Right up until Oscar nomination morning, it seemed the only sure bet for a supporting actor nomination was Eddie Murphy for his electrifying turn as a soul singer gone to seed in “Dreamgirls.”
But maddeningly unpredictable though they were, the four other contenders ultimately shocked no one: Alan Arkin for his pot-smoking, potty-mouthed grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine,” Jackie Earle Haley as a convicted sex offender returning to suburbia in “Little Children,” Djimon Hounsou as a father caught up in the hunt for a coveted jewel in “Blood Diamond” and Mark Wahlberg as a dependable (and dependably surly) sergeant in “The Departed.”
Fittingly, in “Dreamgirls,” Murphy plays a showman crying out for redemption; his singin’-and-snortin’ turn offers voters a terrific comeback story. Never before nominated, the “Saturday Night Live” alum who wowed critics and auds early on in “48 Hrs.” and “Beverly Hills Cop” has rebounded from some critical misfires (albeit many of them boffo at the box office).
In some ways, Haley is an even more attractive comeback kid: After a 13-year absence from the bigscreen, the former teen sensation re-emerged in 2006 with “All the King’s Men” and “Little Children,” and his wrenching, warts-and-all performance in the latter film commands the strongest critical support in this category. But critics tend to have stronger constitutions than Academy voters, and Haley’s channeling of demons both sympathetic and repulsive may prove too intense for some to stomach.
Hounsou was a surprise nominee in this race three years ago for “In America,” and the Academy reaffirmed its love for the West African-born actor by recognizing his work in “Blood Diamond.” Ed Zwick’s thriller scored a surprisingly robust five nominations overall — a clear indication of support.
The closest thing to a surprise in this race is Wahlberg, the lone member of the star-studded ensemble of “The Departed” to score a nom. A first-time nominee, the actor formerly known as Marky Mark has long since shed his
underwear-modeling rap persona, captivating voters who fell under the spell of his scene-stealing performance.
And then there’s Arkin, who spouts almost as many expletives as Wahlberg does. As a curmudgeonly heroin addict, the veteran character harmonizes beautifully with his “Sunshine” co-star and fellow nominee, Abigail Breslin. Long overdue for Oscar recognition (his last nom came nearly 40 years ago), Arkin may well prove to be Murphy’s main competition: Both men play heavy drug users, but while Murphy conveys the soul and anguish of “Thunder” Early, Arkin portrays a grandfather of earthy wisdom and heart.
AND THE NOMINEES ARE…
‘Little Miss Sunshine’
Oscar pedigree: Nominated for leading roles in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966) and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1968)
Current kudos: BAFTA (nom), Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Independent Spirit (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), SAG (nom), Satellite (nom); SAG (cast win); Gotham (cast nom)
Why he’ll win: Profane and prickly as he is, Arkin’s character inspires more affection than any performance in this category. Thesp is way overdue.
Why he won’t: Stodgier voters might not make it past profane and prickly — or the heroin, for that matter.
Critical quote: “Arkin, one of my favorite actors, is a raunchy antidote to all those sweet codgers in the movies who go gently into that good night,” wrote Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor.
Jackie Earle Haley,
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Chicago Film Critics (win), Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics (win), New York Film Critics (win), Online Film Critics (win), San Francisco Film Critics (win), Southeastern Film Critics (win); Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom)
Why he’ll win: Even those underwhelmed by “Little Children” were bowled over by Haley’s work. For “Bad News Bears” fans, it’s the comeback story of the year.
Why he won’t: There’s honoring sex offenders, and then there’s honoring actors who play sex offenders. Sometimes, Oscar has trouble telling the difference.
Critical quote: “Haley’s boldly implosive performance will haunt your dreams,” wrote Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.
Oscar pedigree: Nominated for supporting role in “In America” (2003)
Current kudos: Las Vegas Film Critics (win), National Board of Review (win), Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics (win); Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Image (nom), SAG (nom)
Why he’ll win: The Academy clearly likes him, and some are still smacking themselves for the “Amistad” snub.
Why he won’t: Those who found both pic and perf a bit heavy-handed will consider the nomination more than enough.
Critical quote: “The soul of the picture. … Hounsou, single-handedly, does what the movie around him fails to do: He opens our eyes to the rest of the world,” wrote Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com.
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (win), Golden Globes (win), SAG (win); Chicago Film Critics (nom), Image (nom), Online Film Critics (nom); SAG (cast nom)
Why he’ll win: From the beginning, Murphy has been touted as the guy to beat, and his domination of the precursors proves the touters were right.
Why he won’t: Voters don’t like being told what to vote for (especially when it comes to “Dreamgirls”), and some of them really don’t like Murphy.
Critical quote: “Using his matchless comic gifts and fox-in-the-henhouse charm, Murphy eats this part alive,” wrote Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Boston Society of Film Critics (win), National Society of Film Critics (win); Golden Globes (nom), Online Film Critics (nom); National Board of Review (cast win); SAG (cast nom)
Why he’ll win: Fans of “The Departed” will put all their votes in his basket.
Why he won’t: He’s a fairly young first-time nominee, and some may perceive the role as slight.
Critical quote: “As (a) snarling sergeant, Dorchester native Mark Wahlberg gets back in touch with his inner Southie delinquent and almost steals the picture,” wrote David Edelstein, New York magazine.