The great contenders

An abundance of outstanding performances should make for heated SAG Award competitions.

Despite early buzz surrounding two right-royal performances in this year's awards race -- Helen Mirren in Miramax's "The Queen" and Forest Whitaker in Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" -- most insiders say it is anybody's guess who will fill out the remaining 18 nomination slots in the feature-film arena -- let alone the vast number in television. Following is an analysis of the leading contenders in both media.

Male actor in a leading role

Whitaker dominated critics' reviews early in the fall, thanks to his impressive turn as Idi Amin in "King," and he is likely to dominate this awards season -- which means that a king and a queen could end up being crowned together, both by SAG and at the Oscars, if Mirren does as well as expected for her performance in "Queen."

Outside of Whitaker, however, it's a wide-open field. Actors' favorite Peter O'Toole might be back in contention for playing an aging thespian in Miramax's "Venus," and another British veteran, Richard Griffiths, looks almost certain to be nominated for Fox Searchlight's "The History Boys." Here, Griffiths reprises his role as a professor at an elite prep school, which he originated onstage in the Tony Award-winning play that serves as the basis for the film.

After winning both an Oscar and a SAG Award last year for his starring role in the Ray Charles biopic "Ray," Jamie Foxx is back with another serious part. In Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls," he plays a dynamic and sometimes conniving producer/manager, a character that is loosely based on Motown's Berry Gordy. Will Smith also might be recognized for a rare dramatic turn as a homeless man struggling to become a stockbroker in Sony's "The Pursuit of Happyness," while a third respected black actor, Derek Luke, is in contention for his role as a South African anti-apartheid activist in Focus Features' "Catch a Fire."

Ryan Gosling earned terrific reviews in ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," though the difficult nature of the film -- about a drug-addicted teacher and his relationship with a young black girl -- could put off some voters. However, look for Gosling to do better with SAG voters than with members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Will Ferrell could benefit from delivering an unexpectedly low-key performance as an IRS auditor who discovers he's a character in an author's novel in Sony's "Stranger Than Fiction" -- he's a shoo-in for a Golden Globe nomination in the comedy category, even if he doesn't make it at SAG.

Previous nominees George Clooney and Nicolas Cage could be back for Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Good German" and Paramount's "World Trade Center," respectively, though neither drew the kind of stellar response they found with their award-winning roles in last year's "Syriana" and 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas." Other contenders include Leonardo DiCaprio in both Warners' "The Departed" and "Blood Diamond"; Greg Kinnear in Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine"; Kevin Kline in Picturehouse's "As You Like It"; and Ryan Phillippe for Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers."

The biggest question mark: Will Sacha Baron Cohen be recognized for his outrageous role in Fox's "Borat"?

Female actor in a leading role

Rarely has an actress established a lock on an award so early in the game as Mirren, playing Elizabeth II in "Queen." Mirren became a front-runner shortly after the movie opened in October -- before many other candidates had even made it to the screen. The only real danger she faces comes from peaking too soon, which could lead voters to consider any number of alternative actresses in contention, several of them previous nominees or award winners.

They include Meryl Streep, the most-honored actress in history, for her comedic turn as a fashion editor in Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada"; Kate Winslet as a lonely mother who embarks on an affair in New Line's "Little Children"; Renee Zellweger as the real-life Beatrix Potter in the Weinstein Co.'s "Miss Potter," which is being distributed by MGM; Annette Bening for her psychologically unhinged mother in Sony's "Running With Scissors"; Judi Dench as a malevolent teacher in Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal"; and Cate Blanchett as her victim in the same film. And then there's Penelope Cruz, one of the strongest contenders of the year for her much-praised role as a woman struggling to keep her friends and family together in Sony Pictures Classics' Spanish-language entry "Volver."

Male actor in a supporting role

A host of great talent took on supporting roles in some of year's best films, making this category particularly competitive this time around. Jack Nicholson is likely to receive a nomination for his work as a gangster in Martin Scorsese's "Departed," and Michael Sheen is a near-certainty to be nominated for his portrayal of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in "Queen." Additionally, Adam Beach has emerged as a favorite for a nomination among the ensemble cast of "Flags" for his role as Ira Hayes, an American Indian soldier traumatized by his experiences in World War II.

But the front-runners don't end there. Alan Arkin could receive a nomination for his turn as a foul-mouthed grandfather in "Sunshine," Djimon Hounsou might earn recognition for his work in "Blood Diamond" and Eddie Murphy is getting sensational buzz for his turn as a crooner in "Dreamgirls." Also, Brad Pitt might receive a nom for his turn in Paramount Vantage's "Babel," and Jackie Earle Haley could equally do well, given his riveting work in "Little Children."

Other contenders include Robert De Niro for Universal's "The Good Shepherd," James McAvoy for "King" and Michael Pena for his heart-rending role as a firefighter in "WTC."

