It’s Penn or Crowe for Best Actor

If you are placing bets on who will win best actor at this year’s Academy Awards, put all your money on Russell Crowe or Sean Penn. Not because these two men are phenomenal actors, but because they both portray characters with mental illnesses.

Since 1988, when Dustin Hoffman won the golden statuette for playing an autistic savant in “Rain Man,” the Academy has been honoring the work of actors in handicapped, mentally deranged or retarded roles. Crowe and Penn definitely fall into the retard genre Hollywood has come to love, Crowe playing schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” and Penn as the mentally retarded Sam Dawson trying to gain custody of his daughter in “I Am Sam.”

Surely these two roles will beat out Will Smith as prizefighter Muhammed Ali, Denzel Washington as a corrupt cop in “Training Day” and “In The Bedroom’s” Tom Williamson as a father dealing with his son’s affair with an older woman. Exciting roles, to be sure, but they lack the Oscar-worthy attributes of human defects.

Of the 11 awards handed out since “Rain Man,” more than half have gone to handicapped or mentally wanting roles, and the others are arguably leaning in that direction. In 1992, Al Pacino won for playing a blind man in “Scent of a Woman.” Geoffrey Rush showed us the fall into a mental institution in 1996 as pianist David Helfgott in “Shine.” Jack Nicholson won an Oscar in 1997 for “As Good as it Gets,” in which he plays an obsessive-compulsive author with the tact of a Tasmanian devil. (It’s important to note that Nicholson’s other Oscar was for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975.)

Nicolas Cage won for playing a definitely-unstable alcoholic who moves in with a hooker while he tries to drink himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas” in 1995. And who will ever forget Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in 1994, the low-IQ Vietnam vet who wanders into every significant event to take place during his lifetime without even noticing.

The other winners since 1988 are either on their way to an institution, closely associated with handicap or chosen for political reasons because there were no handicapped or mentally retarded roles on the list. Daniel Day Lewis won for “My Left Foot” in 1989 — he was not handicapped but the movie is about a spastic quadriplegic. Kevin Spacey won in 1999 for “American Beauty,” in which he suffers a mid-life crisis.

Roberto Benigni won for “Life is Beautiful” in 1998, and after his acceptance speech one would wonder about his mental capacity. In 1993 it was Tom Hanks for “Philadelphia” — this a political choice. Hanks plays a gay man with AIDS fighting to get his job back. Clearly one of those “insult my intelligence” films and with illness to boot! Crowe won last year for “Gladiator” — again, there were no handicapped roles in 2001, and many suggest he won because it was his due.

To be fair, the Oscars have always been predictable. In the ’60s, the Academy honored musicals and comedies (i.e. “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music”). In the ’70s and early ’80s we saw the rise of ordinary people doing outstanding things (“The Sting,” “Rocky” and “Chariots of Fire”).

The distinguishing feature of Oscar’s latest formula is that it does not require outstanding performances. Contrary to what many think, it is much easier to play someone who is retarded than it is to portray real life. The roles are so over the top an actor would be hard pressed to get it wrong. I personally have an outstanding handicapped act that would be sure to win an Oscar — just ask my friends.

Not that all these actors can’t act. We’ve seen them in other films (Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” Al Pacino in just about anything, Dustin Hoffman, again, in anything), and we know they have thesbian abilities. It just appears that Hollywood is pandering to our sick, voyeuristic need to watch handicapped folks try to make it through life.

Be honest with yourself, when you walk away from movies like “Forrest Gump” and “I Am Sam,” have you truly identified with the characters? Did you feel what they feel? Please. You watched it because you are sick, twisted and fascinated with life’s deformities. It’s the same reason so many watch professional wrestling.

The trend couldn’t be more clear, especially with “I Am Sam,” a movie definitely made for an Oscar run. The real question is why Guy Pearce was snubbed for “Memento.”

Of course, the Academy could decide it’s time to change the formula and give an Oscar to Will Smith or Denzel Washington because it needs to prove its political correctness and award more black actors. But I’m placing my bets on Crowe and Penn.