It’ll be down to the wire on Oscar night.

All the pundits agree that, in 2006, it will be a too-close-to-call, wide open race when the golden statuettes are handed out this Sunday.

Most years there are hot favorites and strong frontrunners at Hollywood’s annual prizegiving. For example, last year Jamie Foxx was a virtual shoo-in for Ray and there was no surprise when he walked off with the trophy. But this year — despite Golden Globes and the multitude of other award shows — this 78th annual Academy Awards show is one of the most unpredictable in years. Even the Las Vegas oddsmakers are confused.

What also worries Hollywood is that, in this year’s race, almost none of the big pictures nominated were financed by major Hollywood studios. In fact, four of the five best picture movies, Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck and Capote were all low budget pictures and probably cost a little more than the catering budget for a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible flick.

In most cases, those films were bankrolled by their directors from independent business investors. Usually, of course, the Oscar movies are produced by the movieland superstudios: Warners, 20th Century Fox, Sony, Disney, Paramount or any of the rest.

The only pricey best-picture contender is the controversial thriller Munich, weighing in at $60 million from popular filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Most believe it won’t win that category.

Ventura-based entertainment writer Ivor Davis, who writes for the New York Times Syndicate, and has covered Hollywood and the Oscars for three decades, knows the politics and the peculiarities of the movie capitol. Here he takes a close look at the leading candidates and suggests who may win, who may not. And why.

Best actor

Name: David Strathairn

Age: 57

Career nominations: one

Role: Legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck.

Buzz: He gets the cerebral voting crowd in this gritty, black-and-white movie which appeals to the older crowd. And Strathairn has paid his acting dues.

Odds: 2-1

His take on the role: “I did a lot of reading, listening and a lot of looking at photos of Murrow. And occasionally talking to someone who knew him — like his son, Casey, who was on the set along with Joe and Shirley Wershba, played in our film by Robert Downey and Patricia Clarkson. I just sort of swam in all the stuff that had been written about him. Then, fortunately, George (actor-director Clooney) said, ‘Don’t worry about all that stuff. We’ll put some shoe polish in your hair. You have to learn to smoke and it’ll be fine.’ And I believed him.”

Name: Joaquin Phoenix

Age: 31

Career nominations: one

Role: Johnny Cash, the late country and western legend, in Walk the Line.

Buzz: Deserves mucho kudos for doing his own singing — and that could give him the edge among younger Oscar voters.

Odds: 3-1

His take on the role: “I pinpointed the part through the music. That’s what we worked on first. If I had to first do rehearsals and work on scenes and quickly find his voice, I could never have done it. But working on the music first and finding a level of comfort with the guitar was my first step. And through the singing, finding his speaking voice — that was the most important thing.”

Name: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Age: 38

Career nominations: one

Role: The scheming, manipulative, flamboyant author Truman Capote, in Capote.

Buzz: He’s the darling of the critics, but that’s no guarantee that Academy voters will feel the same way.

Odds: 4-l

His take on the role: “I thought it was absurd they wanted me because the image didn’t really fit me. When I read the screenplay — the self-destructive side of his life — I couldn’t put it down. That was when I thought, ‘OK, I can see what they’re getting at.’ I was still petrified of having to do all the work that it would take to play him because it was still such a difference — a big chasm between us.”

Name: Heath Ledger

Age: 26

Career nominations: one

Role: Cowboy Ennis Del Mar, seduced by another rugged guy in the Wyoming back country in Ang Lee’s much talked-about tragic romance, Brokeback Mountain.

Buzz: The Aussie’s best role yet — but no Oscar this season. Anyway, why was co-star Jake Gyllenhaal relegated to best supporting actor?

Odds: 6-l

His take on the role: “I said yes to the part before meeting or even speaking to Ang Lee because I trusted him and he has a fantastic reputation. The story is a strong and mature one and, frankly, it’s a beautiful love story. And these days you can’t find too much mystery left in love stories about guys and girls. I mean, it’s all been done before. In this movie, I marry my childhood sweetheart but still my character is a walking contradiction.”

Name: Terrence Howard

Age: 36

Career nominations: one

Role: Likable Memphis pimp who yearns to become a hip-hop star in the shoe-string budget Hustle and Flow

Buzz: Charismatic portrayal, but rank outsider. He’s happy to be among the select five.

Odds: l6-l.

His take on the role: “I was afraid to go and do that movie. I kept saying ‘I can’t go to that place.’ An actor friend urged me to take it. He said, “Terrence, it’s a dynamic script. Play the character — go for it.’ Finally, a week later, I said, ‘Yeah — I’m going to do it. I can do it.’”

