LOS ANGELES - Western fans can rejoice once more. A tale of cowboys on the range is back in the saddle as lead contender for the upcoming Academy Awards nominations.
Of course, "Brokeback Mountain" is not your father's Western, not John Wayne riding through all those John Ford epics, not even Clint Eastwood striding with anti-hero bloodlust in "Unforgiven."
Set in more contemporary times, "Brokeback Mountain" is the story of two men who have a romantic fling as young sheepherders, then find their summer of love blossoming into a lifelong passion they conceal from their wives.
As the film gradually expanded into wide release, it has packed theaters in both liberal-leaning urban areas and the conservative heartland.
"Once people saw the film, they understood that it was a film about a kind of epic greatness that can exist in anyone, anywhere, no matter who they are, no matter what their sexual orientation or class or historical circumstances," said "Brokeback Mountain" producer James Schamus.
"Brokeback Mountain" is part of a wave of films that marked 2005 as a year of Hollywood activism on political and social issues.
Joining "Brokeback Mountain" in the hunt for Oscar nominations Tuesday: the oil-industry thriller "Syriana," an indictment of American thirst for Middle East petroleum at any cost; "The Constant Gardener," a story of love, intrigue and murder amid corruption by governments and pharmaceutical companies in Africa; "Munich," which uses the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympics and its aftermath to examine the cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East; "Transamerica," a comic drama about sexual identity and acceptance centered on a man preparing for a sex change; and "Good Night, and Good Luck," a tale of personal freedom vs. fear-mongering told through the 1950s clash between newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Along with all the celebrity backslapping come Oscar night March 5, will any good emerge from these films packing messages?
"I think American culture is closely allied with American political progress, and a film like `Brokeback' will absolutely kick down barriers and open up people's hearts and minds," said playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), a potential screenplay nominee for co-writing "Munich."
"I think a lot of people who are afraid of gay relationships will go and see it, and they see a relationship that whether you're gay or straight is immensely recognizable. It's great for us, and I'm thrilled."
"Brokeback Mountain" has dominated earlier Hollywood honors, earning best dramatic film and three other prizes at the Golden Globes and winning top awards from key critics groups.
The film is positioned to become the first gay-themed movie to win the best-picture Oscar, while "Brokeback Mountain" filmmaker Ang Lee is a front-runner for best director.
As one of the cowboys in love in "Brokeback Mountain," Heath Ledger has a virtual lock on a best-actor nomination, though he faces serious competition from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Golden Globe for lead actor in a drama as author Truman Capote in "Capote."
For her gender-bending role in "Transamerica," which earned her the dramatic actress prize at the Globes, Felicity Huffman is considered the favorite to win best actress. An Oscar would cap a breakout year for Huffman, who won an Emmy last September for "Desperate Housewives" after years of toiling in bit movie roles, failed television shows and TV guest spots.
The confluence of her abrupt TV and movie stardom is all part of Hollywood, Huffman said.
"We're in the kind of business where it's more like gold mining than sort of a matriculation like college, you know?" Huffman said. "You sort of go, `Hey, you know, I found gold,' rather than going, `Hey, I graduated and became a senior.'"
Along with presenting fresh awards faces such as Huffman and Hoffman, the Oscars likely will follow the lead of earlier film honors and focus heavily on smaller, independent fare rather than studio flicks.
Indie films such as "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Transamerica," "The Constant Gardener" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" have gathered far more attention this awards season than big-budget "Memoirs of a Geisha," "King Kong" or "Munich."
"This year, I'm particularly happy for the movies that were in, that are coming out," said "Brokeback Mountain" director Lee. "I feel very not only honored, but it's just a pleasure to be with those so-called small movies."
One studio film almost certain to do well on nominations morning is the Johnny Cash biography "Walk the Line," which won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy and acting prizes for Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as the country legend's soul mate, June Carter.
And while newcomers to awards celebrity may rule the top acting categories, one of Hollywood's biggest stars also could take home an Oscar and score honors for his behind-the-camera work.
George Clooney has a strong shot to take home the supporting-actor trophy for his role as a dogged CIA undercover agent who comes to realize his king-and-country loyalty may have been misplaced in "Syriana." Clooney also could earn a best-director nomination for "Good Night, and Good Luck," in which he also co-stars.
After his Golden Globe win for supporting actor, Clooney said backstage that while prizes are nice, it's a tall order deciding who really delivered the year's best performance.
"I like nominations because they're groupings of awards," Clooney said. "You're saying this sort of group of people are doing interesting work, so I tend to enjoy those."