How we got here

Remember when … 1982
Few actor races have featured as many powerhouses, both past and future, as 1982′s.
Taking home the prize was Ben Kingsley, on his first-ever nomination, for the best-pic winner “Gandhi.” Kingsley has since earned three additional thesp noms.
Coming off a win for “Kramer vs. Kramer” after three previous mentions was Dustin Hoffman, who won raves for playing an actor playing a woman in “Tootsie,” one of the most popular films of the year.
Jack Lemmon received the last of his eight nominations — he had won twice — for “Missing,” opposite fellow nominee Sissy Spacek.
Peter O’Toole also received the last acting nom of his career — his seventh, all for leading roles — for “My Favorite Year.” He took home an honorary award in 2003.
Paul Newman rounded out the field as an alcoholic lawyer in “The Verdict.” It was Newman’s sixth acting nom and his second consecutive nom in the category.

Veterans and newcomers define the race for the actor Oscar, but it’s who was not nommed that has people talking.

After earning tremendous notices but no nomination last year for “American Splendor,” it seemed like Paul Giamatti was a shoo-in for a nomination this year for his turn in “Sideways.” The accolades from critics groups piled up, but when the noms were announced Jan. 25, Giamatti was not among them.

Curiously, Giamatti says “Sideways” director Alexander Payne hadn’t even seen him in “American Splendor.” And in a film in which the chemistry between the four key thesps — Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen — was so important, Payne didn’t have all the actors audition with one another.

“It was really kind of gutsy,” Giamatti recalls. “He took a risk that what was in his head would work out onscreen.”

Leading the race since the first screenings of “Ray” is Jamie Foxx, who was already riding the buzz from his work opposite Tom Cruise in “Collateral.” Foxx was in Method mode for the Ray Charles biopic, insisting on prosthetics for his eyes that rendered him blind during the shoot.

He also lost 30 pounds and — drawing on his own musical training — hit all the piano music cues in the film, although only Charles’ playing is heard.

He spent time studying interviews and recordings of Charles to get all the mannerisms down pat — right down to the singer’s famous heroin twitch — rather than modeling himself on the Charles he had met.

Don Cheadle took on the difficult real-life role of Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda.” He faced the possibility that director Terry George might have to replace him to get financing as well as a rigorous three-month shoot in Africa.

“Ultimately it all really served the film because being in even a somewhat adversarial environment gave us an inkling that our backs were against the wall the entire time, which is a good way to feel for this film,” Cheadle says.

The payoff came with the film winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, creating buzz for the pic and Cheadle’s perf.

Johnny Depp surprised no one by earning another Oscar nom for “Finding Neverland,” in which he plays “Peter Pan” playwright J.M. Barrie. Despite a not-so-long-ago appraisal as box office poison and a reputation of avoiding the press, Depp has become one of the industry’s most respected talents.

“He can go from a dramatic scene into a playful scene, back and forth, effortlessly,” says “Neverland” helmer Marc Forster. “His performance is so intrinsically fascinating and complex that it’s hard to see that he’s actually acting.”

It was John Logan’s “The Aviator” script, which focuses on Howard Hughes’ first steps in filmmaking and aircraft building, that caught Leonardo DiCaprio’s attention.

“I didn’t realize what a dynamic, compelling figure he was in his younger years,” says DiCaprio. “This film came to fruition because we focused on the beginning of his obsession and compulsion, the changing landscape of our country and aviation, and the beginning of Hollywood. I wouldn’t have done (this film) if it was just a glossed-over version of look at how sexy this billionaire’s life was.”

With “Million Dollar Baby,” Clint Eastwood repeated the hat trick of Oscar nominations (actor, director, picture) he corralled for “Unforgiven.”

“Acting has to have an organic feel to it. It can’t be intellectually thought out,” he says. “It’s like the ad says, ‘Just do it.’ Or you could put it another way: Just give yourself over to the part.”

Oscar pedigree

amie Foxx joined some rare company by landing two acting noms in the same year. That feat has only been accomplished nine times previously (six of those occasions occurred since 1982).

The good news for Foxx is that six of those nine times the thesp did not go home empty-handed. While Foxx got good reviews for his supporting role in “Collateral,” he has been a front-runner for the actor trophy since the first screenings of “Ray,” a transforming perf that few can argue is not worthy of an Oscar.

Nommed for the second year in a row is Johnny Depp, whose subtle perf in “Finding Neverland” could not be more different than last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” The depth of talent demonstrated by such diverse performances is one of the reasons Depp is held in such high regard. That “Neverland” is a more serious role could give him the extra lift with voters needed for Depp to take home the Oscar.

Clint Eastwood was nominated once before in the acting category for “Unforgiven” (1992). Like that pic, “Million Dollar Baby” also brought him mentions for director and film (which he won). Given the rising arc of his long career, voters could decide that it’s time to send Eastwood home with a hat trick.

Another face familiar to Oscar is Leonardo DiCaprio, who was previously nommed for his supporting role in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” DiCaprio turns in a compelling portrait of so American an icon as Howard Hughes can only help make the case that his turn in “The Aviator” deserves an Oscar.

The newcomer to the crowd is Don Cheadle, who gave weight and humanity to an inhuman massacre in “Hotel Rwanda.” Oscar has a history of rewarding first-time nominees, especially for weighty and socially aware roles. That may not be enough, however, to give Cheadle the edge he needs against heavyweight competition.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more