Category placement is always a delicate dance come Oscar time. In 1966, Walter Matthau won the Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fortune Cookie even though he was on equal footing with co-star Jack Lemmon. In 1981, Susan Sarandon admitted to voting for herself in Supporting for Atlantic City only to surprisingly land in lead. Patricia Neal took Best Actress for Hud in 1963 even though she was really playing a supporting role. Anthony Hopkins could have gone for support in 1991’s Silence Of The Lambs but was campaigned instead for lead and won. George Clooney was originally going for lead in 2005’s Syriana, where he almost certainly would have lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote, but strategically dropped to support where he also became an Oscar winner. And, in the most complex of scenarios possible, Catherine Zeta Jones went strategically for support in Chicago while her equal co-star Renee Zellweger had Best Actress to herself but lost to Nicole Kidman, who won for The Hours in a role that could have been classified as supporting but that’s where her co-star Julianne Moore competed so as to avoid cannibalizing her own chances for lead actress in Far From Heaven.
Get the picture?
Until 1936 in Academy Awards history, featured actors either competed alongside stars or not at all. Since then, the Supporting actor and actress categories have tried to make distinctions between themselves and lead, although it seems every year the line gets blurred. It was no exception in 2010 with so-called leading roles being campaigned for Supporting in some instances to give them a better shot at a nomination or avoid competing with co-stars. Which is perefectly acceptable since the Academy actors branch leaves it up to voting members to determine the appropriate category for each performance. Sometimes this results in split votes. Often in surprises. So here are this year’s prime contenders by alphabetical order:
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Fighter (Relativity/Paramount) – Bale’s dynamic turn as crack addicted Dicky Ward has drawn top reviews and made him a heavyweight contender not just for a nomination, but also the win. His dramatic weight loss and surprising performance is just the kind that attracts Oscar.
Jim Broadbent, Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics) – This previous Supporting Actor winner (Iris) retains his usual class and dignity, delivering another quietly effective performance for frequent director Mike Leigh. But that may not be enough to overcome flashier competition.
Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment) – Brosnan gets a real chance to stretch his image and show his chops under the direction of Roman Polanski. The film’s February release doesn’t help being remembered against a tough field of contenders.
Vincent Cassel, Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – This French star gets a juicy, hard-edged role in an American film and runs with it. The fact that he is also being campaigned in the lead category for his mesmerizing two-part Cesar award -inning portrayal in Mesrine won’t hurt his chances.
Matt Damon, True Grit (Paramount) – Damon is an Academy favorite. Under the guidance of the Coen Brothers, he gets right the role singer Glen Campbell screwed up in the 1969 version. But he’s playing second fiddle to Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges more likely to earn nods.
Michael Douglas, Wall Street Money Never Sleeps (20th Century Fox) – Douglas revisits the Gordon Gekko role 23 years later and has the industry rooting for him to overcome his bout with cancer. He could become the first actor to win two Oscars for playing the same character.
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network (Sony Pictures) – Garfield was impressive in two distinct dramas this fall, the other being the little-seen Never Let Me Go. Plus he’s the new Spider-Man. But his role here is earning Oscar talk with Golden Globe and CCMA nominations.
Ed Harris, The Way Back (Newmarket) – A four-time Oscar nominee, this well-liked veteran is overdue, and his physically challenging role is first-rate work which his peers expect from him. But the film’s year-end qualifying run and lack of marketing funds may dim his chances.
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone (Roadside Attractions) – Although Jennifer Lawrence seems to get all the attention, nominations for this journeyman actor’s authentic backwoods portrayal from the Spirit Awards and SAG are beginning to make a longshot Oscar nod far more realistic.
Bill Murray, Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics) – Many feel Murray was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar for Lost in Translation and the actors branch might just want to make it up to him by recognizing this nicely-etched performance which scored an Indie Spirit nomination.
Sean Penn, Fair Game (Summit Entertainment) – Penn steals this entertaining true-life political thriller. The role would seem to belong in lead but Summit is hoping the two-time Best Actor might stand a better chance in supporting. Though the movie has faded without much buzz.
Jeremy Renner, The Town (Warner Bros) – With a triple-play of supporting nods from SAG, Golden Globes and CCMAs, Renner has emerged as a very good bet to grab his second consecutive Oscar nomination after first being named last year in the leading actor category.
Sam Rockwell, Conviction (Fox Searchlight) – Rockwell is popular with his fellow actors and long underrated. He won early buzz for his performance but has so far not shown up in many pre-Oscar contests. With lack of recognition by SAG, he is suddenly in an uphill climb.
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) – Ruffalo worked just six days on this indie dramedy but he obviously did something right to earn SAG, CCMA, and New York Film Critics attention. This lively supporting turn should result in his first career Oscar nomination.
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co) – Rush hits it out of the park and gives this very accessible period drama its heart and soul. A former lead actor winner for Shine, Rush is one of the frontrunners to hold Oscars for both lead and supporting roles.
