"I am 10 years older than I was a year ago." We believe that's a line Abraham Lincoln said to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the end of "Lincoln." Or it could be something "Lincoln" lead Daniel Day-Lewis wearily muttered during one of the endless Q&As he's done during a long campaign of an altogether different sort than the one fought for the Union. What can we say? The lines are blurring at this point, though we're still fairly confident that the great Day-Lewis will put his own stamp on history next month, becoming the first actor to win three Oscars for a lead performance. An early snapshot of the four acting races:
Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Hugh Jackman, "Les Misérables"
Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"
Denzel Washington, "Flight"
And the winner is: Day-Lewis. But you knew that already, didn't you? Certainly, the other four nominees in this category aren't sweating their acceptance speeches. In fact, one of the great awards-season moments came earlier this month when Phoenix accepted the best actor plaque from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and said, "I'm assuming that the L.A. Film Critics were banned from seeing 'Lincoln.' I'm not sure who the distributor is; it's a strange strategy." In all of 17 seconds, Phoenix summed up Day-Lewis' dominance without exactly calling it into question. And why should he? Day-Lewis' immersive, inside-out performance captures both the majesty and the mystery of one of history's most iconic figures, challenging preconceptions and exceeding expectations. He more than earned his third lead actor Oscar.
Oscar Watch: 'Lincoln'
Unless: Academy members still have a song in their hearts and tears in their eyes and decide that Jackman's Jean Valjean conveyed an even nobler suffering than that of Mr. Lincoln.
Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"
Quvenzhané Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"
And the winner is: Lawrence. And since Meryl Streep isn't nominated here, we don't have to worry about any more obscure "First Wives Club" references about beating Streep in her speech, as she did at the Globes.
Oscar Watch: 'Silver Linings Playbook'
Unless: Voters decide to go with a more veteran performer and reward Chastain, 35, who had been scuffling for years before breaking through in 2011 with "The Help," "Take Shelter" and "The Tree of Life" and a host of other movies that strangely arrived at once. Chastain's intense turn as the CIA operative in "Zero Dark Thirty" feels iconic in its self-possession. And, of course, academy members have the option of going with even more of a vet in Riva, the legendary French actress who will celebrate her 86th birthday on the day of the Oscar ceremony. The absolute fearlessness of her acting in "Amour" has won Riva many admirers, making her a definite spoiler here.
Alan Arkin, "Argo"
Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
And the winner is: De Niro. In a category sporting five Oscar winners delivering high-caliber work, the difference might come down to the narratives being spun around the nominees. The Weinstein Co.'s campaigners are taking a page from last year's successful Meryl-Streep-is-overdue crusade and making sure that voters realize that it has been more than two decades since De Niro was last nominated and more than three decades since the academy gave him an Oscar. It's his time! It helps that his work in "Silver Linings" combines humor, fragility, warmth and a powderkeg volatility — all the things we love about De Niro — in one beautiful performance. Welcome back, Bobby D!
Unless: It's Jones, who has generated plenty of buzz this season, both for his portrayal of silver-tongued Rep. Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln" and his Golden Globes grump face that went viral. And don't count out Waltz. Voters love his loquacious "Django" bounty hunter, essentially a good-guy variation of Col. Hans Landa, the monstrous Nazi that Waltz played in "Inglourious Basterds." But do they love him enough to hand him another Oscar just three years after his "Basterds" victory? Probably not.
Amy Adams, "The Master"
Sally Field, "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway, "Les Misérables"
Helen Hunt, "The Sessions"
Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook"