By Piya Sinha-Roy
February 07, 2019 at 04:43 PM EST
Graeme Hunter/Sony Pictures Classics; Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox; Clay Enos/Warner Bros.

Ingenues face veterans, singers take on politicians, and overlooked figures find the spotlight. But who will win? As we head into the final stretch of awards season, the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar races are serving up a full spectrum of performances vying for the coveted accolades.

The Best Actor Oscar seems like it’s Christian Bale’s to lose — the 45-year-old actor all but disappears into the scheming, Machiavellian Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s Vice, and Oscar voters love a good onscreen transformation. But Rami Malek is giving him a good run for his money. Malek’s role as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody has been the surprise hit of awards season so far, winning the 37-year-old actor a Golden Globe and, most notably, a Screen Actors Guild honor —awarded by actors, who make up the biggest branch of Oscar voters.

Bale has a hefty portfolio of critically acclaimed roles and a previous Oscar win (2010’s The Fighter) to give him an edge. Meanwhile, Malek and the Bohemian Rhapsody team face ongoing controversies around the firing of the film’s director, Bryan Singer, and recent sexual misconduct allegations against the filmmaker that could put voters off rewarding the film. (Singer has denied the allegations. Malek told the Los Angeles Times that the allegations were “honestly something I was not aware of,” and in a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, said his situation with Singer “was not pleasant.”)

But don’t count out Bradley Cooper just yet. Nominated for his fourth acting Oscar, Cooper, 44, has delivered the performance of his career as a fading, tortured musician falling for a singer (Lady Gaga) in his directorial debut, A Star Is Born. Which leaves Willem Dafoe, 63, as painter Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, and Viggo Mortensen, 60, as a bouncer hired to drive a black pianist around the 1960s Deep South in Green Book. Both actors come to the Best Actor race with previous Oscar nods and respectable past work, but are outsiders for now.

Meanwhile, the Best Actress Oscar category has a clear favorite: Glenn Close, 71, as a stoic matriarch in The Wife. Her competition is 25-year-old first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, as quiet housekeeper Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma; Olivia Colman, 45, as a British monarch brimming with naïveté, coquettishness, petulance, and pain in The Favourite; Lady Gaga, 32, on her roller coaster of love and fame in A Star Is Born; and Melissa McCarthy, 48, earning her second Oscar nomination as a complex, bitter author who forges letters by dead writers in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Close is bolstered by wins at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, in a film narrative that resonates with the showbiz industry — after all, how many Hollywood wives have felt the sting of being ignored as they stand silently in the shadow of their husband’s successes? But pop star Gaga poses the strongest threat to Close with a powerhouse performance in her first lead role. While Close has the performance and career longevity to earn her the Oscar win, this wouldn’t be the first time an ingenue has caused an upset — Grace Kelly won for The Country Girl over Judy Garland in A Star Is Born in 1955, and Annette Bening lost twice to Hilary Swank, in 2000 and 2005.

And then there’s the dark horse. Britain’s Colman has forged a respectable career across comedy and drama in film and television, and while this is her first Oscar nomination, she has the gravitas worthy of a win. As a storied actress inches Closer to her long-awaited Oscar win (it’s Close’s seventh nomination in a career spanning four decades), a pop star might pull off a surprise victory, all of which makes for an exciting Best Actress race on Oscar night.

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