To be perfectly honest, a good number of the Oscar races that started the year looking like total toss-ups have now become pretty predictable. "Argo" is almost certainly going to win Best Picture, and Jennifer Lawrence is just going to steamroll Jessica Chastain (though Emmanuelle Riva might have something to say about that...). One race that has remained enigmatic the whole way through is Supporting Actor. The "five previous winners" factor levels the playing field right off the bat, keeping anybody from picking up "he's due" momentum. In many ways, it feels like any of the five nominees could take it, though there are three who seem the most likely. Let's break it down...
Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Oscar History: This is his fourth career nomination, having previously been nominated for "JFK" and "In the Valley of Elah” (yes, really), and winning won for "The Fugitive."
What's the Story if He Wins? Well, for one thing, the "poor 'Lincoln'" contingent will have a bit less ammunition, since it'll mean the Academy really responded to the "Lincoln" cast. It also means that all his curmudgeonry at the Golden Globes didn't really count against him.
Predicted Order of People He'll Thank: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Tony Kushner, the cast, and hopefully a special mention for S. Epatha Merkerson,
What Are the Odds? The fact that Jones won the SAG award gives him the most tangible advantage in the race right now. Obviously, the actors went for him. But the overall lack of enthusiasm could have voters looking elsewhere.
Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
Oscar History: He won on the occasion of his only previous nomination, for 2009's "Inglourious Basterds."
What's the Story if He Wins? Voters clearly don't care that much about over-rewarding an actor. If they love you, they love you, and if there's a more lovable actor in this category, I'm not sure where he's hiding.
Predicted Order of People He'll Thank: The Academy, Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, the people of America for welcoming him with open arms, and Michael Haneke because all Austrians know each other probably.
What Are the Odds? That likeability factor is key, and both Waltz AND his character are hugely likeable. I think if I'm putting my chips to the middle of the table, he's the one I'm betting on.
Robert DeNiro, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Oscar History: He has seven career nominations, with two wins, though there had been nothing since a Best Actor nomination for "Cape Fear" 21 years ago.
What's the Story if He Wins? Welcoming an all-time great back into the fold. All evidence from his 21st Century acting output to the contrary, he really seems to want it, and the Academy might be willing to give it to him.
Predicted Order of People He'll Thank: The Academy, David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper, Jacki Weaver, Martin Scorsese, the Philadelphia Eagles, and then finally America's bookmakers.
What Are the Odds? Looking better and better. The aggressive "Silver Linings Playbook" campaign has been more focused on DeNiro's behalf than any of its other nominees, and it seems like the "We're so lucky to have DeNiro back" sentiment has been getting more vocal. Put his name, Waltz's, and Jones's in a hat and pull one out -- it's that much of a toss-up.
Alan Arkin, "Argo"
Oscar History: Four career nominations, including one win for "Little Miss Sunshine."
What's the Story if He Wins? That "Argo" train just could not be stopped. Though I hope at least one story gets written about how angry Eddie Murphy must be that they passed him over to honor the charismatic old man when they could have just waited six years.
Predicted Order of People He'll Thank: Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov, his fellow nominees, John Goodman, the tireless movie producers of Hollywood, California, the Lord Jesus our God through whom all things are possible. (...No, but wouldn't that be wild?)
What Are the Odds? It would have to be on the back of an "Argo" sweep (or near-sweep), but that outcome seems less and less crazy every day. There's just so little love for the actual performance, compared to the other nominees.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
Oscar History: This is his fourth career nomination and third as a Supporting Actor. He won his only time in the Lead category, for "Capote."
What's the Story if He Wins? Critical devotion to "The Master" finally bubbled over to Academy voters. Hoffman is perhaps the most Oscar-adored actor of the last decade, and a second trophy would just cement that.
Predicted Order of People He'll Thank: The Academy, Paul Thomas Anderson for a career's worth of immortal roles, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, hopefully some love for Laura Dern, his fellow nominees, including a special shout-out to Robert DeNiro for "Flawless."
What Are the Odds? This is probably my favorite performance in the category (though it's a lead performance, not a supporting one), but it's the one I just can't see winning. They love Hoffman, but I don't think enough of them love this movie.