This year's lead actor and supporting actor categories offer no end of irony.
Although certifiable leading men like Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Leonardo DiCaprio in "Revolutionary Road," Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino" and especially Sean Penn in "Milk" (by far the year's most lauded performance) are in the hunt, many of the other prime top-tier contenders likely to hear their names called when Oscar nominations are revealed on Jan. 22 are veteran actors who have spent most of their film careers (lately at least) racking up supporting roles.
FOR THE RECORD:
'Amadeus': An article in Wednesday's Envelope section about actors who are in the running for Academy Award nominations said the movie "Amadeus" was released in 1974. The film came out in 1984. —
Consider these unlikely front-runners going for their first nomination who might not have dreamed they would ever have a real shot at a best actor Oscar.
" Frost/Nixon's" 71-year-old SAG, Globe and Critics Choice nominee Frank Langella may have flirted with movie stardom early in his career but has spent the bulk of it on stage, TV or in smaller movie roles such as " Superman Returns" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." Now he's back in the "starring" game big time as Richard Nixon, a role for which he won a Tony for the stage version but almost didn't get for the film version.
Then there's 2008's certified comeback kid: Mickey Rourke, now 52, a onetime leading man who hasn't top- lined a significant movie in 15 years, now has an acclaimed performance in "The Wrestler" that very likely will see him heading to the Kodak.
And how about perpetual supporting player Richard Jenkins? He's been kicking around in smaller parts for three decades and now at 61 is reaping rewards and a SAG nomination for his first big starring role in "The Visitor."
Of course, these three will still have to contend with another vet who has always been the star of his films, two-time acting Oscar nominee and four-time winner (for directing and producing "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby") Eastwood, who at 78 is hinting that "Gran Torino" will be his final role.
"Clint is in a class by himself and we've watched him play this persona for 45 years and he's wonderful in the film," says critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who also deeply admires Rourke, Langella and Jenkins.
Maltin also likes Pitt's deceptively fine but subtle work in "Button," but wonders if it's too low-key compared to flashier performances. "You would think the actors branch would appreciate subtlety and nuance more than anyone, but they don't always seem to do that," he says.
Beyond the top group of contenders, there are a host of longer shots in the race, including two-time winner Dustin Hoffman in "Last Chance Harvey," Josh Brolin in "W.," superstar Will Smith in a dramatic turn in "Seven Pounds" and Langella's "Frost/Nixon" costar Michael Sheen, who is determined to be considered for lead actor even though the odds are long that both he and his costar would be nominated against each other. That hasn't happened since 1974 when Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham were up for "Amadeus" (Abraham won).
In contrast to some of the names in the lead actor race, the supporting actor contest is loaded with starry talent and past lead nominees going for the secondary prize.
Just look at the Globes list, for instance, which includes perpetual leading men Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. in smaller roles in " Tropic Thunder." Philip Seymour Hoffman ( "Doubt") and Ralph Fiennes ( "The Duchess") are also there in parts that could arguably be labeled as leads.
And then there's the 800-pound gorilla in the race, Heath Ledger, who has lapped up loads of posthumous critics prizes and nominations, and looms as a certain front-runner for an Oscar nomination as well for his riveting turn as the Joker in " The Dark Knight."
" Slumdog Millionaire's" young Indian star, Dev Patel, is building heat particularly after his SAG nomination, and it would seem "Milk's" SAG-nominated Josh Brolin probably has the edge over his costar James Franco.
Michael Shannon, critically acclaimed in "Revolutionary Road," also is mentioned frequently but oddly has yet to get any traction in the pre-Oscar awards contests.
"W.'s" awards prospects seem to have faded, but if it gets a second wind, don't count out vets James Cromwell and Richard Dreyfuss for roles as, respectively, George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Oscar just loves those guys who play it "real."