HIS DARK MATERIALS

The last time I was at the Oscars," Kevin Bacon says, "was in 1982--to present somebody with a sound-effects-editing award." Despite strong performances in films ranging from "Footloose" to "JFK," "Diner" to "Apollo 13," despite rave reviews for his role last year in "Mystic River," Bacon has never been nominated for an Academy Award. "If getting awards was the most important thing for me," he says, "I would have jumped out the window a long time ago." OK, but still... "Yeah," Bacon admits, "it's been a lot of years of feeling that, to a certain extent, there's this club of which I am not a member."

Bacon's latest film, "The Woodsman," gives the Academy good reason to extend an invite at last. This spare, haunting drama from first-time director Nicole Kassell follows Walter (Bacon), a pedophile released from prison, who struggles to rebuild his life while battling the loathing of his co-workers and his own dark desires. Bacon could have played Walter either as harmless victim or as incurable predator. He chose to play him as something far more dangerous: both. "Kevin's daring beyond words," says the film's producer, Lee Daniels, whose last movie, "Monster's Ball," earned Halle Berry an Oscar. In fact, Daniels recalls, when Bacon approached him about starring in the film, "I said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' I liked him so much, I didn't want him to ruin his f---ing career." That didn't faze Bacon one bit. "I tarnished my image a long time ago," he says, laughing. "It's like my macho thing. I don't jump out of airplanes or go on safari. But there's nothing I won't play."

This may be part of the reason he's been overlooked for so many years. Bacon, 46, has one of the most eclectic--even bizarre--resumes of any working actor, hopping from glamour projects like "A Few Good Men," to soft-core camp like "Wild Things," to art-house fare like "In the Cut." Is he A-list artiste or B-movie villain? Both. After the 1984 hit "Footloose," Bacon looked like the next Tom Cruise, or at least the next John Travolta. But after such follow-ups as "Quicksilver" and "She's Having a Baby," he says now, "I could feel it kind of slipping away." So he auditioned for a small role in Oliver Stone's "JFK." "I go to see Oliver and I say, 'What about me playing this guy? He's a gay fascist sociopath. Baby, I'm there!' " From that point on, he says, "I decided that I would not base my career decisions on the size of the budget, the size of the role or the size of my salary. What I do have to have is a situation where I can do my s--t, and make some kind of mark."

Whether the Academy will finally reward that ethos remains to be seen. In any other year, Bacon might be a shoo-in, but he's facing stiff competition from Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, among others. If Bacon doesn't get the nod, it's doubtful he'll fixate on it. "I don't really look back that much," he says. "Plus, I have a lousy memory. Probably too much pot smoking." In the meantime, his feature-directing debut, "Loverboy," premieres at the Sundance Film Festival later this month, and he's got bragging rights to something few actors (or Americans) have: a happy 16-year marriage. His wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick (who costars with him in "The Woodsman"), their 12-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son all help Bacon keep Oscar campaigns in perspective. "I choose to live by my own code," he says. "I just try to be a good father to my children. Be a good husband to my wife, try to be a decent person in a f---ed-up world, and keep doing the work."