Best Supporting Actor is a category that's had a few oddball nominations over the years, a bit less staid than Best Actor, where Academy voters tend to keep things serious. Fred Astaire got a Supporting nod for the disaster flick The Towering Inferno (co-starring O.J. Simpson); Alec Guinness was nominated for his role as, yes, Obi-wan Kenobi; and Pat "wax on, wax off" Morita snagged a nomination for the painful Ralph Macchio vehicle The Karate Kid. Granted, they all lost. But because of that history, I think this year we're in for something a little different. Here are a few of the contenders.James Franco or Josh Brolin, Milk
Biopics are big Academy Award business, and Milk is perfectly pitched at the voters. Serious, tragic, progressive, Sean Penn's involved -- this one is aiming for statuettes. Early reviews seem to favor Brolin, and he is fresh off the heels of both W., where his was widely considered the standout performance in a mediocre movie, and an Oscar win for No Country for Old Men. But by following up Pineapple Express's epically stoned pot dealer with a serious, tender role as Harvey Milk's boyfriend, Franco's showing off some real range. I'm going to buck the trend and pick Franco for the nomination.Sam Rockwell, Frost/Nixon
Fine, I'm a fan, and I'd love it if he were recognized for Choke instead, but that's just not going to happen. Unless there's a surprise push that puts Frost/Nixon at the top of the voting for Best Picture, and I don't think there will be, Rockwell's probably out of the running. But at least he's getting looked at.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Yes, it's heresy to say that Meryl Streep is anything less than the Best. Actress. EVAR. But I just don't see it. Even though I haven't seen the movie (it doesn't come out until next week), word on the street is that Hoffman more than holds his own as a priest suspected of molesting one of his students. Don't be surprised to see Hoffman on the list.Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Some people think Ledger is a long shot, but we know the Academy voters like him (he was nominated for Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain), and his tragically premature death really does make you wonder what else might have lay ahead. And, in light of terrible ratings for the Oscars telecast, there's been a lot of anguish about what the Academy can do to make the normal movie-going audience pay attention again -- the people who see X-Men and The Mummy, and who don't see Best Picture nominees like Letters from Iwo Jima and The Pianist. Don't think the voters haven't been paying attention. Most importantly, it really was an amazing performance.Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Now this is a long shot. Especially since I'm pretty confident that Heath Ledger will be on the list, I don't think voters will opt for two over-the-top makeup roles, especially a performance as close to the line as this one. (Still, wouldn't it be poetic justice if Downey won an Oscar for playing a character who hams up melodramatic roles to win Oscars?) Besides, he'll be on the list next year for The Soloist, which is much more along the lines of typical Academy fare. Homelessness? Check. Violins? Check. Frustrated genius? Check. Oscar nomination? Also check.
My guess? They'll give the statue to Ledger. The performance, the Academy's anxiety over its relevance, the tragedy, it all adds up to gold. And I think he deserves it.