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Oscars: Two Top-Tier Choices Buoy Best Actor Category

For men in a leading role, it’s Casey or Denzel — the rest of the ballot is anyone’s guess

Beyond Casey Affleck’s emotional smolder in “Manchester by the Sea” and Denzel Washington’s yet-to-be-seen reprising of the “Fences” role that won him a Tony six years ago, it’s an uncharacteristically thin year for lead-actor Oscar contenders. But that just makes for an exciting race that leaves things wide open on the rest of the ballot. So let’s poke around…

Biopics are a good place to look for standout performances. The strongest of the real-life character roles could be Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss, the conscientious World War II objector in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s Garfield’s most powerful work to date — but it may be bested by his turn later this year in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.”

There are plenty of other contenders from biopics. And variety, too: from musicians (Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue”) to freedom fighters (Joseph Gordon Levitt in “Snowden,” Nate Parker as Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation”) to a wily con man (Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc in “The Founder”).

Joel Edgerton stars as the unwitting historical figure Richard Loving in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” about two early soldiers in the battle for marriage equality. Like Affleck’s, it’s a quiet, withdrawn performance.

Miles Teller is on fire as boxer Vinny Pazienza in crowd-pleaser “Bleed for This.” That one comes from reigning best picture champ Open Road Films.

And let’s not forget Tom Hanks. In Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” he plays Chesley Sullenberger with a level of control and calm that speaks to the composure the pilot exhibited in landing his crippled aircraft on the Hudson.

It was initially expected that Warren Beatty would get a supporting-actor push for his performance as Howard Hughes in “Rules Don’t Apply,” his return to the director’s chair after 18 years. But the prevailing opinion following recent screenings is that Beatty is in fact the film’s lead, so that has become the campaign’s direction. A nomination in the Golden Globes’ comedy category seems assured, assuming the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. agrees with both classifications. (And with due respect to Mr. Beatty, who is emphatic that “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a biopic — it kind of is.)

Mark Wahlberg may also be part of the conversation. He starred as oil-rig worker Mike Williams in Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” and next he plays a composite character, representing several police officers, in Berg’s drama about the Boston Marathon bombing, “Patriots Day.” Matthew McConaughey also plays a composite character, in Stephen Gaghan’s “Gold,” which revolves around the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal.

Outside the realm of biopics, there are other actors to consider. Key among them is Ryan Gosling, singing and dancing with gusto in best-picture frontrunner “La La Land.” There’s also Ben Affleck, in his Prohibition-set picture “Live by Night.” And indie standouts include Dave Johns in “I, Daniel Blake,” Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic,” and Robert De Niro in “The Comedian.”

But many of these contenders may not have even drifted into the conversation in a more typically competitive year for the category. And voters may shift up the landscape even more: There’s always the possibility that those thought to be in supporting roles could draw lead votes; for example, Hugh Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins” (he’s being submitted as a lead for Globes consideration) or Dev Patel in “Lion.” And Jeff Bridges has already landed a lead Gotham Awards nomination for his supporting “Hell or High Water” turn.

If there were any justice, voters would bend the rules to allow Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes a shared nomination for capturing the single spirit of the lead character of Barry Jenkin’s stunning “Moonlight.” Alas…

Ultimately, the race may simply boil down to (Casey) Affleck vs. Washington. It’s an interesting yin and yang: Affleck’s quietude against Washington’s bravado. Affleck would be seeking his first Oscar, Washington his third. But there are parallels, too. Both play world-weary fathers, conjured by preeminent playwrights, shaped by their blue-collar environments — the North Shore suburbs of Boston for Affleck’s Lee Chandler, Pittsburgh’s Hill District for Washington’s Troy Maxson.

Will fiction win out over truth?

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