Leonardo DiCaprio, Frank Langella, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke

Leonardo DiCaprio

‘Revolutionary Road’

How he got here: Audiences hoping for the kind of swooning romanticism they got the last time Leonardo DiCaprio teamed up with Kate Winslet might be somewhat disappointed, but “Revolutionary Road” provides the actors with the kind of pedigreed fireworks they can really set off — and the kind that make critics take notice. Playing a confused, angry young husband gives this 34-year-old thesp his seventh Golden Globe nom (at that age, even the great Meryl Streep had only four) and the opportunity to use that still-boyish countenance as a mask for rage. DiCaprio won previously for “The Aviator.”

 

Frank Langella

‘Frost/Nixon’

How he got here: It’s rare that an actor who creates a role onstage is asked to bring it to life onscreen (just ask Broadway jewel Cherry Jones who lost her Tony-winning role in “Doubt” to Meryl Streep). But “Frost/Nixon” came as a package deal for the two leading men who originated their roles onstage in London and New York before bringing the true tale of David Frost’s historic interview with Tricky Dick to movie theaters. In this low-key, lean (well, for director Ron Howard) production, first-time Globe nominee Langella’s bellicose, defiant Nixon makes for a surprisingly absorbing portrait of a man often delegated to a punchline.

 

Sean Penn

‘Milk’

How he got here: That a movie about America’s first openly gay politician was released just as California’s Proposition 8 passed proves that a good story is timeless. It also proves once again that Sean Penn, who took home a Golden Globe in 2006 for his anguished portrayal of a father in “Mystic River,” may be the most nimble actor of his generation. Set in the anything-goes era of 1970s San Francisco, his Harvey Milk is a sweetheart of a social activist, a gentle charmer whose political fight for human rights didn’t mean he couldn’t also have a healthy sex life.

 

Brad Pitt

‘The Curious Case

of Benjamin Button’

How he got here: Half high-tech wizardry (how’d they get Brad Pitt to look like a tiny wheelchair-bound 80-year-old?), half old-fashioned storytelling (from birth to death, from New Orleans to Russia), this is the kind of sprawling moviemaking that neither Pitt nor his frequent director David Fincher have ever tackled before. Though a star for more than a decade, the actor successfully carries for the first time in his career a drama of scope that rests squarely on his shoulders. Instead of splashy, look-at-me acting, his choice to play Benjamin as the still center of his own epic life story shows the confidence that comes with maturity.

Mickey Rourke

‘The Wrestler’

How he got here: In a town that loves a comeback, Rourke is more than that — he’s this year’s Lazarus. With his stringy hair and smashed face onscreen, and his omnipresent dark glasses and little dogs offscreen, the former 1980s star makes a fascinating subject either way. It doesn’t matter that “The Wrestler” won’t be seen by a large audience, or that Rourke breaks down and cries in nearly every interview he’s done to support the film. This is one of those rare cases in which the pathos and drama the actor is portraying onscreen is actually exceeded in real life, and it’s a riveting performance.

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