Meet our new awards expert Joe Reid — keep up with his column for the predictions, news and opinions you’ll need to sound well-informed at parties for the entire awards season.
Much like the childhood game Musical Chairs, the Best Actor race -- when boiled down to its likeliest contenders -- has five spots for six people. Each of them nervously dancing around that circle of chairs, trying to anticipate when the music's going to stop. There are wild cards on the outside of the six, of course, but I wouldn't expect to hear their names read on nomination morning. They'll be joined by one of the six. He'll be hard-pressed not to take it personally. Unless, of course, it's Joaquin Phoenix, in which case he'll just yell "GOOD! I DIDN'T WANT IT ANYWAY!" and mix himself a turpentine cocktail.
So who are the six real contenders, plus some very honorable mentions?
Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Current Position: Sitting very still for the people carving his likeness into the side of a mountain.
Credits: Gives another one of those DDL performances that make everybody lose their minds talking about how he disappears into the role.
Demerits: He's already won two Best Actor Oscars. No one has ever won three. That said, nobody seems too concerned about over-rewarding the guy.
Historical Precedent: Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood." He can only be compared to himself.
In or Out? In. Super in. Probably going to win. If he does, look for him to be carried up to the stage by Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, and the ghost of Marlon Brando.
Denzel Washington, "Flight"
Current Position: Gliding upside down safely into second place.
Credits: He takes a pretty stock "Oscar-bait" role -- the defiant alcoholic -- and transcends the easy beats you expect from it. He's an incredibly likeable, bankable performer.
Demerits: "Flight" has not caught on with either the critics or the public as strongly as other contenders this season. Denzel's basically campaigning on his own.
Historical Precedent: Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," the lone awards contender for a Zemeckis film, incredibly popular, probably not ready to win his third Oscar yet.
In or Out? In. There's no indication that he won't end up with a nomination.
Hugh Jackman, "Les Miserables"
Current Position: Lurking. Ever lurking.
Credits: Exhibits a commitment to his role that rivals Daniel Day-Lewis. An awards-season staple (former host; near-constant presenter) who somehow has never been nominated before.
Demerits: Ever since those rapturous early screenings, the "Les Mis" reviews have gotten steadily worse. He needs the public to respond to the movie in a big way if he wants even an outside shot at a win.
Historical Precedent: Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd," trying his damndest but facing that brick wall of Daniel Day-Lewis.
In or Out? The historical precedent Jackman wants to avoid is Richard Gere in "Chicago," who looked rock-solid up until the moment he got left off the list. And there's always the chance that the Academy will entirely reject "Les Mis." But I would say Jackman's going to make it.
Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Current Position: Really happy there isn't another "Hangover" sequel coming out in the next few months.
Credits: He gives a surprisingly strong performance, especially if all you'd ever seen of him was his succession of d-bag frat-guy roles. If you're at all a fan of "Silver Linings Playbook," Cooper's performance is vital to making the movie work.
Demerits: "Silver Linings" is losing a bit of its luster as the season goes on. The Academy often leans away from cocky youth and towards more established actorly types in this category.
Historical Precedent: Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" is an imperfect comparison. He too was young, attractive, and central to a Best Picture contender; but he had the irresistible hook of having co-written the script.
In or Out? Getting the SAG nomination was a great sign, but in a six-man race that's this competitive, I can't call too many of these guys "safe."
John Hawkes, "The Sessions"
Current Position: Ready and willing.
Credits: It's not that Hawkes doesn't give a touching, humane, funny performance in "The Sessions." But the truth is, the hook of playing a mostly incapacitated polio victim is what will ultimately put him on the short list.
Demerits: "The Sessions" hasn't made as much of a splash with either critics or audiences, and when people do talk about the movie, they're mostly talking about how Helen Hunt is good again.
Historical Precedent: Sean Penn in "I Am Sam," another case in which a baity role helped a previously-nominated performer get nominated.
