Oscar Breakdown: Best Actor

An eclectic quintet includes a clear frontrunner, a virtually unrecognizable A-lister, a relatively young star who many already feel is overdue for a win and men who could become either the category's oldest winner or fifth black winner.

Prior to the 86th Oscars on March 2, THR's awards analyst, Scott Feinberg, will present an eight-part series of posts breaking down the key facts and figures pertaining to each of the "big eight" Oscar categories. (For his predictions, see the weekly "Feinberg Forecast" post.) This post focuses on the best actor Oscar race. And the nominees are...

For his performance as a schlubby con man in American Hustle, which reunites him with his Fighter director David O. Russell, Christian Bale -- who is the only nominee in this category with a prior Oscar win under his belt -- packed on 42 pounds in order to boast a beer belly and shaved his head to accommodate an unforgettable hairpiece. To many, the 40-year-old Brit was virtually unrecognizable and heartbreaking as a guy who gets caught in a web of lies that threatens his ability to remain with the woman he loves. For his work, Bale picked up Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and BAFTA noms -- and, had he not already won an Oscar, he might even be a more serious threat.

PHOTOS: Oscar Nominees Luncheon

At 77, meanwhile, Bruce Dern is the comeback kid, back in an Oscar race for the first time in 35 years for his performance as a mentally fading husband and father who believes he has won a million dollars in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. He could become the category's oldest-ever winner -- Henry Fonda was just 76 when he was honored 31 years ago for On Golden Pond -- but is far more likely to remain a Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG nominee with best actor prizes from the Cannes Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Board of Review on his mantelpiece.

The Wolf of Wall Street's Leonardo DiCaprio is a little more than half Dern's age, but he has now accumulated four Oscar noms over the last 20 years and many feel he is already overdue for a win. In this dramedy, his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the funny but morally repugnant Wall Street fraud upon whose memoir the film is based. Some feel DiCaprio deserves the Oscar for his crawling-to-the-car scene alone; others are reluctant to recognize him for this film, arguing that he doesn't have much of a character arc. Meanwhile, he has already won the best actor (musical or comedy) Golden Globe Award, losing the BAFTA Award to fellow nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor -- but has yet to compete anywhere with Matthew McConaughey. 

Ejiofor, who is only 36 but has been doing standout work in the shadows for years, finally got a starring role in a major motion picture, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, which has won him great accolades. In Slave, Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup, a real person who lived in the 19th century as a free man until he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South. If Ejiofor, who garnered Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG noms for his performance, musters a win, he will become just the fifth black man to ever take home an Oscar in this category. The likelihood of that happening, though, is small: Ejiofor won the best actor BAFTA award, but that may be attributable to the fact that he is British and wasn't up against McConaughey in the category.

PHOTOS: THR's Nominees Night

But the clear frontrunner is Dallas Buyers Club star Matthew McConaughey, who completely "recalibrated" his career over the last few years, transforming himself from a rom-com hottie into a focused and driven actor. Over the past year alone, McConaughey has done standout work not only as Ron Woodroof, a man dying of AIDS who refuses to go down without a fight, but also in the films Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street and on TV in the current HBO hit True Detective, which only bolsters his standing this year. For Dallas Buyers, he has already won the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards -- but, notably, was not even nominated for the BAFTA award.

This is McConaughey's Oscar to lose -- but, with a season that runs even longer than usual thanks to the Olympics, he'll have to maintain his momentum right to the finish line.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg