Credit: Capote: Sony Pictures Classics

Best Actor 2006: Oscar’s likely contenders

Given that the vast majority of today’s films are driven by male performances, scoring a Best Actor nomination is no easy feat. But it’s infinitely more difficult when the category already includes four locks. We’ll start with the megalocks: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger. The Capote and Brokeback Mountain leads both play gay men: Hoffman as the duplicitous author Truman Capote and Ledger as the taciturn ranch hand Ennis Del Mar. They’ve also both never been nominated for an Oscar, though Hoffman has come close before, earning a Screen Actors Guild award nod for Flawless. And they’ve both hogged all of this year’s critics’ awards. Between Hoffman’s 15 victories and Ledger’s 5, all their competitors’ mantels have simply been gathering dust.

Then there are the just plain regular locks: Joaquin Phoenix and David Strathairn. Like Hoffman, they tackle real people on screen — Phoenix as musician Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Strathairn as newscaster Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck — and they pull it off with such skill that a second nomination for Phoenix (following Gladiator) and a career first for Strathairn seem like done deals.

So who will snag that elusive fifth slot? Give it to the most underestimated contender of all: Russell Crowe. With one toss of a telephone, he was in danger of erasing all the positive ink he’d earned for his physically and emotionally powerful performance as boxer James J. Braddock (yet another real-life character) in Cinderella Man. As a result, he’s been a ”surprise” nominee at the Golden Globes, SAG awards, and Broadcast Critics. At this point, the only surprise will be if he doesn’t land his fourth Oscar nod.

But if somehow the actors’ branch turns out to be a bunch of hotel-concierge sympathizers, there are a few guys waiting in the wings to take Crowe’s place. Hustle & Flow breakout Terrence Howard was the story of Sundance and even propelled his cast to a best-ensemble SAG nomination, but although the Academy has taken a shine to hookers in the past, it’s easy to imagine they’d snub a pimp. Jeff Daniels gives a career-capping performance as a newly divorced dad in The Squid and the Whale, though its subtleties may be lost on some voters. Likewise, Viggo Mortensen‘s slow burn in A History of Violence is probably too internal to draw attention to itself. If Munich is able to mount a last-minute surge, its star, Eric Bana, could benefit, though he hasn’t had any awards recognition thus far. And although Cillian Murphy scored a Globe nod for his cross-dressing hero in Breakfast on Pluto, its poor box office showing means that this year’s Best Actor race won’t end up with a third gay character.