Credit: Syriana: Glen Wilson

Best Supporting Actor 2006: Oscar’s likely contenders

Don’t bother looking to the critics’ organizations and other early prize-giving bodies for help in this category: They spread their awards out among no fewer than 12 candidates (compared to only 3 in the Best Actor race). So perhaps the Broadcast Critics, Golden Globe, and SAG awards nominations will be of some use? Nope, they resulted in nine different contenders among them. The list of possibilities is the longest for any race this year. But one thing is certain: After two consecutive snubs in the Best Actor category (for American Splendor and Sideways), Paul Giamatti will finally be able to add ”Oscar nominee” to his résumé, thanks to his energetic turn as Cinderella Man‘s scrappy cornerman, Joe Gould. George Clooney will also easily make the cut, in dual recognition for his passionate performance as a CIA operative in Syriana as well as the physical hell he’s gone through as a result of barreling through the film’s torture scenes. And though the size of Jake Gyllenhaal‘s role in Brokeback Mountain has caused confusion over whether he belongs in the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor race (the Hollywood Foreign Press’ decision to put him in the lead category despite his supporting campaign cost him a Globe nomination), immense affection for the film should land his sympathetically portrayed, lovelorn rodeo rider Jack Twist in this category.

The critical favorite A History of Violence offers two vivid supporting male characters: Ed Harris‘ creepy gangster Carl Fogarty, who dogs Viggo Mortensen throughout the film, and his even creepier boss, Richie Cusack, played by William Hurt for only 10 frightening minutes. Both men have been awarded major early prizes (Harris from the National Society, Hurt from the New York and L.A. groups), but both may simply fall victim to this year’s ultra-crowded lineup. Similarly, two strong performances in lighter films — by Bob Hoskins in Mrs. Henderson Presents and Kevin Costner in The Upside of Anger — will have a tough time staying afloat amidst their heavier competition. Capote costar Chris Cooper and Good Night, and Good Luck‘s network boss Frank Langella could also sneak in if their respective films rack up large nomination totals.

But we think the last two nods will go to members of Crash‘s remarkable ensemble. Matt Dillon seems a given for his insensitive cop who boasts the best character arc of the year, and Don Cheadle picked up a SAG award nomination for his film-anchoring turn as a detective dealing with his fractured family. But the better bet is that Terrence Howard, who broke through this year with both Crash (as a beaten-down television director) and Hustle & Flow, will receive a de facto nod here for both performances.