Female actor in a supporting role

The supporting actress category often has been friendlier to newcomers than some of the other awards categories, and this year is likely to be no exception. Jennifer Hudson, who beat out more than 700 contenders for her role as Effie in "Dreamgirls" is being touted as a possible nominee, as is Vera Farmiga, who holds her own against Matt Damon and DiCaprio, playing a psychologist in "Departed." Also, Rinko Kikuchi and Blanchett are both receiving attention for their work in "Babel," while veteran thespian Frances de la Tour has been praised for her role as a world-weary teacher in "History Boys."

"Stranger Than Fiction" has three actresses offering strong supporting work -- Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson -- though Thompson seems the likeliest bet for a nomination. Gyllenhaal delivers another supporting turn in "WTC," where she will compete with co-star Maria Bello, and she actually delivers a third nomination-worthy performance as the lead in IFC Films/Red Envelope Entertainment's small-scale indie "Sherrybaby," in which she plays a recovering heroin addict struggling to regain custody of her young daughter.

"Sunshine's" Abigail Breslin will be competing with another enormously talented youngster, Shareeka Epps, who drew raves for her role as a wiser-than-her-years adolescent in "Half Nelson." And "Running With Scissors" will be running in more ways than one, with both Jill Clayburgh and Evan Rachel Wood in contention.

Cast in a motion picture

The sheer number of respected actors taking small parts in MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby" might hurt them individually when it comes to the awards, but together they make the Emilio Estevez-directed historical drama a leading contender for SAG's ensemble nod -- which will be welcome news for cast members including Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and Estevez himself. Other contenders include "Babel," "Dreamgirls," "Flags," "History Boys," "Sunshine" and, appropriately enough, Warner Independent's Christopher Guest-directed comedy "For Your Consideration."

Male actor in a drama series

There are a number of ways this highly-competitive race could go this year, but here are the five predictions for a nomination: James Gandolfini for HBO's "The Sopranos," Michael C. Hall for the Showtime rookie "Dexter," Hugh Laurie for Fox's "House," Denis Leary for FX Network's "Rescue Me" and Kiefer Sutherland for Fox's "24."

Mind you, Gandolfini and Laurie failed even to land Emmy nominations this year in what was seen as something of a travesty. But two-time SAG Award winner Gandolfini and Sutherland -- who won both an Emmy and a SAG Award this year and was a SAG winner in 2004 -- won't be denied here. And Laurie, a nominee a year ago, is something of a favorite among actors.

Hall, who has won SAG honors twice as part of HBO's "Six Feet Under" ensemble, has been earning rave notices for his portrayal of a justice-minded serial killer on "Dexter." Leary, too, is superb, though his prospects are less assured in a typically crowded field. Also bidding are Michael Chiklis for FX's "The Shield," Patrick Dempsey and Eric Dane for ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," newcomer Jesse Tyler Ferguson for CBS' "The Class," Matthew Fox for ABC's "Lost," Wentworth Miller for Fox's "Prison Break," Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford for the NBC freshman "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and James Spader for ABC's "Boston Legal."

Also not to be discounted: Andre Braugher for the short-lived FX series "Thief" and Oded Fehr and Michael Ealy for Showtime's limited-run series "Sleeper Cell." Braugher actually won an Emmy this year for lead actor in a movie/miniseries but isn't eligible in that category for the SAG Awards.

Female actor in a drama series

Sandra Oh took home a Golden Globe and the SAG prize earlier this year for "Grey's." She could repeat, but since "Sopranos" lead Edie Falco (a winner here in 2000 and '03) is once again eligible, Oh's chances are less likely. Like her co-star Gandolfini, Falco was shut out by the Emmys this year, but it's unlikely the five-time SAG nominee will be excluded here.

In addition to Falco and Oh, expect nominations for Mariska Hargitay for NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Allison Janney for her work during the final season of NBC's "The West Wing" and Kyra Sedgwick for TNT's "The Closer." Another two-time winner in the category, Janney is clearly a guild favorite, while Hargitay and Sedgwick were nominated a year ago. Sedgwick could walk away with the trophy, though Hargitay (this year's Emmy winner for lead dramatic actress) can't be discounted, either.

As for the remainder of the field, it's especially formidable, featuring past Emmy winners -- Patricia Arquette for NBC's "Medium," Candice Bergen for "Boston Legal," Calista Flockhart for ABC's first-year "Brothers & Sisters" -- and an Oscar winner in "Brothers'" Sally Field. Also in the running are the twice-nominated Lauren Graham for the CW's "Gilmore Girls," Anne Heche for ABC's new series "Men in Trees," Evangeline Lilly for "Lost," Amanda Peet and Sarah Paulson for "Studio 60" and Ellen Pompeo for "Grey's."

