LOS ANGELES (REUTERS)–ACTION. SUSPENSE. DRAMA. PRIZES. ANTI-SEMITISM. To hear Hollywood’s honchos tell it, Sunday’s Academy Awards has it all, from the closest race in years to an ugly whispering campaign against a front-runner.

Insiders claim the race is wide open in key categories, including best picture.

But in recent days, the buzz behind studio gates and at Beverly Hills luncheons has “A Beautiful Mind” with Russell Crowe headed for a lovely night.

That speculation comes after a bare-knuckled Oscar campaign against the film and its controversial hero, onetime mentally ill math genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash.

In Oscar’s top category, best motion picture, “A Beautiful Mind” takes on downbeat family drama “In the Bedroom,” musical “Moulin Rouge,” British class warfare tale “Gosford Park” and epic fantasy “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” with its near-record 13 nominations.

Each film has won prestigious pre-Oscar awards, leading to a confused picture for industry professionals who like nothing more than picking a winner and declaring, “I told you so.”

“It’s a real horse race, and that makes it exciting for the show,” Laura Ziskin, producer of the Oscar telecast usually watched by upwards of one billion people, said.

For the first time since 1960, the big show takes place in Hollywood, inside the spanking new 3,100-seat Kodak Theater. Security in this post-Sept. 11 world will be the tightest in Oscar history. Show host Whoopi Goldberg is expected to skewer the Oscar campaigns that have been waged this year, most prominently the action surrounding “A Beautiful Mind.”

BEAUTIFUL MIND, UGLY CAMPAIGN

“A Beautiful Mind” chronicles Nobel winner Nash’s battle against schizophrenia. Its uplifting message of “love conquers all”–even mental illness–seems a sure-fire bet for Oscar gold. Hollywood, after all, is the home of happy endings.

But instead of being hailed as heroes for an uplifting human drama pulled from the pages of real life, Nash and filmmakers are fending off a barrel of nasty accusations.

Nash has been labeled an anti-Semite and the filmmakers, including best director nominee Ron Howard, have been accused of covering up his alleged homosexuality and adultery to avoid tarnishing box office potential.

The charge of anti-Semitism reared its head in recent weeks and might have had serious repercussions in an industry with a strong Jewish presence. But Howard, Crowe and “A Beautiful Mind” backer Universal Studios mounted a counter-offensive and generated sympathy for the movie’s chances.

At a Beverly Hills luncheon last week, Howard said he took the attacks personally, which surely resonated with Oscar voters who saw him grow up in the business as a kid actor on “The Andy Griffith Show,” then on the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days.”

Nash, 77, personally rejected the charges on TV news show “60 Minutes,” and Sylvia Nasar, author of the biography on which the film is based, defended Nash in the Los Angeles Times, a paper read by many of the Academy’s 5,700 voting members.

She said he did write an anti-Semitic letter in 1967–during an intense period of paranoid schizophrenia “when he felt himself not only threatened by Jews and the state of Israel but also believed himself to be Job, a slave in chains, the emperor of Antarctica, and a messiah.”