There are a lot of candidates in the lead actor race, and a few in the supporting race, although like all the other categories there has yet to be any kind of general consensus as to who is most likely, who is least likely to be nominated. At this point, as far as I can see, between Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War, Philip Seymour Hoffman will probably be nominated in either the leading or supporting category, maybe even both, and perennial Academy favourite Tom Hanks is very likely to be nominated for Charlie Wilson’s War . The leading actor candidates:
George Clooney (Michael Clayton): The buzz has started to drop off a bit but not to the point where it couldn’t be reignited during the major campaigning months. Chances are pretty good that he’ll be nominated for a Golden Globe, which should go a ways to keeping him on people’s minds.
Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood): Unless the Academy is more turned off than they are intrigued by his character in the film, I don’t see any way that he won’t be nominated. At this point, he’s my pick to win but I say that from the perspective of someone who is a huge fan of his.
Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd): He’ll show the Academy a different side of himself by starring in a musical but if the film is a disaster, it won’t matter. And even if it isn’t, but it simply fails to take the Academy by storm, he’d have to campaign for a slot and he doesn’t strike me as someone who cares enough about awards to actively seek them out.
Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl): He’s fantastic in the film and I would love it if he was nominated, even though I don’t think it’s likely. Unlike the actress category, which tends to skew younger, the actor category tends to be made up of men in their mid-30s to late 40s, and if a younger actor is going to be nominated, it’s going to be either Hirsh or McAvoy.
Emile Hirsh (Into The Wild): It’s a film that really seems to be capturing people’s hearts and I think his chances are only going to improve as the season carries on and more people go to see the film.
James McAvoy (Atonement): To my mind, this is going to be the film to beat. However, romantically themed films – even the ones that sweep the nominations – don’t tend to do much for the lead actor (think Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic or Joseph Fiennes Shakespeare In Love, both of whom failed to get nominations despite their respective films being nominated in nearly every other category).
Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James): The movie was a critical success but failed to find an audience. Like Clooney, I think his chances will be improved through the likelihood of a Golden Globe nomination (the Globes, traditionally, like to nominate as many bona fide stars as they can). I also think the odds of co-star Casey Affleck being nominated as Supporting will help him because the Academy tends to like having that kind of symmetry in its leading/supporting nominations, especially when overcompensating for a nomination that they think (rightly or wrongly) they have to justify (think Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix for Gladiator or Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke for Training Day).
Denzel Washington (American Gangster or The Great Debaters): On the one hand, his Gangster role is the kind of villainous, against type role the Academy likes to honour. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of role that won him his second Oscar (for Training Day). Debaters is getting the Oprah endorsement, but I’m still going to give Gangster the edge.
In the supporting category, it looks like Javier Bardem is a sure thing for No Country For Old Men, and I hope that the Academy is able to spare some love for Tommy Lee Jones (also No Country…) as well if they can’t find a place for him in the leading category for his performance in In The Valley of Elah.
Tom Wilkinson (Michael Collins) and Hal Holbrook (Into The Wild) both have a pretty solid chance of making it in, as does the aforementioned Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James…).
Paul Dano has a chance for There Will Be Blood, but his performance might be eclipsed by that of his co-star, Daniel Day Lewis. John Travolta was buzzed about early on for Hairspray, a nomination which might add some levity to an otherwise dark themed nomination pool. Ethan Hawke can make a play for a nomination with Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, but I think his chances of getting it are largely dependent on co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman being nominated for the film in the lead category.
So, that wraps up my thoughts (so far) on the way the race is shaping up. Nothing seems certain this year, everything is kind of a shot in the dark.