Male actor in a comedy series

This is a category that's been all over the map the past few years, with Tony Shalhoub winning for USA Network's "Monk" in both 2004 and '05 and then failing to get nominated earlier this year. Instead, Spader and William Shatner both received noms for "Boston Legal," which was entered as a comedy last time but is back in drama this year. And who won this year? Sean Hayes of NBC's "Will & Grace" for the third time in five years. Expect Hayes to receive another nomination in his final year of eligibility for "Will," sharing nom honors with Shalhoub, Alec Baldwin for the NBC rookie "30 Rock," Steve Carell for NBC's "The Office" and Jeremy Piven for HBO's "Entourage." Carell has to be seen as the overwhelming favorite to walk away with the hardware, but that also was expected at the Emmys -- and he lost to Shalhoub.

Also, Larry David might well score a nom for HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," as might Zach Braff for NBC's "Scrubs" and NBC's veteran "Twenty Good Years" duo of Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow. But in a perfect world, either Rainn Wilson or John Krasinski of "Office" would pull off an upset and claim one of the category slots.

Female actor in a comedy series

For the past five years, "Will's" Megan Mullally and members of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" cast (specifically, Teri Hatcher and Felicity Huffman) have owned this category. Mullally won in 2002, '03 and '04, Hatcher in 2005 and Huffman this year. Since Mullally has been nominated for six consecutive years, it stands to reason she'll make it seven straight in her final year of eligibility for the show. But the prospects for the women of "Housewives" are less certain.

Here is how the top five stand to shake out: Mullally, Marcia Cross for "Housewives" (who enjoyed a better season than did Huffman), Julia Louis-Dreyfus for CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine," America Ferrera for the hit ABC rookie hour "Ugly Betty" and Mary-Louise Parker for Showtime's "Weeds." Parker won the Golden Globe last time out, while Dreyfus took home the Emmy in August. Meanwhile, Ferrera has earned a stream of rave notices for her work.

Bubbling just beneath that quintet are Huffman, Tina Fey for "30 Rock," the highly underrated Jenna Fischer for "Office," Jane Kaczmarek for Fox's departed "Malcolm in the Middle" and Debra Messing for "Will."

Male actor in a TV movie/miniseries

This category features no fewer than three Oscar winners: Robert Duvall (the AMC original miniseries "Broken Trail"), Jeremy Irons (the HBO miniseries "Elizabeth I") and Ben Kingsley (the HBO docudrama "Mrs. Harris"). Figure that all three will receive nominations here for their stellar work, with the field of five being rounded out by Charles Dance for the PBS Masterpiece Theatre presentation of "Bleak House" and newcomer Jonan Everett for his riveting work in the HBO original "Angel Rodriguez." Other contenders with a shot include Thomas Haden Church for "Trail," Hugh Dancy for "Elizabeth I" and Bill Nighy for BBC America's "Gideon's Daughter."

Female actor in a TV movie/miniseries

This category belongs this year to Mirren, a five-time SAG nominee -- winning twice for "Gosford Park" in 2002, for her performance and as part of the film's ensemble cast. Mirren is acknowledged to have the statuette already in hand for her scintillating performance as Queen Elizabeth I in "Elizabeth I," for which she took home an Emmy in August. In fact, Mirren is seen as an overwhelming favorite to cart off two SAG Awards -- the other for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in "Queen."

The other four slots stand to go to Gillian Anderson for "Bleak House," Annette Bening for "Mrs. Harris," Sarah Chalke for Lifetime's "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy" and Miranda Richardson for "Gideon's Daughter." There also could be nomination attention for Kim Basinger for Lifetime's "The Mermaid Chair," Mercedes Ruehl for Lifetime's "The Gwen Araujo Story: A Girl Like Me," Alicia Silverstone for CBS' Hallmark Hall of Fame telepic "Candles on Bay Street" and Alexa Vega for HBO's "Walkout."

Ensemble in a drama series

This figures to be the year that SAG goes "Grey" -- or "Grey's Anatomy," to be more precise. The series has the inside track after being denied a year ago when "Lost" earned the nod. "Lost's" chances aren't looking so good, with insiders generally agreeing that the series hasn't recaptured the magic of its first season. But as many as three new dramas might make the cut this year: "Brothers & Sisters" and NBC's "Heroes" and "Studio 60." In fact, that's the prediction here, with "Grey's" joining the three rookies along with Fox's "24." Other possibles include "Boston Legal" (nominated a year ago in the comedy ensemble category), "Closer," "Rescue Me," "Shield" and, in its last season of eligibility, "West Wing."

Ensemble in a comedy series

Inexplicably, "Office" was not nominated here a year ago, a glaring oversight that certainly will be fixed this time and should lead to a win as well. It is, far and away, TV comedy's consistently best and brightest group. "Housewives" has won here two years running, but it has to be seen as a long shot compared to "Office." Figure the "Housewives" and "Office" ensembles to land nominations along with "30 Rock," "Ugly Betty" and "Weeds." Also bidding here are "Entourage" and "Curb," along with NBC's "My Name Is Earl," "Scrubs" and "Will."