Pete Hammond

In a year that the leading actor race is full of major heavyweight contenders — many going for their second or third Oscars— the Supporting Actor category is no less competitive and also chockful of major names in the hunt for another Oscar. With certified leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, Ewan McGregor, and Matthew McConaughey in the mix, the supporting contest is easily one of the most fascinating. And it begs the question: What really is a supporting role? Is it playing a major title role in The Master or could it be just one 5-minute scene as a cancer patient in Flight? Is it a collective award for a trio of scene-stealing roles in one year, such as John Goodman’s 2012 resumé indicates, or will it honor a return to critical acclaim for a legend like Robert De Niro who hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since 1991? Whatever the case, this is the starriest group of best supporting contenders we have seen in many years. Here’s a rundown of the major players.

Robert De Niro | Silver Linings Playbook
As Pat Sr., the obsessive-compulsive father and Philadelphia Eagles fan, two-time winner De Niro wowed critics and immediately elicited strong Oscar buzz for the first time in a couple of decades. He hasn’t been nominated since 1991’s Cape Fear and hasn’t won since 1980’s Raging Bull. Now he’s back in the supporting category where he first triumphed in 1974 for The Godfather Part II. Will history repeat itself? He’s a hot contender to do just that.

Tommy Lee Jones | Lincoln
As the spirited and scene-stealing political powerhouse Thaddeus Stevens, Jones livens up the film with a rip-roaring turn that puts this leading actor squarely in the hunt for a second statuette in the supporting category. He won for 1993’s The Fugitive and was last nominated five years ago for the first time in the best actor category for In the Valley of Elah. His acclaimed turn opposite Meryl Streep in the summer release Hope Springs further enhances his chances of scoring another Oscar for his mantel.

Related: Oscars: The Supporting Actress Race

Alan Arkin | Argo
Playing the veteran Hollywood movie producer called upon to create a fake film in order to help some hostages out of Iran, Arkin drolly nails the role and gets the laughs in Ben Affleck’s otherwise serious thriller set against the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The veteran star finally won an Oscar in this category six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine after being AWOL from the Oscar competition for a record 38 years. But he’s back with a vengeance, and somehow one Oscar just doesn’t seem enough for this beloved actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman | The Master
As Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a cult-like religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s drama, Hoffman is riveting and every bit the match for Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy. But in order to avoid Hoffman and Phoenix competing in the same category, the Weinstein Company is campaigning Hoffman for supporting, which gives him a meaty opportunity to swamp the competition. Polarized reaction to the film among some voters could hurt his overall chances, but a nomination seems like a no-brainer.

Ewan McGregorThe Impossible
McGregor is another leading man going for his first dance with Oscar as the real-life father and husband who searches desperately for his wife and oldest son when their family is divided after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. With one highly emotional scene to boost his chances, McGregor strongly delivers in a role to which any father will relate. And there’s a lot of them in the Academy.

John Goodman | Argo & Flight
Goodman has had an embarrassment of riches this year with scene-stealing roles. He was particularly well-received in Argo as the real-life Hollywood makeup man who helps the CIA pull off a daring plan to rescue six Americans in 1979-Tehran and as alcoholic-addict Denzel Washington’s enabler in Flight. Unfortunately, both roles are being campaigned by their respective studios, and he’s in danger of cancelling himself out. Every actor should have this kind of problem.

Leonardo DiCaprio | Django Unchained
DiCaprio, a three-time Oscar nominee and certified superstar, could compete for supporting honors as the deliciously villainous slave owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s wild ride of a western. The Weinstein Company recently moved costar Christoph Waltz up to lead actor, where he will square off with star Jamie Foxx, leaving the supporting field in the film largely to DiCaprio (though Samuel L. Jackson could also be a small fly in that ointment once the film is more widely seen by voters).

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actress Race

Matthew McConaughey | Magic Mike
Leaving behind a string of romantic-comedy roles, McConaughey completely reinvented his career with a series of strong, offbeat performances in 2012, including the murderous hitman in Killer Joe, the Texas prosecutor in Bernie, and a pair of well-received performances in movies that debuted in competition at Cannes, The Paperboy and the upcoming 2013 release Mud. But it’s his flashy strip-club veteran Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike that has put him in the supporting actor conversation.

