Eye on the Oscars: The Actor/Actress

GEORGE CLOONEY, “MICHAEL CLAYTON”
Why he’ll win: Clooney pulls off performances the Academy traditionally loves — playing off his public image, but in an elegant, deft, old Hollywood way a la Clark Gable. As a fixer at a corporate law firm, Clooney perfects a self-doubting soul-sickness with which audiences and voting members can relate; in a word, Clayton is human.
Maybe not: While the Academy will want to award “Michael Clayton” in some regard, it might not be for Clooney’s masterfully controlled yet quiet turn as the title character. Though he exudes a deeply moving, beautiful solitude throughout the film, Clooney’s role lacks some of the fireworks that typically make Oscar voters dizzy with excitement.
Critical quote: “It’s … a strong if less flamboyant vehicle for Clooney, playing a laconic, never-let-them-see-you-sweat type that contrasts nicely with (Tom) Wilkinson’s standout work as an agitated attorney on the edge,” says Variety’s Brian Lowry.

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, “THERE WILL BE BLOOD”
Why he’ll win: Over the past two decades, Day-Lewis has garnered three Oscar noms and won for “My Left Foot.” For the actor’s work in buzz-saturated “Blood,” the kind of epic period piece Oscar covets as lustily as his prospector character mines for oil, Day-Lewis’ cataclysmic turn has already amassed a mantel-full of trophies. For Oscar to slight him now could be as shocking as the actor’s apoplectic perf.
Maybe not: Day-Lewis plays a classic turn-of-the-century American villain, the kind of greedy monster who would drain someone’s blood if there was a drop of petrol to be found in that person’s veins, but he is competing against two other icy villains. In addition, having made only three films since 1998, Day-Lewis’ spotty Hollywood presence could work against him.
Critical quote: “Mr. Day-Lewis’ outsize performance, with its footnote references to Huston and strange, contorted Kabuki-like grimaces, occasionally breaks the skin of the film’s surface like a dangerous undertow. The actor seems to have invaded Plainview’s every atom, filling an otherwise empty vessel with so much rage and purpose you wait for him to blow. It’s a thrilling performance, among the greatest I’ve seen,” says Manohla Dargis of the New York Times.

JOHNNY DEPP, “SWEENEY TODD”
Why he’ll win: Depp’s trademark eccentric, off-kilter performances have earned him three noms over the past four years, and Oscar could finally agree that Depp’s time is due. As a crooning coiffeur with a penchant for cutting more than just split ends, Depp proves he can act, sing and embody in mind, soul and ghostly makeup every role he enthusiastically tackles.
Maybe not: With its highly stylized visuals, “Sweeney Todd” has attracted a niche audience, mostly Burtoniados who can’t get enough of the director’s predilection for squirting blood and chopped-up body parts. But voting members might not all be swayed by Depp’s vengeful protagonist, a creature more comicbook than human who sings showtunes with such pointed lyrics as, “They all deserve to die!”
Critical quote: “Johnny Depp, who stars as the vengeance-minded 19th-century London barber, proves his range, his nerve and his ability to use a light but confident baritone voice, with a pop edge, to surprising dramatic ends,” says Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.

TOMMY LEE JONES, “IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH”
Why he’ll win: Oscar-winner Jones delivers one of the year’s most lacerating performances as a Vietnam vet digging tirelessly for the truth behind his soldier son’s murder. When Jones’ obstinately stolid military poise yields to the faintest possible quiver, you can feel his bottomless despair like it’s pricking you in the right ventricle.
Maybe not: Jones’ restrainedly droll turn as a county sheriff in “No Country for Old Men,” though not nommed for an Oscar, could distract some voters from focusing on Jones’ lesser-seen work in “Elah” — the film disappointed at the box office. His lack of participation in Q&As and other events around town might hurt him as well.
Critical quote: “Tommy Lee Jones, even when he was a young actor, always had a tense face, with its creased forehead and wounded, accusatory eyes. The creases are deeper now, and so, in this role, are the wounds, but Jones, in a powerful performance, somehow holds every emotion in and shows it to you anyway,” says Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly.

VIGGO MORTENSEN, “EASTERN PROMISES”
Why he’ll win: Mortensen’s morphing into a ruthless Russian mafioso with ties to a London-based sex-
trafficking operation is not short of astounding. He tamps a cigarette out on his tongue and slices the fingers off a dead victim; to say that his character is cold as a snake would be to insult the snake. But Mortensen’s monstrous mobster ultimately experiences a redemptive end of the sort that Academy members admire.
Maybe not: Mortensen should certainly get something for fighting full-frontal naked with knives in a Russian bathhouse, but it might not be his first Oscar. The horrifying scenes in “Promises” might compel voters to turn away from Mortensen’s chilling performance.
Critical quote: “Mortensen has played a king of Middle-earth and, for Cronenberg, a man with two lives. This is the first time, though, his performance seemed so much bigger than the film surrounding it. That he manages the feat with so few wasted gestures puts him in line with the greats,” says Ty Burr of the Boston Globe.

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