Oscar Watch: The Actors

Pitt has the role of a lifetime in "Benjamin Button." But can he compete with Penn and Rourke?

Actor in a Leading Role

In crowning a best actor, the Academy is facing a dramatic choice: Does it heap more validation on a man who is considered one of the leading actors of his generation or does it welcome back a prodigal son?

Just four years apart in age, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke followed very different paths to their pending appointment at the Kodak Theatre.

Penn -- though he resists playing the Hollywood game -- has put his own bad boy days behind him, reliably turning in intensely serious performances year after year. He shows a whole different side of himself in "Milk." It's not that he so convincingly takes on a gay role as activist Harvey Milk; it's that he conveys such a buoyant lightness of spirit.

The Screen Actors Guild already gave him its acting prize. So, having awarded him four previous nominations and a win just five years ago for "Mystic River," Academy voters could decide that Penn has already gotten his due. On the other hand, the Academy signaled it wants to honor "Milk" by granting it eight noms, and a prominent Oscar going to Penn would serve as a political rebuke to the supporters of California's anti-gay marriage amendment, Proposition 8.

Then again, if it's an emotional moment the Academy wants, it only has to invite Rourke to the stage. He proved that at the Golden Globes where he was abashed, grateful, crude and whacky all at once in accepting his win that night. No question that Rourke's self-lacerating comeback performance in "The Wrestler" is the most dramatic tale of this awards season.

Rourke was hailed as a rising star after films like 1981's "Body Heat" and 1982's "Diner." But his career veered off course, stumbling in and out of the boxing ring, resulting in a bad picture here and there just for the cash. If the Academy is in a mood to extend its absolution, then Rourke's prayers will be answered.

Brad Pitt offers the most star appeal of any of the male nominees, although in his backwards-aging performance in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," he puts much of his charisma on hold. To his credit, he turns in a quietly reflective portrait -- a far cry from the twitchy mental patient in "Twelve Monkeys," for which he was nominated in the supporting category in 1996. But the Academy does tend to favor showier performances, so Benjamin's stoic acceptance of his fate could be a tough sell.

Certainly, Frank Langella gets to work himself up into a sputtering rage as the cornered Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." Langella won a Tony for playing the role on stage, which suggests to Oscar voters that attention must be paid; but it could also suggest attention has already been paid. An added complication: Older Academy members, who still remember Nixon with some bitterness, may be unwilling to accept the shreds of humanity that Langella finds in the fallen president.

Richard Jenkins, playing a widowed professor who befriends an immigrant couple in "The Visitor," is probably the classic case of a performer for whom it is an honor just to be nominated. A respected actor who's been working steadily since the early 1970s -- last year he was the dad in "Step Brothers" and a gym manager in "Burn After Reading" -- his face is better known than his name outside the industry. For him, the nomination is its own reward.

Actor in a Supporting Role

The supporting actor nominees attending the Oscars will probably have to repeat the same mantra as Jenkins since the late Heath Ledger appears to be the foreordained winner. A villainous turn in a superhero movie rarely gets Oscar consideration -- Jack Nicholson, an Academy favorite, didn't rate a nom when he played the Joker in 1989's "Batman" -- but Ledger's go-for-broke performance was immediately hailed, by fanboys and serious critics alike, as transcending its genre.

The Academy recognized Ledger's promise when he was nominated for best actor in "Brokeback Mountain" three years ago. His posthumous appearance in "The Dark Knight" has become an occasion to give him a resounding valedictory. The Golden Globes and SAG Awards began the process, which an Oscar is expected to complete, making Ledger only the second actor -- the first was Peter Finch for 1976's "Network" -- to win an Academy Award after his death.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who beat Ledger to win the best actor Oscar for "Capote," will probably have to cede the spotlight this time around for his work in "Doubt."

While comic performances occasionally find favor in the supporting category -- witness Alan Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine," Jack Palance in "City Slickers" -- Robert Downey Jr. isn't likely to get the nod for his audacious blackface work in "Tropic Thunder," either. With just two scenes as a reckless truth-teller in "Revolutionary Road," Michael Shannon made a vivid impression, but that's probably not enough to put him over the top.

Josh Brolin, nominated for his dangerous politician in "Milk," benefits from the fact he turned in a full-blooded performance, avoiding mere parody, as George W. Bush in "W." And that followed close behind his compelling turn as a man who stumbles into mayhem in last year's Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men" -- for which he was undeservedly overlooked. In another year, that might have given Brolin the edge. But this year, it will be considered the major upset of the evening if Ledger isn't remembered in absentia.