How we got here
When “The Departed” opened in October, it looked like the movie might fill up the supporting actor category all by itself: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson all had red-meat parts, but then there were also Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg to consider in high-impact supporting roles. The survivor was Wahlberg, playing the bulldog detective with the “Deadwood”-worthy vocabulary.To hear him tell it, “Marty encouraged me to push the envelope, especially in scenes with the other guys.” They’d shoot a take, Scorsese would check to see if everyone was all right, “then he’d whisper for me to do a little more. I loved that.” This is the first Oscar nomination for the Boston-born actor. But when it comes to overdue accolades, no one can touch Eddie Murphy. His is the name critics cite first when bemoaning the fact that the Academy doesn’t fete comedy performers. Here, playing fictional R&B legend James “Thunder” Early — a charismatic combo of Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Marvin Gaye — the “Dreamgirls” star tackles his first purely dramatic role, demonstrating not only that gravitas is within his grasp but also that he can sing and dance in the process. As one of the film’s songs puts it, “Jimmy’s got soul, Jimmy’s got soul! Jimmy’s got S-O-U-L, soul!” This year’s noms just go to show that “serious” actors can come from anywhere: Wahlberg started out as a trouser-dropping rapper, Murphy as a raw-mouthed standup and Djimon Hounsou as a male model. “Overall, what I learned from modeling is to really not be concerned about the cameras around you,” says Hounsou, who was nominated three years earlier for “In America.” “It is difficult to act like there’s no one around.” Another repeat nominee, Alan Arkin hasn’t been on an Oscar ballot in 38 years. But he never left the bigscreen, delivering more than 50 memorable feature perfs since his nom for “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” “I love completely disreputable characters who spout philosophy,” says Arkin of the twisted grandpa he plays in “Little Miss Sunshine.” They real comeback story of 2006 is the resurrection of one-time child star Jackie Earle Haley’s career. Haley gave depth and complexity to the child molester he played in “Little Children.” The subject matter concerned Haley at first, but as he read the script, the actor was impressed by how it dealt with the character’s sensibilities. “I was thinking, ‘This is so good, I don’t have a shot at getting this role,’ ” says Haley, who ultimately directed his own self-confidence issues into the character.