Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!!!!!

Everybody loves a clown but Oscar voters.
That longtime truism is getting a high-profile workout in the nail-biting Best Actor Oscar race between Bill Murray and Sean Penn.
There’s no shortage of horse races at this year’s Oscars – even if “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” seems a shoo-in for Best Picture, there are down-to-the-wire competitions for Best Actress (pitting Charlize Theron against Diane Keaton) and Best Supporting Actress (RenĂˆe Zellweger vs. Iranian newcomer Shoreh Aghdashloo).
But the most intense interest is focused on Best Actor, where funnyman Bill Murray in the serious comedy “Lost in Translation” is rated even with Sean Penn – universally acclaimed as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors in a very dark drama.
Oscar history strongly favors Penn. The winners in the Best Actor category overwhelmingly star in dramas, even if they are basically comic actors like Roberto Begnini, who won in ’98 for “Life Is Beautiful.”
The last Best Actor winner to actually star in a comedy was Richard Dreyfuss for “The Goodbye Girl” way back in 1977, and before that Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou” (’65).
But the Murray-Penn race is so incredibly tight that some experts say that Johnny Depp could even conceivably sneak in as Best Actor for his rollicking turn in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
The anti-comedy trend is less inhibiting on the Best Actress side, where sentimental favorite Diane Keaton (as a love-struck playwright in “Something’s Gotta Give”) is poised for a possible upset over Charlize Theron (as a lesbian serial killer in “Monster”).
Theron seemed a lock as recently as a month ago, but she may have peaked too soon.
There is also growing speculation that Academy voters may be weary of giving this prize to glamorous actresses who make themselves look less attractive to play victims – as did the last two winners, Nicole Kidman for “The Hours” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.”
And while the Best Actress winners are usually in dramas, there are somewhat more numerous recent precedents for wins in comedies.
In fact, there were three in a row from ’96 to ’98 – Frances McDormand for “Fargo,” Helen Hunt for “As Good as It Gets,” and Gwyneth Paltrow for “Shakespeare in Love.”
Still, both Murray and Keaton will have to deal with the Hobbit factor.
Some longtime Oscar watchers predict voters – anticipating a sweep by “The Lord of the Rings,” which would be the first-ever fantasy to win Best Picture – will try to balance their tickets by rewarding actors in “serious” roles, like Penn and Theron.
We’ll find out Feb. 29 on ABC.