Javier Bardem | Skyfall
He already has one supporting Oscar for playing evil in No Country for Old Men, but could Bardem be the first Bond villain ever to win an Oscar nomination? As the sexually ambiguous Silva, a wicked mastermind of all things bad, Bardem brings real dimension to what could have been a comic-book portrayal in lesser hands. In doing so, he lifts everyone’s game in the most successful James Bond film yet.

Russell Crowe | Les Misérables
Oscar-winning leading actor Crowe gets to once again show his dramatic chops as Javert, the singularly focused policeman who hunts down Hugh Jackman’s Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. What might really make voters stand up and take notice is Crowe’s singing ability here, and that can be a real plus for Academy voters, who love to see their Oscar winners stretch.

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actor Race

Also in the mix…

Bryan Cranston | Argo
With costars Alan Arkin and John Goodman already standing in line, Cranston’s equally terrific turn as a CIA boss might get lost in the crowd.

Dwight Henry | Beasts Of The Southern Wild
A baker in his native Louisiana, Henry is a non-pro who knocks it out of the park as the suffering dad of young Hushpuppy stuck in the middle of a crisis on the bayou. Against stiff marquee competition, he probably has a better shot at success at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Albert Brooks | This Is 40
After being robbed last year for going evil in Drive, Brooks is back in familiar territory as Paul Rudd’s needy father in this terrific adult comedy. He nails it, as usual.

Hal Holbrook | Promised Land
Holbrook has a couple of strong scenes, including a heartfelt monologue, but he might not have enough screen time, athough the same problem didn’t seem to hurt when he was nominated for Into The Wild a few years back. His few moments in Lincoln and veteran status also bolster his case.

Michael Pena | End Of Watch
Playing a good cop on patrol in Southeast LA, Pena is every bit the equal of costar and partner Jake Gyllenhaal, but the distributor doesn’t want them competing in the lead category. Having Pena in supporting might confuse actors who could want to put him in the upper category with Jake because of the size of the role.

Ezra Miller | The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Miller was evil personified in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, but he’s truly a revelation here in a complex turn in this fine drama about real teens. In a year with less competition, he would make the cut.

Billy Connolly | Quartet
Connolly is vibrant as part of the ensemble of great actors in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, and voters could single him out, but it’s a longshot.

William H. Macy | The Sessions
As the priest confidante of the horny but physically challenged Mark O’Brien, Macy gets the laughs, but the film really belongs to his costars.

Nate Parker | Arbitrage
As a street-smart kid who helps star Richard Gere out of a jam, Parker gives the role three dimensions, but his chances for a surprise nomination are slim with this killer group of contenders.

James Gandolfini | Not Fade Away
As a 1960s Jersey dad trying to discourage his son from musical ambitions, Gandofini is once again working with David Chase and back in the home territory of Tony Soprano but showing a completely different side of his talent. Getting the film seen could be a problem.

Irrfan Khan | Life Of Pi
As the older Pi telling his story in flashbacks, this acclaimed Indian star is effective and low-key, but most of the emotional stuff is left to his younger self, played by Suraj Sharma.

Garrett Hedlund | On The Road
Hedlund shows off real star power, along with other things, as the mystical Dean Moriarty in the Jack Kerouac adaptation. He’s a breakout, but Oscar will likely have to wait for another year.

James Badge Dale | Flight
With just a single scene as a cancer patient, James Badge Dale makes an indelible impression that has fellow actors singing his praises. But at five minutes’ screen time, it’s the longest of longshots.

Christopher Walken | Seven Psychopaths
Walken’s dog-napper of a con steals the show from his costars, and the Oscar winner is always respected by fellow actors. Don’t discount his ability to break through, but CBS Films will really have to campaign him.

John Travolta | Savages
Oliver Stone’s Savages seems to be on the sidelines this awards season, but attention must be paid to Travolta’s corrupt and deliciously slippery DEA agent, his best work in years.

Andy Serkis | The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
With another performance-capture turn as Gollum, has this actor’s Oscar time finally come? Judging from past Academy voting habits, don’t bet the farm on it.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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