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I'm so not used to the Best Supporting Actor category being so competitive, and yet here we are, with six former Oscar winners in contention, plus one multiple nominee. And with no runaway favorite in the category, votes could get spread out in all sorts of interesting ways. Let's take a look:
Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Current Position: Looking left, looking right, somewhat surprised to find that there's nobody ahead of him at the moment.
Credits: Daniel Day-Lewis may give the most impressive performance in "Lincoln," but Jones is the most lovable. At the preview screening at New York Film Festival, Jones got a mid-movie round of applause, which is a very good sign. Also, he was very good in "Hope Springs," even though nobody ever talks about it.
Demerits: He's not the most sparkling of campaigners.
Historical Precedent: Former winner. Super likeable. In a Best Picture contender. Why, it's Michael Caine from "The Cider House Rules."
In or Out? Definitely in. Could end up winning his second Oscar in this category.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
Current Position: Looking warily at melted ice all around him and wondering how long his iceberg can stay afloat.
Credits: The Academy LOVES him, particularly in supporting roles. He's been nominated as such twice more after winning Best Actor for "Capote." He gives the best performance in "The Master," if you ask some people (like me).
Demerits: A lot of people really don't seem to like "The Master." If it's just entirely not Academy members' cup of tea, it could get a full shutout.
Historical Precedent: Tom Cruise in "Magnolia." And it's not about the Scientology. PSH doesn't have Cruise's level of star power, obviously, but that nomination was another instance where Oscar voters were cool on a Paul Thomas Anderson movie but stuck with nominating one standout performance anyway.
In or Out? In, and could be a threat to win if it turns out that Oscar voters are bigger than expected fans of the movie.
Robert DeNiro, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Current Position: Happy to be back in the game!
Credits: He's one's of America's Acting Greats and emerging from over a decade of phoning it in. All of a sudden, he's acting again. Also, his character has OCD, though the movie doesn't put him through a whole arc about it or anything. But, you know, worked for Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets."
Demerits: "SLP" is so clearly the Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence show that DeNiro's performance could get lost.
Historical Precedent: Christopher Walken in "Catch Me If You Can." Everybody loves a concerned dad.
In or Out? A SAG nomination helps firm up his chances more than a Globe snub hurts them, but probably the most likely surprise omission on nomination morning.
Also check out: Oscar Predictions 2013, Our Picks Thus Far
Alan Arkin, "Argo"
Current Position: Early frontrunner possibly fading fast.
Credits: He plays a heroic Hollywood producer in a town where every Hollywood producer wants to think of himself as heroic. He's the best chance for voters to honor "Argo" in the acting categories.
Demerits: It's really not a super-impressive acting feat, to be honest. He won his Oscar so recently, too.
Historical Precedent: Geoffrey Rush in "Shakespeare in Love." Along for the Best Picture ride with a likeable, if un-challenging, performance.
In or Out? In for now, but with the category this competitive, who knows who's truly vulnerable?
Javier Bardem, "Skyfall"
Current Position: Donning a gas mask and preparing to storm the Kodak via underground train tunnels.
Credits: Has somewhat quietly become a huge Oscar favorite (three nominations and one win in 12 years). Riding an unprecedented wave of Bond Movie Prestige.
Demerits: No matter what the precursors may say, the Academy still has a proven genre bias against action blockbusters (and certainly has never warmed to Bond).
Historical Precedent: Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" is too much of a special case to act as any kind of reliable predictor, though that's obviously the lightning Bardem would like to catch in a bottle. Maybe Jeremy Renner in "The Town"? John Malkovich in "In the Line of Fire"?
In or Out? I think he ends up just out.
Matthew McConaughey, "Magic Mike"
Current Position: Not laying out his cutoff tuxedo shirt or formal thong quite yet, but he knows exactly where they are in his closet.
Credits: Was a veritable phenomenon over the summer with talk of his career revitalization. Was well received in a whole bunch of movies from "Bernie" to "Killer Joe." Everybody kind of wants to see what kind of acceptance speech he'd give.
