Handicapping the races for Oscar's acting honors

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This is not the year of the African-American. It is not the year of the Brit, and it is not the year of the kids. In fact, there is no sociological trend poking through the current batch of Oscar acting nominations. What's striking is the range of styles these actors demonstrate. The following is a look at the nominated performances in each category and an analysis of who is likely to win come Oscar night.
   

BEST ACTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood" convinced that only Daniel Day-Lewis could play the part. That boldly imaginative casting of a cerebral Englishman as a violent and virulent American might pay dividends with an Oscar.

Day-Lewis' performance has captured SAG and Golden Globe awards, making him the front-runner for the Oscar. His intensity and voice hint of John Huston and a grandly theatrical style that harkens back to the pre-Method days of the earliest American films, when masters like D.W. Griffith were still influenced by late-19th-century theater.

In the unlikely event of a Day-Lewis backlash, two other performers might pick up votes.

First is Clooney as the title character in Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton," a role that shows one of Hollywood's favorite figures seamlessly blending his well-established persona with that of a disillusioned lawyer. It's a consummate example of star acting, interesting because it deepens and darkens the suaveness of his earlier work. Clooney will appeal to the strong base of Academy members who have grown up within the system and like to reward what it does best.

Then there is Tommy Lee Jones in a performance that could stand as a model of restraint. As a military veteran searching for his son in Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah," Jones will win over a number of the older Academy voters who have followed his career and admire his work in both "Elah" and Miramax's "No Country for Old Men."

Viggo Mortensen in Focus Features' "Eastern Promises" and Johnny Depp in DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd" are both Academy favorites. But both received the only major nominations for their respective films and neither appears to have enough traction to stand a serious chance of winning.

Favorite: Daniel Day-Lewis
Dark horse: Tommy Lee Jones


BEST ACTRESS

If the votes were tallied today, chances are only a handful would separate Julie Christie in Lionsgate's "Away From Her" and Marion Cotillard in Picturehouse's "La Vie en Rose."

Both are appearing in art house films; both expertly convey heartbreak and loss. But beyond that, their performances are as different as they come.

Christie had to be wooed out of semiretirement by a stubborn Sarah Polley, the writer-director of the film, who spent eight months e-mailing and calling and making trips to London to cajole her friend into playing a woman with Alzheimer's disease. Subtle as Christie is, it's impossible to detach her aged character from her image as an icon of youth and beauty, one many voters will recall from movies like 1965's "Doctor Zhivago" and "Darling." That memory, and her SAG Award victory, give her an enormous advantage.

But another beloved star, Lauren Bacall, was considered a lock in 1997 and lost to then-little-known French actress Juliette Binoche in "The English Patient." And that means Cotillard should not be overlooked.

Cotillard brought to her role as Edith Piaf a subtle chameleon quality that one would never have imagined from an actress last seen in Ridley Scott's 2006 romantic comedy "A Good Year."

Whether the Academy will go for subtlety and sentiment or transformative brilliance is anyone's guess. What seems clear is that the other actress nominees will have a tough time wresting the Oscar from either Cotillard or Christie.

Laura Linney has been gathering more and more fans since her first nomination for 2000's "You Can Count on Me," but her role as one of the dysfunctional siblings in Fox Searchlight's "The Savages" has not generated significant buzz.

Cate Blanchett is nominated for the second time as the Virgin Queen in Universal's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," but she has more traction in the supporting category for the Weinstein Co.'s "I'm Not There."

And Ellen Page has become a star with Fox Searchlight's "Juno," but the Academy has a long-standing prejudice against younger performers.

Favorite: Julie Christie
Dark horse: Marion Cotillard


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Five exceptional performances make this year's supporting actor contest the most competitive in memory -- and the hardest to predict of all the acting categories.

Will the Academy favor "No Country for Old Men's" inhuman killer Javier Bardem, an actor's actor who still returns to his old drama school in Spain to perform there?

Or will voters reward a lifetime of achievement that has reached its apex with Hal Holbrook's moving incarnation of a lonely widower in Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild"?

Perhaps they will opt for Casey Affleck, who, in just one year, has proved himself as talented as his older brother, Ben, especially as the eponymous killer in Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Will they prefer veteran British thespian Tom Wilkinson as the borderline-mad lawyer who spills the beans of a corporate scandal in "Michael Clayton"?

Or might they gravitate toward the only previous Oscar winner in the group, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who showed how great his range is with three radically different roles this year -- in "The Savages," in ThinkFilm's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and in the film for which he has been nominated, Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War."

Insiders believe Bardem is the slim favorite, capitalizing on his SAG Awards victory, the critical appeal of "No Country" and memories of his utterly different Oscar-nominated turn as Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's "Before Night Falls." But Holbrook is running neck and neck with him, especially among many in the Academy's older bloc. And with no clear favorite, it's a five-man race.

Favorite: Javier Bardem
Dark horse: Hal Holbrook


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Given her run of success at previous awards this year, Cate Blanchett would seem to have the Oscar wrapped up.

But this is a far more competitive category than it might at first appear. Blanchett risks having votes siphoned away by her best actress nomination for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." And "I'm Not There" was more popular with avant-garde critics than with the Academy. She also just won a supporting actress Oscar for "The Aviator" in 2005, and voters rarely give out two acting prizes in quick succession.

If not Blanchett, the Academy will likely opt for either Tilda Swinton or Amy Ryan.

Swinton comes into the race with a well-liked film, "Michael Clayton," in which she made a cutthroat lawyer seem spectacularly human.

Ryan comes in as an unknown who made her role as a troubled, working-class mother in Miramax's "Gone Baby Gone" seem so real that even locals who observed the filming believed she was from the neighborhood.

The two remaining contenders appear less likely to win. Ruby Dee won the SAG Award and brings sentimental support from older voters who remember her as a civil rights pioneer and cherish the memory of her late husband, Ossie Davis. But her role as Denzel Washington's mother in Universal's "American Gangster" is the least showy of all those nominated.

And Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" will likely suffer from the same handicap as Ellen Page: She's just too young.

Favorite: Cate Blanchett
Dark horse: Tilda Swinton
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