Best actress

Name: Reese Witherspoon

Age: 29

Career nominations: one

Role: June Carter Cash — Johnny Cash’s devoted singer-wife, in Walk the Line.

Buzz: Blonde turns brunette and proves she’s no lightweight talent. Voters adore that kind of movie switch.

Odds: 3-l

Her take on the role: “I tried to just be the best version of what I could be because it was impossible to emulate her, as I’m sure that it\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ll be impossible to emulate Johnny Cash. We trained for five and a half months and learned to play instruments, and recorded an album, and worked for 16 or 17 hours every day for five months. So no one can say we didn\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t try.”

Name: Felicity Huffman

Age: 43

Career nominations: one

Role: A transgender man, on the edge of becoming a woman, who discovers at the last minute that she’s the father of a troubled teenager, in Transamerica.

Buzz: Hollywood loves this boy/girl sexual confusion (remember Boys Don\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t Cry) — and Huffman is so thoroughly convincing as a guy who wants to be a gal.

Odds: 4-l

Her take on the role: “The chance to play this role was a dream. I mean, it was scary and I could\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ve blown it on so many levels, but the opportunity was fantastic. I don\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t know if anyone would\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ve turned it down.”

Name: Charlize Theron

Age: 30

Career nominations: two

Role: Sexually harassed coal miner courageously goes it alone to sue macho big bosses in North Country.

Buzz: If she hadn’t won two years ago as the serial killer in Monster, this might have been her year.

Odds: 7-l

Her take on the role: “This was a real case and it was only settled in l995. It felt incredibly naive as a woman to sit in my fortunate circumstances, never having to have dealt with anything like that, and to think ‘Wow, we\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’re all good, everything is great,’ to find out that this doesn\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t just happen in little rural communities. In fact, it happens everywhere.”

Name: Judi Dench

Age: 71

Career nominations: five

Role: Laura Henderson, the British widow who launched the opening of a ’30s naughty nude show in London’s legendary Windmill Theater, in Mrs. Henderson Presents.

Buzz: No big issues in this one: The slight but entertaining film probably means that Dame Judi will enjoy the Oscar party — but leave without the booty.

Odds: 9-l

Her take on the role: “As soon as they explained the story to me I said yes. That’s been my entire career for 48 years. When Tony Hopkins and I did Anthony and Cleopatra at the National, we didn\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t know at the first reading that either of them died at the end [laughs]. I don\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t like reading. I was told the story of Mother Courage; what they omitted to say there to me was that she never came off the stage for four hours. I was furious when I found out. I know it’s risky, but that\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s the risk I like; I like that fear. I love just finding out about parts as I go along.”

Name: Keira Knightley

Age: 20

Career nominations: one

Role: The latest take on Jane Austen’s classic heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice.

Buzz: While Brit Keira did a nice job, it’s not quite Oscar-worthy. Anyway, at 20 she\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s still got her whole career ahead of her.

Odds: 10-l

Her take on the role: “I\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ve been obsessed by the book since I was about 7. I had all the Austen series on book tape, and I used to listen to it. And then I was obsessed with the BBC version when I was about 11 … I read the book finally when I was about 14 and got obsessed again. When I was offered the role, I was terrified of doing it, because I\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’d been really obsessed with the BBC one. I thought, I\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’m just going to do an absolute copy of Jennifer Ehle\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s performance and that would be awful.”

Best supporting actor

George Clooney: Syriana

Buzz: This is Clooney’s year — and the Oscar would be icing on the cake.

Odds: 3-l.

Jake Gyllenhaal: Brokeback Mountain

Buzz: He should be up there as a best actor contender.

Odds: 3-l

Paul Giamatti: Cinderella Man

Buzz: The working man’s actor who deserves credit.

Odds: 5-l

Matt Dillon: Crash

Buzz: Another actor who has paid his dues. Could be the surprise.

Odds: 6-l

William Hurt: The History of Violence

Buzz: Riveting in his one scene — but is that enough to grab the gold?.

Odds: 7-l

Best supporting actress

Rachel Weisz: The Constant Gardener

Buzz: This was more than a supporting role. Hot favorite.

Odds: 2-l

Frances McDormand: North Country

Buzz: Never turns in a bad performance. Could collect gold.

Odds: 3-l

Catherine Keener: Capote

Buzz: Versatile and popular, might also surprise in this wide-open season.

Odds: 4-l

Michelle Williams: Brokeback Mountain

Buzz: If her boyfriend/fiancé Heath loses, she could collect a consolation Oscar.

Odds: 5-l

Amy Adams: Junebug

Buzz: Film didn’t get wide viewing so she’s the big longshot.

Odds: 12-l