Tough acts to follow

Clear front-runners there might be, but this year's abundance of Oscar-worthy performances will leave pundits guessing 'til the envelopes are opened.

Whatever flaws the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' voting system has -- no matter how greatly the nominations might be influenced by massively financed advertising campaigns -- most insiders agree that this year has provided an exceptionally fine vintage. Nowhere is that clearer than in the four acting categories, where knowns and unknowns, Americans and foreigners, Caucasians and minorities are all competing in an astonishingly diverse and talented pool.

In choosing these nominees, the Academy has shown a willingness to look beyond celebrity. This year's acting categories include complete unknowns such as Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi of Paramount Vantage's "Babel"; newcomers such as Abigail Breslin of Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" and Jennifer Hudson of Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls"; and one actor who had been shut out of Hollywood for more than a decade, Jackie Earle Haley of New Line's "Little Children." They will be measured against some of the finest actors in the world -- including multiple nominees Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet.

Of course, there are remarkable actors who have not made the cut, too -- whether Michael Sheen of Miramax's "The Queen" or Adam Beach of Paramount/DreamWorks "Flags of Our Fathers" or Shareeka Epps of ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson." But this is one of those special years where, by wide consensus, there isn't a nominee who doesn't belong here.

Las Vegas bookies already have started taking bets on these nominated performers, and some have emerged as clear favorites. But in deciding the odds, the bookies often overlook key elements that come into play with the Oscars. Actors, who make up 1,251 active members of the Academy, choose the acting nominees -- but the whole active membership of 5,830 members determines the winners. (Retired members and associate members do not get to vote.) And that membership is subtly different from, say, membership of the Screen Actors Guild, which often provides the best litmus test before the Oscars.

Additionally, like all political races, the Oscar competition is one where nominees might peak too soon or stumble along the way. Russell Crowe discovered this in 2002 when his contretemps with a British producer at the BAFTA Awards bumped him from being the favorite for "A Beautiful Mind," giving Denzel Washington a victory for "Training Day."

So far, that kind of incident hasn't happened, and the current front-runners have proved masterly at playing the press and courting Oscar voters. As a result, this year might well be one where the favorites do indeed emerge as the winners.

Following is an analysis of just who the front-runners are and what factors will decide each race.

Best actor
Bottom line: Whitaker is the front-runner, but O'Toole still has a shot.

Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" was not a beloved film, but Forest Whitaker is a beloved actor, and that is likely to help him trounce his competition this year. Whitaker comes with a history of stellar work in movies from 1986's "The Color of Money" to 1988's "Bird." He also has the advantage of playing against character: Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was, after all, one of the great villains of modern history, unlike the soft-spoken, terrifically likable actor. Add to that an unusual accent (always a plus) and a great back story of working in Uganda and visiting Amin's survivors, and it is hard to imagine Whitaker losing this race.

Hard -- but not impossible. That's because Peter O'Toole has been fast catching up on him for his performance as an aging actor in Miramax's "Venus." After seven previous nominations, a loss by O'Toole would be a record breaker -- the most nominations for any actor without a win. And that bit of information is likely to influence the Academy's older membership, with its memories of O'Toole in films from 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" to 1980's "The Stunt Man." O'Toole also has his own impressive back story: He broke his hip during production, almost causing a six-week delay in the shoot, but he came right back into action like an old pro after a three-week halt for Christmas, when he even managed his own "stunts." (Well, swinging from a door.)

As for the other nominees, they should probably just be happy to have been recognized, though that doesn't mean they haven't done impressive work. Leonardo DiCaprio surprised many insiders when he was nominated for Warner Bros. Pictures' "Blood Diamond" and not that studio's "The Departed." But he could equally have been overlooked for both, given the danger actors face when they have two projects competing with each other.

Despite an immensely difficult shoot (including reported death threats), DiCaprio is unlikely to win this year, giving this three-time nominee a free pass to the Kate Winslet Club for young nominees. (The 31-year-old actress has been nominated five times, including her mention this year for New Line's "Little Children," but hasn't won yet.)

Nor is Will Smith any more likely to triumph for Sony's "The Pursuit of Happyness." While he stripped his persona of his cocky charm, impressing critics and voters alike, most insiders remain more taken by his earlier performance in 2001's "Ali."

The final nominee, Ryan Gosling, also is a long shot for ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," though his astonishing ability to make a crack-addicted high school teacher sympathetic and utterly believable has considerably boosted his reputation. Gosling spent several days trailing a real-life high school teacher in order to better understand the profession. (Students actually confused him with the look-alike teacher, who ended up playing a small role in the film.) That research paid off in critical kudos, but the film's grim depiction of modern urban life might be hard for some Academy members to swallow.

Best actress
Bottom line: Mirren is a lock

Does Helen Mirren really need another award? The answer is yes -- and one can bet she'll get it. After picking up virtually every acting nod out there for "Queen," Mirren is finally up for the one that counts the most, and she's a lock to win it. That will be good news for the actress and probably even for Queen Elizabeth II, too; Mirren's performance has boosted sympathy for the Queen of England to such an extent that Buckingham Palace invited the actress and her colleagues to lunch after the movie's release.

Even Meryl Streep of Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" seems to have recognized that it's Mirren's year, no matter how razor sharp her impersonation is of fashionistas like Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Proof of that came when Streep politely declined to attend the SAG Awards in favor of hosting an event with Al Gore -- the thespian equivalent of throwing in the towel.

Streep won't be the only multiple nominee to be disappointed.