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network (Sony Pictures) – Pop star Justin Timberlake has displayed acting talent before in films like Alpha Dog and his SNL hosting gigs but he is suddenly in the Oscar conversation despite fierce competition from even his own movie.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, The Fighter (Relativity/Paramount) – Adams has already landed two Oscar nominations and seems certain for a third in this change-of-pace role as the expletive spewing, tough-as-nails bartender girlfriend of Micky Ward. Voters love to see actors go against type and expertly so.
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co) – This versatile British vet has actually been Oscar nominated just once in 1997 for The Wings of the Dove. Certainly that will be rectified this year for her Queens in this popular drama and Alice In Wonderland.
Marion Cotillard, Inception (Warner Bros) – Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar just three years ago for La Vie En Rose but here received nice reviews for strong emotional scenes never overwhelmed by the technology. And fellow actors could recognize her for that.
Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone (Roadside Attractions) – This trained stage actress’ pure authenticity of the role and lack of name recognition might hold her back. But she also could turn out to be a real sleeper nomination and not just at the Indie Spirits where she’s already made the honor roll.
Kirsten Dunst, All Good Things (Magnolia) – Unfortunately this film sat unreleased until Magnolia rescued it from The Weinstein Co by launching a limited theatrical release. That has also spawned a late-inning campaign to earn Dunst awards recognition that has yet to bear fruit.
Barbara Hershey, Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – Hard to fathom why this versatile and daring actress has only snagged one Oscar nod (for Portrait Of A Lady) in her 45-year career. But she’s in line for another one if co-star Mila Kunis doesn’t grab all the supporting glory.
Rebecca Hall, The Town (Warner Bros) – Just as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she knows her way around an American accent. Hall is solid here again but so far Jeremy Renner is the only cast member who has gained foothold in the awards firmament this year.
Mila Kunis, Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – Kunis is turning heads and winning nominations for a daring turn (including a hot sex scene) that’s gaining notice from critics to awards voters. With a Venice honor and SAG, Globe and CCMA nods, she’s now poised for Oscar attention.
Melissa Leo, The Fighter (Relativity/Paramount) – After breaking through in Frozen River, this veteran character actress stands a real chance of winning support for her bigger-than-life mother here. Leo already has SAG, Globe, and CCMA noms, plus a New York Film Critics award, too.
Juliette Lewis, Conviction (Fox Searchlight) – After an up and down career in front of the cameras and a sabbatical in rock music, she’s back with a one-scene-stealing role. But she makes it unforgettable and won the Boston Film Critics supporting actress award in the process.
Blake Lively, The Town (Warner Bros) – This Gossip Girl glamour girl turned the tables on her image, likely gaining enough positive critical notice to take her career in new directions but probably not enough for any significant awards attention, this year at least.
Rosamund Pike, Barney’s Version (Sony Pictures Classics) – She scored nice critical notice this year as sympathetic wives in Made In Dagenham and here despite a limited release. Following last year’s An Education, there’s no doubt awards recognition will catch up with this multi-talent.
Miranda Richardson, Made In Dagenham (Sony Pictures Classics) – As a British Cabinet Secretary, this ever-so-reliable star once again nailed it and would seem a shoo-in for another Oscar nod. But sadly nobody seems to be buzzing about her once bright chances or the movie.
Ruth Sheen, Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics) – As Broadbent’s better half, Sheen is a rock as usual, deftly handling director Mike Leigh’s challenging improvisational filmmaking style to create another understated and memorable character. But is it too subtle to break out?
Sissy Spacek, Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics) – Spacek is once again quiet perfection opposite Robert Duvall and makes it all seem easy. It’s been 30 years since her only Oscar win, but this six time lead actress nominee gets better with age and could compete for the first time in support.
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit (Paramount) – Kim Darby was 21 when she played Mattie Ross but seven years younger Steinfeld makes it her own and effortlessly lets the Coens’ poetic and rapid-paced dialogue just flow off her tongue and holds her ground against a stellar cast.
Kristin Scott Thomas, Nowhere Boy (The Weinstein Co) – Thomas was BAFTA-nominated last year when the film was released during the 2009 holiday season in England. Weinstein opened it in the U.S. this fall and critics were every bit as impressed but the film did not get much play.
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom (Sony Pictures Classics) – It swept the Australian Oscars and has managed to win Weaver, tough and unforgettable, major critical acclaim as well as Golden Globe, CCMA, and National Board of Review plaudits, though she missed out on SAG.
Dianne Wiest, Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate) – Two-time winner in this category, Wiest could be the only actress to win three exclusively in support. But surprisingly awards momentum hasn’t materialized for Wiest who isn’t doing much of a campaign. Still, the Academy loves her.
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment) – Williams is an important part of the Hitchcockian puzzle Polanski weaves. She’s believable every step of the way. Problem is the film came out very early in the year and may have a tough time against more recent releases.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.