How we got here

It wouldn’t be right to call the five actors vying for top actor kudos fresh faces. Rather, they’re well-regarded working types who’ve shown a willingness throughout their careers to value project over payday.

The noms are the first for four of them, perhaps reflecting Oscar voters’ recent pendulum shift to indie-oriented films and away from big-budget studio pics that demand bankable talent to offset huge investments. Past Oscar perennials Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes and Johnny Depp had films out last year but didn’t make the cut.

Yet this year’s race also borrows greatly from history. Three of the five roles are portrayals of actual people. And four of the characters are connected with — or hoping to break into — the biz. Only cowpoke Ennis Del Mar fails to find an on-camera open mic, and he’s off on Brokeback Mountain.

In “Capote,” Philip Seymour Hoffman is the brilliant, self-centered Truman Capote, whose journey into the minds of two murderers while researching his groundbreaking book “In Cold Blood” ultimately reveals as much about the author as the killers. Hoffman nails Capote’s vocal inflection and mannerisms while delivering a searing look at a tortured man.

“This film doesn’t mythologize Capote any further,” Hoffman says. “It humanizes him in a way people will be surprised by.”

It was the insular nature of Ennis Del Mar that drew Heath Ledger to the role of the shepherd who falls in love with an outgoing cowboy played by Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain.”

“The complexities are so deeply embedded inside him, and rarely spoken,” Ledger says. “That was my task; to tell this character’s story from within, through stillness, through little actions as opposed to many words.”

It was clear to “Hustle & Flow’s” producers, including John Singleton, who self-financed the pic, that Terrence Howard was the only man to play DJay, a pimp who dreams of being a rap star. When the actor was finally persuaded to look at the script, the rest was easy.

“I read that initial monologue about ‘man ain’t like a dog,’ and I’m wondering, well what is man like?” Howard says. “And that had me hooked.”

David Strathairn has made a career playing character roles in socially conscious films, so it’s apt the actor, who bears no small resemblance to Edward R. Murrow should topline George Clooney pic “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about the legendary newsman’s battle to bring down Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“It was a movie about issues, the idea that news shouldn’t have to entertain,” says Strathairn, who captures Murrow in measured, clipped tones, an ever-present cigarette smoldering nearby.

In “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix portrays outlaw folk-rocker Johnny Cash — who conquered drug addiction and won the heart of his true love — as a troubled soul whose music speaks to the down-and-out. The actor learned to sing and play guitar for the film.

“There was no way I was going to do the part and not sing the songs,” Phoenix says. “Performing on the stage and playing the role were completely intertwined.”

Oscar Pedigree

As late as December this race seemed to be wide open, given the absense of Oscar’s usual suspects.

Since then, Philip Seymour Hoffman has racked up a mantel full of awards. Orgs honoring Hoffman include the Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review, SAG and Golden Globes; He has momentum, though the Acad is known to serve up surprises.

“Brokeback Mountain’s” Heath Ledger has been tapped by the New York Film Critics, among others.

Hoffman’s fellow Golden Globe winner Joaquin Phoenix is the only nominee who’s had a whiff of Oscar — a supporting nom in “Gladiator” Last year’s winner, Jamie Foxx, also came from a biopic about a music legend who scored his biggest hits when baby boomers were teeny-boppers. It’s not clear whether that helps or hurts Phoenix.

It’s been a high-water year for Terence Howard, whose acclaimed ensemble work in best pic-nominated “Crash” has been better sampled than his powerful turn in “Hustle & Flow.”

“Good Night, and Good Luck” may appeal most to the Acad’s liberal wing, but David Strathairn can light one up to the fact that two of the last three actor Oscars have gone to those who played real people — Adrien Brody as “The Pianist’s” Wladyslaw Szpilman and Foxx as Ray Charles.

If you want more…

…Johnny Cash: Try docu “Festival!” from helmer Murray Lerner. Pic traces the evolution of the Newport Folk Festival in the early ’60s and includes the Man in Black performing “I Walk the Line.” Cash also worked as a thesp, mostly in TV Westerns, and several of his pics are available on video. His made-for-TV version of “Stagecoach,” co-starring Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, arrives on DVD March 7.

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