In or Out? In but very shaky. Both Hawkes and Cooper really have to hope that the public's chilly reaction to "The Master" is reflected in the Academy.
Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"
Current Position: Hunched over, sneering, but waiting for that phone call from his agent nonetheless.
Credits: Capital-A acting! The case for Joaquin Phoenix is that his fellow actors will look at him and think, "Well he's doing all the acting I normally do but also, like, 70% MORE than that!" That excess could turn out to be an advantage.
Demerits: Certain critics aside, nobody loves "The Master." Phoenix's public "I hate the Oscars" stance -- while certainly not unique even among performers who are constantly getting nominated -- might inspire a few people to grant his wish.
Historical Precedent: The Academy didn't go for "In the Valley of Elah" at all in 2007, but they still nominated that old grump Tommy Lee Jones.
In or Out? If I had to put money down right now, I'd say he's out, but he's very close. If the Academy wants to go in a more serious-performance direction than SAG did, Phoenix is their guy.
Jack Black, "Bernie"
Current Position:Practicing the comedy bit he and John C. Reilly will perform before handing out Best Makeup.
Credits: For a movie that didn't have a lot of light on it, "Bernie" managed to build some great grassroots buzz and parlayed it into Indie Spirit and Golden Globe nominations. Black's performance was most often cited as "great" and "not like the usual Jack Black."
Demerits: In a less competitive year, Black's serio-comic turn might have gotten him more attention, but "Bernie" was seen as another charm on Matthew McConaughey's bracelet moreso than a Best Actor bid for Black.
Historical Precedent: Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam," though "Bernie" doesn't have that wartime hook. Somehow murdering wealthy old ladies is seen as less noble than entertaining the troops during battle.
In or Out? Out. Everybody past Phoenix is mired in also-ran status, but he should enjoy the Globes and the Spirits and take more roles like this one.
Anthony Hopkins, "Hitchcock"
Current Position: Standing still, posing for a silhouette, while the rest of the field races far ahead of him.
Credits: Celebrity mimicry is a tried and true path to nomination, and Hopkins is mimicking one of the all-time Hollywood greats.
Demerits: Nobody seemed to like it all that much!
Historical Precedent: Robert Downey Jr. in "Chaplin." (And don't say Anthony Hopkins in "Nixon." That was also a nomination for mimicry, but "Nixon" is fifty times the film "Hitchcock" is.)
In or Out? Out. The Anthony Hopkins Oscar Comeback will have to wait another year.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, "Amour"
Current Position: Sitting alone, waiting for the grandkids to call.
Credits: He's the lead performer in an exquisitely reviewed film.
Demerits: Almost all of the attention is being funneled to his co-star, Emmanuelle Riva. It's basically what happened to Gordon Pinsent in "Away From Her," and since you don't even recognize that actor's name, I rest my case.
Historical Precedent: Tom Wilkinson in "In the Bedroom," though he was a good deal more "known" in the States in 2001 than Trintignant is now.
In or Out? Out, but sure to be the subject of many a contrarian thought piece should Riva score the nomination.
Richard Gere, "Arbitrage"
Current Position: Making an appointment with the Dalai Lama to talk about getting zen with the idea that the Academy just repeatedly won't go for him. (And, yes, I realize Richard Gere/Dalai Lama jokes are old hat, but at least I didn't go for that other clichéd Richard Gere joke.)
Credits: Great reviews for a timely movie about unaccountable Wall Street types.
Demerits: The movie opened small and never really became the discussion piece it aspired to. The Academy really doesn't ever seem to respond to him.
Historical Precedent: Michael Caine for "The Quiet American" (i.e. the performance that got nominated instead of Gere for "Chicago").
In or Out? Out, the poor guy. Somebody find him a President to portray. What did Calvin Coolidge look like?
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This year's Oscar predictions, Oscar Best Actor contenders and personal Oscar picks come from the eerily prescient mind of our Academy Awards expert, Joe Reid.