A Mirren victory will leave Winslet as the most-nominated young actress with no wins. Perhaps aware of this, Winslet reportedly was just as thrilled by "Little Children" co-star Haley's nomination as her own.

To her credit though, Winslet has been fearless in her willingness to embrace challenging parts, even though it has often meant taking a pay cut to do so. In the past few months, she has been seen in three back-to-back releases, all of which were perceived as possible awards contenders: Sony's "All the King's Men" and "The Holiday" and "Little Children," which she committed to after meeting with writer-director Todd Field -- even before reading his screenplay.

Nor will another much-nominated British actress go away with the award. Judi Dench has been honored before (she is a six-time nominee and a supporting actress winner for 1998's "Shakespeare in Love"). But the odds are against her for Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal."

If anyone could give Mirren a run for her proverbial money, it would be Penelope Cruz, who emulated screen sirens like Sophia Loren when she padded herself up for Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver." American awards voters have often overlooked Cruz's spectacular earlier work with director Pedro Almodovar and in films like 2004's "Don't Move," which might explain why many were surprised at how good she was in "Volver." Her performance as a blue-collar woman struggling with ghosts from the past earned her the top prize at the Festival de Cannes and European Film Awards, among other trophies. But the Oscar will most probably remain elusive for the actress.

Best supporting actor
Bottom line: Murphy is the favorite, but Haley is in with a shot.

Just two years ago, former child star Haley was living in San Antonio and running a postproduction house when director Steven Zaillian remembered him and offered him a role in "All the King's Men." It was just a hop and a skip from there to reappearing with his "King's" co-star Winslet in "Little Children." That's the kind of story that would normally win one an Oscar, especially when one adds it to the spectacular performance Haley gives as a pedophile in the film.

But, while the supporting actor category is by no means a lock, Haley is not the front-runner. That distinction goes to Eddie Murphy, who surprised audiences with his role as James "Thunder" Early, the self-centered crooner in "Dreamgirls." It wasn't Murphy's singing that most impressed audiences: It was his ability to incarnate Early without ever hinting at the actor's own persona as the cocky comedian who dominated films including the "Beverly Hills Cop" and "The Nutty Professor" franchises.

Murphy, a first-time nominee, will be up against another Oscar newcomer, Mark Wahlberg, who surprised many pundits when he emerged as the sole cast member from "Departed" to be Oscar-nominated -- insiders had expected DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga and certainly Jack Nicholson to be in the running.

Wahlberg was one of the few unexpected names to come out of the Golden Globes, where he and Nicholson were both nominated in the supporting actor category; Wahlberg lost to Murphy then and is widely expected to do so again at the Oscars.

Alan Arkin and Djimon Hounsou -- who were overlooked entirely at the Globes -- find themselves once again up for Oscar gold. Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), enormously respected among other actors, is vying for an Oscar for the third time, 38 years after receiving a mention for 1968's "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"; his first was for 1966's "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming." Hounsou ("Blood Diamond") is entering the race with his second nomination after receiving his first for director Jim Sheridan's 2003 drama "In America."

The two actors are expected to be overshadowed by Murphy, however, who won the Globe as well as the SAG Award. But the supporting categories often hold the biggest surprises, and it would be premature to rule anybody out.

Best supporting actress
Bottom line: Hudson looks set to win, but an upset could come from Kikuchi or Barraza

If Jennifer Hudson got a confidence boost at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, she's likely to get an even bigger one at the Oscars. The Globe and SAG winner enters the Oscar race by far the favorite to win. In "Dreamgirls," she proved she could act, and her singing peeled the paint off the walls. Still, there are some ominous clouds that make her far from the absolute certainty many believe.

First of all, "Dreamgirls'" absence from the best picture nominees indicates a lack of passion for the film as a whole, and that might hurt Hudson's chances. Secondly, Hudson is almost too much of a front-runner, and that could lead voters to look elsewhere -- especially in a category with some remarkably strong candidates -- though it is unclear if any one of them has the backing to knock her from her perch.

Blanchett's chances for "Notes on a Scandal" look slim given that she won just two years ago in the category for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." And voters are so accustomed to her Streep-like impersonations of foreign accents that a simple British character might not be perceived as a stretch, no matter how good she was.

Nor is Breslin likely to triumph. In recent years, only one youngster has won the Oscar -- Anna Paquin for 1993's "The Piano." Even Haley Joel Osment, riding a critical tsunami for 1999's "The Sixth Sense," was passed over in favor of Michael Caine for that year's "The Cider House Rules." Much loved as "Sunshine" was, Breslin's role was not perceived as being challenging on quite the same level of those other performers' parts.

By contrast, both Kikuchi and Barraza have drawn raves for "Babel," a movie that has been gathering strength in the lead-up to the Oscar race. Kikuchi's role as the deaf Japanese teenager wrestling with angst in the wake of her mother's death is by far the more flamboyant role of the two parts -- and one that seems all the more impressive given that Kikuchi was well into her 20s when she played it.

But Barraza was equally impressive in her more low-key role as the maid who makes a terrible error of judgment when she takes her two wards to Mexico and loses them in the desert. This is Barraza's second notable role for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu after she appeared in his debut feature, 2001's "Amores Perros," and the human warmth she brings to the part could help her.

But both Kikuchi and Barraza face the danger of canceling each other out. If just a few of Kikuchi's votes are siphoned off by Barraza, or vice versa, that could pave the way for the favorite to win. And the favorite, unmistakably, is Hudson.