Thompson will win for Best Screenplay," says ABC TV's movie critic Joel Siegel. "I don't think they can win elsewhere." The best Brit hope is Anthony Hopkins for Best Actor but that goes to Nicolas Cage, and Mike Figgis will not win for Leaving Las Vegas because of Dead Man Walking. Tim Robbins deserves a perseverance Oscar for his death-row movie. When he took the project to Hollywood, everybody loved the cast list with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon but the big studios demanded changes to sweeten the grim ending. Robbins refused and had to make the searing execution drama on just $8m. "It's a text book example of how a director can prosper by sticking to his guns," says Owen Lieberman. "The result is simply a superior drama. It's actually a kind of love story and it's very moving. I think Robbins has the edge over Mike Figgis because Tim now has a bandwagon behind him and the movie isn't as bleak as Leaving Las Vegas."

Dead Man Walking is also expected to deliver a Best Actress Oscar for Susan Sarandon who has already won the 1996 Golden Globe in the same category. Her performance as a nun is not so strong as Penn's menacing killer but she has other advantages. It's Sarandon's fifth Oscar nomination and her reputation in Hollywood has never been stronger, while her role is central to a film that has won universal acclaim. By comparison, Sharon Stone loses because Casino was so widely disliked, Emma Thompson fails because her first Oscar was also for a period piece and Elizabeth Shue just isn't as good. The other runner is Meryl Streep but insiders say the buzz around her role in The Bridges of Madison County peaked too soon.

The last award presented at the ceremony on 26 March is for Best Picture. London bookies have made Sense and Sensibility the favourite, partly because Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas are not nominated in that category. "I don't think Sense and Sensibility will win," says Zollo. "I think the key is that director Ang Lee didn't get a nomination and that shows the enthusiasm for the movie is not as deep as people thought."

It has to contend with two juggernauts - Mel Gibson's medieval battlefield epic Braveheart took 10 nominations and Ron Howard's docudrama Apollo 13 has nine. "Gibson's Braveheart did not receive any nominations in the four acting categories," says Siegel. "That will impede the film's momentum but among Academy members there is genuine love for the movie."

Apollo 13 is a different story. It opened over a year ago and that has been a disadvantage in the past, while Ron Howard may be too unglamorous and worthy to carry off the grand prizes of Best Director and Best Picture. Some issues have been resolved, though: Tom Hanks will not win Best Actor for the third year in a row because he did not get nominated for his Apollo 13 role. Batman Forever, last year's highest grosser, earned just three minor nominations and Waterworld, the world's most expensive movie got just one, for its surrealistic soundtrack.

The season of forecasting mania is upon us, but the only thing that can safely be predicted is that this year's Oscars will, as usual, throw up some surprises. Bar one - you can bet your bottom dollar that Nicholas Cage has already collected his acceptance speech.

And the nominees are...

Best picture: Babe, Apollo 13, Braveheart, The Postman (Il Postino), and Sense and Sensibility.

Best director: Chris Noonan for Babe, Tim Robbins for Dead Man Walking, Mel Gibson for Braveheart, Mike Figgis for Leaving Las Vegas and Michael Radford for The Postman.

Best actor: Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland's Opus,. Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking and Massimo Troisi in The Postman.

Best actress: Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County, Sharon Stone in Casino and Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility.

Best supporting actor: Brad Pitt for 12 Monkeys, Tim Roth for Rob Roy, Kevin Spacey for The Usual Suspects, Ed Harris for Apollo 13 and James Cromwell for Babe.

Best supporting actress: Joan Allen for Nixon, Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite, Kate Winslet for Sense and Sensibility, Kathleen Quinlan for Apollo 13 and Mare Winningham for Georgia.

Best foreign-language film: All Things Fair (Sweden), Antonia's Line (Netherlands), Dust of Life (Algeria), O Quatrilho (Brazil) and Star Maker (Italy).