A look at some likely nominees in the lead acting categories.
Oscar's biggest empty-handed nominee, Peter O'Toole, may seem invincible if he's nominated for "Venus." No star has ever been snubbed eight times by those notoriously sentimental academy members, who are, after all, in the business of happy endings. Many are gray-haired, randy chaps likely to empathize with O'Toole's portrayal of a dying actor who lusts playfully after a spirited young woman.
But nothing is a lock. O'Toole's old drinking pal, Richard Burton, looked like a sure bet for 1977's "Equus," but lost. His seven defeats ties O'Toole's losing record.
Several of O'Toole's strongest rivals include Will Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") and Derek Luke ("Catch a Fire"). If all get nominated, it will set a record for the most African Americans in the category.
Long-snubbed Leonardo DiCaprio sparkles as a gem-chasing mercenary in "Blood Diamond" and Matt Damon is aces as a CIA spook in "The Good Shepherd," but they also have strong performances in "The Departed." They've been campaigning in the supporting race for the latter, but the Golden Globes recently qualified them in the lead race for both. Can Oscar voters sort it out? If not, the lead race pits Leo vs. Leo and Matt vs. Matt. Oscar rules say they can be nominated only once per category.
Facing the same issue are busy Hugh Jackman ("The Fountain," "The Prestige") and Edward Norton ("The Illusionist," "The Painted Veil"), but having multiple roles usually helps contenders get recognized.
Two edgy indie roles were standouts among recent Independent Spirit nominees: Ryan Gosling for his portrayal as a drug-addicted teacher in "Half Nelson" and Aaron Eckhart as a sleazy tobacco spin meister in "Thank You for Smoking." Two past Oscar champs reach for more gold: Nicolas Cage as a trapped Sept. 11 rescuer in "World Trade Center" and George Clooney as an American journalist lured into a murder mystery in postwar Berlin in "The Good German."
Tony Award winner Richard Griffiths reprises his Broadway performance as a naughty teacher in "The History Boys," adding more warmth and tears to his film rendition. In foreign language films, Ken Watanabe gives a commanding turn as a Japanese army officer in "Letters From Iwo Jima," and Rudy Youngblood struggles to save the Mayan culture in "Apocalypto."
Finally, a year when there's a bounty of great female performances. Among them, Helen Mirren reigns as the early front-runner for her creepily dead-on portrayal of we-are-never-amused Elizabeth II in "The Queen." But Mirren might have to battle a rival to the Oscar throne: Judi Dench as a scheming schoolmarm in "Notes on a Scandal."
Another senior Oscar champ in a sinister role could come into play: Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada." Streep is a proven victor (two wins) and record Oscar loser (11). If she gets another acting nod, she'll increase her record as the award's most-nominated performer to 14. Meantime, Oscar-overdue Annette Bening could score her fourth nomination with "Running With Scissors." It's an unsympathetic role but it lets her grandstand theatrically as a loopy bohemian mom.
Penelope Cruz could score a nod for her role as a single mother fighting for the safety of her daughter in "Volver." In "Little Children," Kate Winslet also struggles to protect her daughter, but it's what she does as an adulterer that may nab the attention of Oscar voters, who've nominated her four times in the past.
Naomi Watts portrays an adulterous wife who's dragged off to a cholera-infested Chinese village by her husband in W. Somerset Maugham's "The Painted Veil." Previous supporting winner Renee Zellweger ("Cold Mountain") also takes on a literary role as love-starved "Peter Rabbit" novelist Beatrix Potter in "Miss Potter." Another past supporting champ, Cate Blanchett ("The Aviator") could be nominated in that race again for "Notes on a Scandal," but may be noticed for lead actress too for "The Good German."
Catherine O'Hara is campaigning in the supporting race as an Oscar-hungry actress in "For Your Consideration," but empathetic voters could lift her to lead. Ditto for Jennifer Hudson, thanks to her spellbinding turn as a jilted girl-group singer in "Dreamgirls."
Maggie Gyllenhaal has two major roles: as the terrified wife of a missing policeman in "World Trade Center" and as a trashy single mom struggling to settle down in "Sherrybaby." Gong Li's dynamic performance as a scheming queen in "Curse of the Golden Flower" could be noticed.
Tom O'Neil writes the Gold Derby blog at TheEnvelope.com.