Pete Hammond

Call it the battle of the superstars.

Rarely has the Best Actor Oscar race contained so many likely big movie stars. From Clooney and Pitt to DiCaprio and Gosling, the possibilities of a red-carpet smackdown among People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive has tabloid media salivating and Academy Award show producers hoping for a hearttrob lineup that could conceivably boost ratings. Of course, now only the voters in the actors branch have to do is vote for the current golden boys of cinema. In addition to the best-known contenders, you also have the distinct possibility of a French superstar, a Mexican superstar and an Irish stud who stars in a controversial NC-17 sex drama. Here’s a look at the most likely contenders.

FRONTRUNNERS

GEORGE CLOONEY, THE DESCENDANTS
Already an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor for 2005′s Syriana, Clooney is a frontrunner to make the leap to the leading category, where he twice competed and lost in the past (for Michael Clayton and Up In The Air). In a complex role that allows him to go against type and walk a thin line between comedy and drama, Clooney shows he can do it all. With another 2011 high-profile film on his resume in The Ides Of March — in which he co-wrote, co-produced, directed and played a key supporting role — it’s been a great year for George, and voters may just want to recognize that, just as the National Board of Review has already done.

BRAD PITT, MONEYBALL
In a role that Robert Redford or Paul Newman might certainly have played in their prime, Brad Pitt hit it over the fence with an understated pitch-perfect portrayal of Billy Beane, the baseball general manager who turned around the Oakland A’s in the most unorthodox fashion imaginable. Pitt fits the role like a glove (too many baseball cliches for you here?) and has already won numerous nominations and the New York Film Critics award for Best Actor. Can he defeat his good friend and Ocean’s co-star Clooney to pull off his first Oscar win?

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO,  J. EDGAR
A three-time nominee who has never gotten the prize, Leo once again immerses himself body and soul into a complex and somewhat confounding historical character. Just as he did with his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator , DiCaprio does not hold back, aging nearly 50 years and acting under pounds of makeup to bring the intriguing and much-debated director of the FBI back to vivid life under Clint Eastwood’s direction. Oscar voters have shown a strong predilection for actors who lose themselves in the lives of well-known figures, so that could be a big plus here. The only drawback could be that the film itself doesn’t seem to be as widely admired as the portrayal of its leading man.

RYAN GOSLING, DRIVE, THE IDES OF MARCH
Despite his Blue Valentine co-star Michelle Williams landing an Oscar nod last year, Gosling was egregiously overlooked, and this year voters just may want to make it up to him. Problem is he has two possible entries in the lead actor category that could cancel themselves out and leave him back in the pack of hopefuls. His Steve McQueen-style cool performance in Drive and his morally challenged political operative in The Ides Of March give voters plenty to choose from. Add to that a hilarious supporting role in Crazy, Stupid, Love that has earned him a comedy Golden Globe nod and it’s the Year of Gosling. Or is it?

JEAN DUJARDIN, THE ARTIST
A household name in France but best known internationally for the OSS James Bond spoofs he did with The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, Dujardin hit the jackpot with his funny and poignant portrait of a silent film star who hits the skids when talkies arrive. Winning the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival could just be the first stop on the awards circuit for this French charmer. His completely silent performance is what the essence of screen acting is all about, and even the scene-stealing dog Uggie, who plays his faithful companion and co-star Jack, couldn’t make audiences forget the power of his performance.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER, SHAME
It seemed as if the fast-rising Fassbender was in every other movie this year. With X Men: First Class, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method and Shame, this Irish actor has been busy. The Los Angeles Film Critics in fact awarded him Best Actor for all four films, but it is the latter that is causing the most Oscar talk for him. Launching awards season with a Venice Film Festival win, Fassbender is on the fast track to his first Oscar nom playing a sex-addicted New Yorker in this NC-17 no-holds barred (and everything-bared) picture. His failure to win a SAG nomination, though, could be troubling.

GARY OLDMAN, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Although he has so far failed to win any key awards or nominations, Oldman is an actor’s actor and could still pull off a surprise Oscar bid, which after 25 years of wildly different roles would incredibly be just his first. After all, Javier Bardem failed to get any pre-award recognition last year for Biutiful and landed the one that counts in the end. Plus, actors love seeing their colleagues step out of the comfort zone. And for Oldman, playing the low-key George Smiley and stepping into the shoes of the late, great Alec Guiness — who played Smiley in the highly regarded PBS miniseries — that’s exactly what he did, and the critics noticed. Will the Academy?

DEMIAN BICHIR, A BETTER LIFE
This great Mexican star won critical plaudits for the not-widely seen illegal immigrant drama that came and went fairly quickly after its June release. But Summit wouldn’t let it go and made sure it was the first DVD screener sent to voters. The gambit paid off in a surprise SAG nomination that has put Bichir’s name in the mix of top contenders — a bit of a longshot still, but he’s climbing with new momentum.

CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITIES

THOMAS HORN, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
Nominations in the lead category for kid performances are fairly rare, but with no previous experience except a run as Kids Jeopardy! champion, Horn more than proved he could hold his own with the likes of Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks and Max von Sydow.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT, 50/50
As a young man diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Golden Globe-nominated Gordon-Levitt had to walk a thin line between comedy and wrenching drama and pulled it off with flair, despite the fact he was a last-minute replacement and had no time to prepare.

WOODY HARRELSON, RAMPART
The gritty cop drama’s profile is probably too small to gain Harrelson his third Oscar nod, but his performance was generally regarded as the best thing in the film and the kind of against-type acting his fellow thesps usually love.

OWEN WILSON, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Wilson’s casting as Woody Allen’s latest screen alter ego was inspired, even though the director never initially thought of him for the role in the time-travelling comedy that has become Allen’s biggest hit ever. A Golden Globe nomination doesn’t hurt Wilson’s chances, but comedy is usually trumped by meatier roles in this category.

MICHAEL SHANNON,  TAKE SHELTER
As the least known but  only cast member of Revolutionary Road to pull off an Oscar nomination, Shannon immediately established his clout with his peers, who seem to love the guy. A towering performance in the highly dramatic Take Shelter has won him even more notice and an independent Spirit award nomination, but an Oscar bid may be just out of reach in a highly competitive field.

MARTIN SHEEN, THE WAY
The longest of shots in the field is still one of the most deserving. Sheen, now best known for his role as the president on the long-running series The West Wing, delivers his finest screen work in decades — at least since the heyday of Apocalypse Now and Badlands. In The Way, which was directed by son Emilio Estevez and successfully distributed independently, Sheen is enormously touching as a father taking a long journey along Spain’s Camino de Santiago to honor his late son.

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