Two past supporting actor winners and a guy with three previous supporting nominations lead the list of possibilities in a tight race for lead actor this year. All have scored major precursor award show nominations -- including from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Movie Awards and the Screen Actors Guild -- for their widely varying performances.
As the commitment-phobic corporate hatchet man in "Up in the Air," 2009 National Board of Review winner George Clooney is back in the hunt just four years after winning the supporting actor Oscar for "Syriana" and two years after his first lead nod, for "Michael Clayton." Hot on his heels is 2009 L.A. Film Critics winner and well-liked hometown boy Jeff Bridges, a four-time past nominee but only once in the lead category ("Starman," 1983). Bridges, as a down-on-his-luck drunken country singer in "Crazy Heart," has the kind of showy part that usually is catnip for academy voters who may also think the 60-year-old vet is "due."
Completing the front-running trio is 2004 "Million Dollar Baby" supporting victor Morgan Freeman, a four-time nominee now contending for the role he has been waiting to play: Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood's inspirational "Invictus." Four of the last five winners in this category -- Sean Penn ("Milk"), Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") and Jamie Foxx ("Ray") -- have done it by playing famous people, which bodes well for Freeman as the only major contender portraying a real-life figure.
Among those likely to round out the list are a couple of newcomers to the Oscar race, if not to movies. Colin Firth has won raves and the Venice Film Festival's best actor award as a college professor contemplating the meaning of his life in "A Single Man," while Jeremy Renner has gained critical approval in the acclaimed Iraq war thriller "The Hurt Locker."
If any of these five falter, Golden Globe nominee and two-time lead actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis could sneak in for displaying hidden singing abilities in "Nine," or so could another Globe nominee, Tobey Maguire, as the haunted Afghanistan vet in "Brothers." Critics Choice nominee Viggo Mortensen has a long list of admirers in the actor's branch and could well be nominated for his harrowing turn in "The Road." And there's longshot Michael Stuhlbarg, a Globe contender in the less competitive comedy category for his work in "A Serious Man."
After back-to-back wins by Javier Bardem and Heath Ledger playing notoriously evil guys, this year's supporting actor race could easily go that way too with either "Inglourious Basterd's" Christoph Waltz, who played the deliciously vicious Nazi Col. Hans Landa, or Stanley Tucci, as the creepy serial killer next door in "The Lovely Bones."
In the "real life" category, the never-Oscar-nominated SAG and Globe contender Christopher Plummer, 80, could get his first nod as Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station," while British actor and Critics Choice nominee Christian McKay could find love for his portrayal of the legendary director in "Me and Orson Welles." But Plummer and McKay so dominate their scenes that some may confuse them for leads, which could cause split votes.
"I will take it any way they want to give it to me," McKay says. "Orson, on the other hand, would insist on leading actor."
Matt Damon plays two real people this year with his leading role in "The Informant!" and supporting turn in "Invictus," but he's more likely to get Oscar attention for the latter. National Board of Review winner Woody Harrelson was thought to be a lead in "The Messenger" but demoted himself to the lower category and now has lots of award heat for the military drama.
Other possibilities include Oscar show co-host Alec Baldwin for "It's Complicated" as well as "An Education's" dynamic duo of Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard.
Find Pete Hammond's Notes on a Season column online at TheEnvelope.com.