Acad's usual penchant for challenged characters gives way to the tough, and often, unlikable

Where have all the victims gone?

Historically, the Academy has favored actors playing characters who are physically or mentally challenged in some way — Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles in “Ray,” Holly Hunter’s mute Ada in “The Piano,” Dustin Hoffman’s autistic Ray Babbitt in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks’ sweet naif in “Forrest Gump” are all Oscar-winning performances.

But not this year. If anything, the characters behind the 2006 nominees seem to share this refrain: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore!”

From David Strathairn’s silence-breaking newsman to Charlize Theron’s sexual harassment pioneer, these are brash and ballsy characters willing to buck the system — whether in public (Judi Dench’s salty nightclub owner) or private (Reece Witherspoon’s tough love in “Walk the Line”). Even Keira Knightley can’t seem to appear onscreen without being labeled “feisty.”

In fact, a majority of the nominees were recognized for playing controversial and potentially unsympathetic characters (such as Terrence Howard’s rapper-pimp or Felicity Huffman’s cranky transsexual). “Regardless of the moral issues raised by the roles, I think the movies themselves want you to like these people,” says Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris, citing Howard’s ability to bring humanity and charisma to his part of a small-time pimp in “Hustle & Flow.”

“He may have given the best performance in the group,” agrees Roger Ebert. “He has to show change, which is more difficult than simply establishing a character and playing him. The film’s subject matter and setting obscure the fact that it’s really about a man redeemed by art.”

“Capote” offers a considerably more critical view of its protagonist. “I think it’s a tough movie in the sense that he’s not a likable character,” notes New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. More familiar, she says, is Ledger’s portrayal of impacted masculinity. “This is a very contained performance,” she says. “It’s a kind of anguished thing and you just see (the emotion) glimmering underneath.”

Given “Good Night, and Good Luck’s” razor-sharp focus on specific events, the critics agree that Strathairn nails Murrow’s onscreen image, but never gets to flesh out the character’s private life.

“There’s not much of a person there, it’s more of a moral stance,” Morris says, adding that the first-time nominee should have won years earlier for “Passion Fish” (1992).

Dargis feels Witherspoon was similarly overlooked for her role in “Election” (1999).

“I think she’s been coasting a little bit too much on the cuteness,” adds Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek. “She’s a really tough actress, which is one of the things that I’ve always loved about her since I saw her in ‘Freeway.’ ”

Witherspoon’s closest competition could be fellow Golden Globe winner Huffman for “Transamerica.”

“It’s the ultimate stunt role,” says Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto. “I mean, it’s beyond Hilary Swank in ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ where she’s a woman playing a woman living as a man. This is a woman playing a man who completes his journey into womanhood.”

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