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Lead Actor

The analysis

As it stands now, there’s little reason to delay the Jamie Foxx coronation.

There were a number of thesps who went the biopic route in 2004 — Liam Neeson as Albert Kinsey, Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin and even Gael Garcia Bernal as a young Che Guevera — but no one inspired audiences the way Foxx did, as evidenced by his spot-on impersonation of music legend Ray Charles.

As much as voters like to see an actor work his way up from the B-film trenches, a winning smile and infectious acceptance speech can change all that. Foxx broke into song at both the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, and his joyful appreciation in being recognized certainly works in his favor.

Though it might not be fair, voters may have his high spirits in mind when casting their ballots.

Main competish will undoubtedly come from “The Aviator’s” Leonardo DiCaprio, whose turn as Howard Hughes would be considered a front-runner in a race that didn’t include Foxx.

DiCaprio has his supporters as well. Don’t forget he also took home Golden Globe honors that night in the drama category, while “Ray” was relegated to the music group.

This is DiCaprio’s second Oscar nom (his first was back in 1995 for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) and if not for a small detour known as “Titanic” that sent him from serious actor to Us magazine fodder, his talents might even be more well-regarded than they already are. If an Oscar doesn’t come here, it’s likely there’s one on the way.

As he did in “Unforgiven,” Clint Eastwood pulls off an Oscar doubleheader for actor and director of best pic nominee “Million Dollar Baby.”

The thesp nod was a bit of a surprise, in only because Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman were considered more likely to receive nominations, and it was tough to say whether the pic had the strength to carry three nods. The answer was a resounding yes.

After years of people asking why Johnny Depp hadn’t been nominated before, the actor has now landed a nom two years in a row, though his chances don’t seem as likely as it did for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” when he was considered a viable long shot.

“Finding Neverland,” though well reviewed, may not have the heft to carry Depp to a win.

Rounding out the category is “Hotel Rwanda” star Don Cheadle, who’s been a regular in TV (“Picket Fences”) and featured in other well-regarded films (“Bulworth,” “Boogie Nights”) before gaining Oscar recognition here.

As Cheadle has said before, awareness for the film — which spotlights the massacre of nearly 1 millions Rwandan citizens — was certainly more important than any type of individual attention.

Don Cheadle
Hotel Rwanda
Current kudos: Golden Globes, Online Film Critics, SAG (nom)
Oscar pedigree: None
Why he’ll win: Acknowledging the work of Cheadle with a win is the best way to represent the work of his heroic real-life character, Paul Rusesabagina.
Why he won’t: Liam Neeson was nominated for playing Oskar Schindler, who saved countless of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, but he didn’t win. Not a good precedent for Cheadle.
Critically speaking: “Cheadle, a self-effacing actor to begin with, never tips his hand; he gives a gracefully controlled performance because Rusesabagina is a gracefully controlled man. This makes the scene in which the character does crack — alone, where no one can see him — the most powerful in the movie.”
— Ty Burr, Boston Globe

Johnny Depp
Finding Neverland
Current kudos: BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes, SAG (nom)
Oscar pedigree: “Pirates of the Caribbean” (nom)
Why he’ll win: After missing the Oscar cut on films such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” many thought he was deserving last year as Capt. Jack Sparrow in “Pirates.” A win here could make up for that.
Why he won’t: In a battle of biopics, J.M. Barrie doesn’t carry the cinematic weight of a Ray Charles or Howard Hughes. Then there’s the character’s unsettled sexuality question, which, in the midst of the Michael Jackson circus, could put off voters.
Critically speaking: “Johnny Depp’s performance makes Barrie not only believable, but acceptable. And he does it without evading the implications of his behavior.”
— Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Leonardo DiCaprio
The Aviator
Current kudos: BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics, Online Film Critics, SAG (nom); Golden Globes (won)
Oscar pedigree: “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (nom)
Why he’ll win: He took Howard Hughes, a mysterious and reclusive figure, and turned him into someone with whom audiences can relate. Like Foxx, he was a winner on Globes night.
Why he won’t: All the good press and accolades he’s received might not be enough to derail the Foxx freight train.
Critically speaking: “DiCaprio completely engages with the role in all the ways that count, conveying utter absorption in his work, driving perfectionism, masculine allure, public reticence, increasing eccentricity and simmering hostility for anything that stands in his way.”
— Todd McCarthy, Variety

Clint Eastwood
Million Dollar Baby
Current kudos: National Board of Review (special achievement); SAG (nom)
Oscar pedigree: “Unforgiven” (actor, nom; picture and director, win); “Mystic River” (picture and director, nom)
Why he’ll win: There are few in Hollywood more respected than Eastwood and, although he’s appeared in more than 50 films, he’s never won an acting Oscar. On top of that, “Baby” co-star Hilary Swank called this perf by Eastwood the best of his career.
Why he won’t: With Swank and Freeman having excellent chances of winning their respective categories, it would be unprecedented to have three actors from the same film coming out on top. Voters might consider a director or picture win sufficient.
Critically speaking: “Playing a prickly, haunted man who always keeps his guard up, Eastwood gives his most daring, emotional, unguarded performance.”
— David Ansen, Newsweek

Jamie Foxx
Ray
Current kudos: BAFTA (nom); SAG, Boston Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, Online Film Critics (won)
Oscar pedigree: None
Why he’ll win: He’s been the front-runner since the film unspooled at Toronto in September; there’s no reason to think his momentum has slowed.
Why he won’t: While it’s good to be the favorite, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Just ask Daniel Day-Lewis. Everyone talked about him winning for “Gangs of New York” two years ago, but then Adrien Brody pulled the upset.
Critically speaking: “Foxx makes us believe that what’s in front of our eyes really happened, which turns out to be more of a feat than might be imagined.”
— Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times

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