There's still room in most of the key races for upsets

One of the perennial thrills of the Oscar race is figuring out what unforeseen actor or actress will nestle in among the perceived front-runners come nominations morning, and concurrently, who might possibly steal their thunder on red carpet night.

Remember Adrien Brody?

“The Brody year really did surprise me,” says Newsweek film critic David Ansen, referring to 2002 when fresh-face Brody won lead actor for his bravura portrait of wartime survival in “The Pianist” from under the noses of previously honored, much-hyped veterans Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) and Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”).

Certainly in the right circumstances, long shots have their chance. Marisa Tomei was the only American among powerhouse Brits in 1993; perhaps that accounted for her then-shocking supporting actress win? Perhaps the thrill of a burgeoning indie-film movement gave momentum to Day-Lewis’ 1990 lead actor win for “My Left Foot” over Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July.” And last year, when Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” received massive amounts of press for its global scope, nominations for international actresses Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi seemed to be in order.

This year, Day-Lewis will be far from an underdog, having already snapped up critics’ awards for his ravenous capitalist in “There Will Be Blood.”

The role of underdog could be played by Broadway veteran Frank Langella, whose well-regarded turn as a noted author in “Starting Out in the Evening” is gaining some critical momentum.

“The highbrow indie slot would be well-filled by him,” says Christian Science Monitor film critic Peter Rainer. “There’s still a sense in which movie people like to honor actors who have excelled on the stage, but it’s a small movie and an understated performance.”

While last year the field of lead actresses felt set throughout awards season, this year’s category is much more in flux. “La Vie en rose” star Marion Cotillard and “Away From Her” thesp Julie Christie have been dominating many of the critics’ lists so far, but the other spots are ripe for the taking.

The widely acclaimed Ellen Page as the titular pregnant teen in Fox Searchlight’s arch comedy “Juno” could be among the final five. She might’ve been considered a long shot a few months back, but the film has been receiving raves since its December opening, with huzzahs especially for Page, whose work in “Hard Candy” was also well received.

“She has potential because the movie is so well-liked by many people and it’s a flashy part, but she’s obviously an enormously talented actress,” says Ansen. “If the Academy wants to get some cred with a younger audience, it wouldn’t hurt to have a young winner for a change.”

Ansen and others have had their eyes on the fortunes of Amy Adams, who manages the deft act of combining parody and genuine sweetness in Disney’s hit “Enchanted.”

“She’s so damn likable,” says Ansen. “People who have seen her in ‘Junebug’ realize what incredible range she has. She’s a hot new name all of a sudden, and it’s a Disney movie that seems to be embraced by people you might not expect.”

Emile Hirsch is another up-and-coming young performer whose film “Into the Wild” — in which Hirsch plays real-life adventurer Christopher McCandless — could resonate with voters. It’s impossible to see which way Academy voters will align with both Hirsch and the film — similar to the Critics’ Choice Awards, which embraced it, or the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which took a pass (except for score).

“He’s a long shot because the category is so strong,” says Vogue film critic John Powers of the lead actor category. “The reason he would get nominated is that he carried a movie that a lot of people think is good, and he did it without ever getting the big dramatic scene most actors get.”

In the supporting actress race, Ruby Dee didn’t have a large amount of scenes in “American Gangster,” though a role in a highly visible film that was both a critical and box office winner could give the veteran a chance to make Oscar’s shortlist.

Says Rainer, “There’s a tremendous amount of audience good will toward her for a very long and somewhat neglected career, and she’s really terrific in the scene where she confronts Denzel Washington and slaps him.”

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