Demerits: If your mental image of a typical Oscar voter is an aged white male, maybe those guys didn't flock to see "Magic Mike" in droves. He picked a terribly competitive year to be a contender in the usually snoozy Supporting Actor race.
Historical Precedent: Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" (co-starring, ironically enough, a not-that-great McConaughey). Sometimes, being at the right place in one's career can trump genre bias.
In or Out? All year, I have had this indelible image of McConaughey as an Oscar nominee. The tea leaves aren't reading very positively at the moment (the omission from SAG's list isn't a great sign), but it still feels foolish to bet against him.
Leonardo DiCaprio, "Django Unchained"
Current Position: Wedged in the middle of a doorway with Christoph Waltz.
Credits: He's a leading man slumming it in the supporting category, which is always an advantage. He's playing against type. Quentin Tarantino has had great luck getting supporting males nominated (Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Christoph Waltz).
Demerits: He's got internal competition from Waltz, and Waltz plays the more likeable character. The Academy likes him ("The Aviator"; "Blood Diamond") but doesn't always like him ("Titanic"; "Catch Me If You Can"; "J. Edgar").
Historical Precedent: Mark Wahlberg in "The Departed" is the best-case scenario -- a big star working in an ensemble, rising above competition from his own film.
In or Out? He got a Golden Globe nomination, but that could have been a function of his stardom.
Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
Current Position: Wedged in the middle of a doorway with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Credits: Once again, he's the most compulsively watchable performer in a Quentin Tarantino movie. His campaign was switched from Lead (where he was placed to get out to DiCaprio's way) to supporting once it was clear that he was the critics' choice for top performance in the film.
Demerits: So much internal competition, both from DiCaprio and from Samuel L. Jackson, who could pull precious outlier votes from him. In a category packed with former winners, his triumph is the most recent, so there's absolutely no urgency to honor him.
Historical Precedent: Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War," another recent winner who the voters just flat-out enjoyed.
In or Out? I think he's more likely than DiCaprio, but I would be very surprised to see this category filled out entirely by former winners.
Ezra Miller, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Current Position: Dancing on his own, hanging with the weird kids and his friends from Boston.
Credits: He's an exciting new star, having delivered two very different yet compelling performances in "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and "Perks." He took the Boston Film Critics' prize, despite being well outside the sphere of talked-about contenders.
Demerits: His movie is small and it's about teenagers, two things the Oscars aren't keen to reward very often.
Historical Precedent: River Phoenix in "Running on Empty"? That was the last time a teen character nabbed a nomination (besides Leonardo DiCaprio for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" which was a whole different thing altogether).
In or Out? Too much competition this time, but hopefully this puts him on the radar for the future.
Dwight Henry, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Current Position: Watching from home, glancing at his phone, though not often.
Credits: His performance as the satisfyingly difficult father in "Beasts" was rightly acclaimed. He took the L.A. film critics' award for Supporting Actor.
Demerits: Nobody knows about him, and up until the L.A. critics voted, nobody was talking about him as a possibility. Popular opinion may have solidified before he even showed up.
Historical Precedent: William Hurt grabbed a surprise nomination after having been left for dead by the precursors. He was a former Oscar favorite, of course. Maybe a better template is Michael Shannon's surprise nomination in 2008 for "Revolutionary Road."
In or Out? It's looking like he's out, but with all the big contenders such company men, he could be the outsider with a miracle chance. He just needs a few high-profile champions.
John Goodman, "Flight" (or "Argo"): I kept waiting for a campaign to coalesce around Goodman's career of playing lovable side characters, but it never happened.
James Spader, "Lincoln": Things got quieter about "Lincoln" in the last few weeks, and all of a sudden, those "Consider James Spader" sentiments dried up.
Eddie Redmayne, "Les Miserables": He kind of suffers for not having a hugely memorable solo moment in the film. He's good, but he hasn't been rising above his fellow cast members for kudos.
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This year's Oscar predictions, Oscar Best Supporting Actor contenders and personal Oscar picks come from the eerily prescient mind of our Academy Awards expert, Joe Reid.