Awards Watch: Actor III

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Can anyone beat Jeff Bridges and Christoph Waltz?

That's the question facing Academy voters as they ponder this year's actor and supporting actor categories, where there are two clear favorites and everybody else.

Bridges and Waltz have dominated their categories this season in what has become a fairly uneventful actor race. In fact, heading into the morning of the Oscar announcements, four of the five nominees for best actor were considered sure things. Only Jeremy Renner was a bit of a question mark, but as "The Hurt Locker" gained traction, his chances improved.

"I was thrilled to see Jeremy Renner on the list," says Mike McClellan, senior vp and chief film buyer for the Landmark theater chain. "He was on the cusp, not a slam-dunk, so I'm glad he made it."

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Renner and the other lead actor nominees will have a hard time beating Bridges. Early in the season, George Clooney was named best actor by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics, signaling he might be on track for his second Oscar and his first in the lead actor category (he won supporting in 2006 for "Syriana").

But since then, virtually every other awards body has rallied behind Bridges' unvarnished portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake. Long one of the most admired actors in Hollywood, he has been nominated four previous times but has never won. In the past, many think Bridges was the victim of his own unaffected naturalism; he disappeared so completely into the characters he played that it was hard for some people to believe he was acting.

That might explain why Bridges failed to score a nomination for his superb turn in 1991's "The Fisher King," while co-star Robin Williams earned a nom for his showier turn. But in "Crazy Heart," Bridges is in full Oscar-bait mode in a film that so showcases his performance that distributor Fox Searchlight moved up its release date so he would qualify for awards.

Of the other actors nominated, Clooney likely has the next best chance of winning, given his Oscar pedigree and the movie-star quality of his performance.

Morgan Freeman is a contender for his performance as Nelson Mandela in "Invictus," but the film failed to make the cut for best picture, hurting his chances significantly. A win for Colin Firth ("A Single Man") would be a big upset because he received the picture's only nomination. And since Renner is perceived to have snagged that fifth slot, his chances of winning are limited.

This year's supporting actor category has been one victory lap after another for Waltz. The Austrian steamroller's diabolical turn as Nazi "Jew hunter" Hans Landa in "Inglourious Basterds" has won every single major award, and the Academy has rarely bucked this kind of unanimity.

The other four nominees also contended for the Golden Globe and the SAG award, so their inclusion on the Oscar ballot came with little surprise. Woody Harrelson was remembered for "The Messenger" even though it is one of the lowest-grossing films ever to receive a major nom from the Academy ($800,000 at press time). Stanley Tucci benefited from what might be called the "two-for-one syndrome." Voters who acknowledged his creepy performance as the murderer in "The Lovely Bones" also were giving a silent nom to his very different turn as Julia Child's wise, loving husband in "Julie & Julia."

In a different year, Christopher Plummer's first-ever nomination (for "The Last Station") might have made him a shoo-in to win, much like Jessica Tandy, who won the Oscar in 1990 for "Driving Miss Daisy."

But this year, not even an acting legend can stop the Nazi.
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