Oscar Watch: Actor

Three towering performances dominate this year's actor race.

The first is Sean Penn's depiction of Harvey Milk in "Milk." Many of those attending early screenings were stunned that Penn had found a way to capture Milk's flamboyantly gay persona without caricaturing him. This is almost certain to earn him his fifth nomination (he won for 2003's "Mystic River").

The second is Mickey Rourke's aging grappler in "The Wrestler," possibly the most startling such incarnation since Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" (1980).

The third is Frank Langella's Richard Nixon, a role that has already won him a Tony Award.

Langella will compete for attention with co-star Michael Sheen, drawing equal praise as David Frost. And while it's not unknown for two actors to get nominated in the same category for the same movie, that could hurt both their chances.

If Langella is nominated and Josh Brolin scores a nod for his performance as George W. Bush in "W.," this year would be the first time two presidents go head-to-head. Brolin has drawn acclaim, but he could be hurt by the attention he is getting in the supporting category for his role as assassin Dan White in "Milk."

Like Brolin, Ralph Fiennes is in contention with two roles, thanks to "The Reader" (lead) and "The Duchess" (supporting).

Richard Jenkins earned raves for his first lead role in a feature, playing an emotionally wounded professor in "The Visitor."

And previous winners Javier Bardem ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") and Benicio Del Toro ("Che") are back, though it is unclear if Del Toro will be damaged by the critical hits "Che" has taken.

Superstars might also contend: Leonardo DiCaprio has "Revolutionary Road," Will Smith has "Seven Pounds," Brad Pitt has "Button," and Hugh Jackman has "Australia," which had not screened at press time. Even Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight" or Robert Downey Jr. in Paramount's "Iron Man" could score nods if their films do well in other categories.

And once again we're back to Eastwood. Insiders say the veteran would love to add an acting Oscar to his fistful of accolades. That, too, will depend on the response to "Gran Torino."