Why the Oscars Best Supporting Actor Race Is a Hot Mess

At least a dozen thesps are in serious consideration in a crowded field

Jared Leto vs. Michael Fassbender: Oscars

This year’s Oscar race has had bloggers buzzing about the most cutthroat best actor category in years — with at least seven “locks” for five slots — but there’s an even bigger logjam in the supporting actor contest. When the nominees are announced in January, the Academy won’t be able to avoid snubbing some of the best performances of the year.

The one sure bet for a nomination is Jared Leto, electrifying as a cross dresser with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto picked up both the New York Film Critics and L.A. Film Critics prizes, and he could very well win the Oscar, which would thrill fans of “My-So Called Life” and his band 30 Seconds to Mars. That’s one way to keep the Oscars young, even if many Academy voters have never heard of Jordan Catalano.

As a corrupt stockbroker in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jonah Hill is good enough to notch his second Oscar nomination after the one he picked up for 2011’s “Moneyball.” He not only keeps up with Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivers the gutsiest work of his career, but he swallows a live goldfish onscreen.

Beyond that, the race gets murkier. Michael Fassbender received kudos for his role as a hysterical plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave,” and he should make the cut too. But it’s not a guarantee. After he was overlooked for “Shame” a couple years ago, Fassbender decided that he wouldn’t campaign for an Oscar this year.

Tom Hanks, whose is in a tight best actor race with “Captain Phillips” (a movie that seems to lose momentum by the day), might instead land a nomination for playing Walt Disney — the most Oscar-nominated person in the history of the Academy — in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Hanks gives a sweet, multilayered performance, although some viewers actually prefer Colin Farrell as the alcoholic father of “Mary Poppins” creator P.L. Travers. But Farrell has never been nominated before, which gives the edge to Hanks.

If Hanks is in, does that mean the Academy will also find room for his “Captain Phillips” co-star? Barkhad Abdi has been a darling on the Q&A circuit, but that may not matter. Last year, all five actors nominated for supporting actor had won an Oscar before. In the modern awards season, packed with star-studded luncheons and panels, the trend has been to honor veterans over newcomers (which is why Brie Larson in “Short Term 12” is also a longshot in the best actress race).

It would be foolish to count out “American Hustle” in any acting category. Director David O. Russell’s last two films, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” earned a stunning seven nominations for its actors. Although Jeremy Renner is good as a New Jersey mayor in the comedic romp loosely based on Abscam, Bradley Cooper is better as the cop who runs the sting operation.

Fox Searchlight is campaigning James Gandolfini for a posthumous Oscar for his lovable slob in “Enough Said.” The Oscars usually don’t honor comedy, but it’s hard to imagine Hollywood being so heartless as to not include him. Right? And he’s already earned an Independent Spirit Awards nomination for the role.

With so many names floating around, there could be a surprise or two. If “Nebraska” keeps building momentum coming off a strong showing with the critics, Will Forte could be a dark horse in the race. Even though his screen time exceeds Bruce Dern’s, he’s being campaigned in supporting. The same goes for Jake Gyllenhaal, who shares top billing in “Prisoners” with Hugh Jackman. In another year, he could have won for his nuanced detective, the best performance of his career.

It’s easy to play the “what if” game. There are other performances that may have gotten recognition in a less crowded season: Ben Foster as a Navy SEAL in “Lone Survivor,” Woody Harrelson’s or Casey Affleck’s dark turns in “Out of the Furnace,” Daniel Bruhl as a race car driver in “Rush” and James Franco as a scene-stealing drug lord in “Spring Breakers.” Then again, that role might have been too out there for the Academy in any year.

If I had to guess, it will be Leto, Hill, Fassbender, Hanks and Cooper. Oh, wait. And Gandolfini. I don’t know how they are going to narrow down the list to only five.