The Oscar for Best Actor is one of the oldest Academy Awards, awarded each year to honor an actor for outstanding performance in a leading role since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1926/1927. Over the past 79 years, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has presented a total of 80 Best Actor awards to 73 different actors (as some actors particularly outstanding at their craft have received Best Actor awards more than once). The first winner, Emil Jannings, received Best Actor in 1928 for his 1927 performances in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. The most recent Best Actor recipient was Forest Whitaker, honored at the 79th Academy Awards in 2007 for his performance in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland.

This year the nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, as the award formally is called, are…

George Clooney, Michael Clayton

Why is he nominated? Although an incredibly popular actor, George Clooney has only been nominated for three other Oscars, and only one for performance (the other two were for writing and directing Good Night and Good Luck). Although he won the 2006 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Syriana, this is the first time that Clooney has been nominated for a major Academy Award based on his acting. Traditionally, Clooney’s performances suffered for two main reasons: he either appeared in incredibly cheesy films (such as the 1997 disaster Batman & Robin), or, when he did manage to latch onto a good script, his performances were cookie-cutter copies of one another, mechanical and predictable (The Perfect Storm, Ocean’s ElevenOcean’s 12Ocean’s 13… need we continue?). In Clooney’s case, with age and experience comes either some sort of epiphany or some great luck, because his performances since 2005 have been increasingly impressive, and Michael Clayton is no exception.

Why he might win: As mentioned above, the quality of Clooney’s performances has been steadily increasing over the past several years, culminating at this point with Michael Clayton, in which Clooney’s portrayal of a “fixer” at a powerful law firm who ultimately finds himself in danger when he investigates his colleague’s actions in a controversial lawsuit was hailed by critics as “Tense, tough and terrific,” and “Engrossing every step of the way.”

Why he might not win: To be perfectly honest, Clooney and his newfound acting prowess are up against Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably one of the best actors of all time. Clooney’s ability to portray smarmy businessmen and do-gooder lawyers is no match for Daniel Day Lewis’ ability to transform himself into some of the most disturbing characters we’re never able to forget (Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York, for example). As much as we might hate to admit it, this year’s Oscar for Best Leading Actor has Daniel Day-Lewis written all over it.

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Why is he nominated? As previously mentioned, Daniel Day-Lewis arguably is one of the best actors ever to grace the silver screen with his presence (something he doesn’t often do, either). The characters he portrays are memorable almost to a fault, and prior to his role as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’ only longstanding criticism was that he was simply too good at what he did. That’s right, many critics complained about Day-Lewis’ performances simply because they found that they were not watching a movie, but instead were watching Daniel Day-Lewis be amazing as [insert character name here].

Why he might win: With his performance as Daniel Plainview, a ruthless California oilman who will stop at nothing to achieve wealth and power, Daniel Day-Lewis has finally overcome whatever shortcomings critics previously pointed to when awarding the Oscar for Best Leading Actor not to Day-Lewis for his performances in Gangs of New York (2002) and In the Name of the Father (1993), but to other actors in other films nominated those years. As we said before, this year’s Oscar for Best Leading Actor has Daniel Day-Lewis written all over it.

Why he might not win: We’re not sure on what technical grounds Day-Lewis might again be robbed of a well-deserved Oscar, but as we said previously, it has happened before… we won’t be surprised if it happens again… just sorely disappointed.

Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Why is he nominated? In the past, Johnny Depp was renowned for choosing to be in films and to portray characters that weren’t exactly considered mainstream entertainment. Although there is no doubt that Depp’s acting abilities are far-reaching and that he is at the top of his game in this regard, his choices to “showcase” his talent in films like Cry-Baby (1990), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and The Astronaut’s Wife (1999), films that eventually develop a strong cult following but nevertheless don’t hit mainstream culture as popular movies, left a great actor without much public praise. Since his turn to blockbuster hits like Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003, Depp’s strong talent and excellent performances have indeed hit the mainstream, and his role as Sweeney Todd is no exception.

Why he might win: Losing the Oscar for Best Leading Actor this year would not be a detriment to Depp’s performance, but due entirely to the very nature of Hollywood award ceremonies, which are designed to bring together the best of the best in an effort to cull out, well, the best. Out of the four actors pitted against Daniel Day-Lewis’ crazed performance in There Will Be Blood, it is Depp who has the sheer talent necessary to stand a chance of taking home the Oscar in this category.

Why he might not win: As previously said, Depp is the frontrunner for Best Leading Actor after Day-Lewis, who, as we have seen before, has a history of being robbed of what is rightly due him. At this point, it’s anyone’s game, really, although the fact that Depp’s portrayal of the homicidal barber Sweeney Todd doesn’t necessarily surpass his performance in several of the roles he was never nominated for doesn’t help his chances, either.

Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah

Why is he nominated? Tommy Lee Jones, an aging Hollywood favorite, hasn’t been nominated for a single Academy Award since his win in 1993 for Best Supporting Actor in the film The Fugitive. As we said, Tommy Lee Jones is a Hollywood favorite, although an aging one, and the fact that he hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar in over a decade probably has more to do with the types of films he appeared in during that time than the quality of his performance. That said, In the Valley of Elah brings together a number of elements that make it ripe for an Oscar win: an excellent performance by a seasoned Hollywood favorite, a politically and socially relevant storyline, and perfect timing (when would be a better time to release a film about a Vietnam veteran searching for his son, a recently-returned Iraq war veteran, than just prior to the U.S. primaries, when our nation’s citizens are primed for discussing Iraq, war, and anything having to do with either of the two?).

Why he might win: As previously noted, In the Valley of Elah perfectly combines a number of elements at just the right time. In addition, Tommy Lee Jones hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar in over a decade, making him sorely overdue for some serious recognition. If that’s not enough, then there’s always the fact that In the Valley of Elah hasn’t been nominated for any other Academy Awards this year, making Tommy Lee Jones’ win for Best Actor in a Leading Role the only chance the film has for taking home an award this year, giving its chances of doing so in this category a little boost.

Why he might not win: Although the sheer fact that Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for Best Leading Actor proves that he gave a good performance, based solely on quality Jones’ portrayal of Hank Deerfield, a Vietnam veteran searching for his missing son in the wake of his return from a tour of duty in Iraq, unfortunately can’t hold a candle to Depp’s Sweeney Todd or Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview.

Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

Why is he nominated? Despite the fact that Viggo Mortensen has appeared in a number of noteworthy and impressive roles, including his three-film stint as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and his chilling portrayal of Tom Stall in A History of Violence, this is in fact the first Academy Award nomination that Mortensen has ever received. From all accounts, Mortensen’s portrayal of Nikolai, the ambitious driver and henchman of a Russian mobster who favors him over his own son, is outstanding—a chilling rendition in which Mortensen has so completely transformed himself according to his role as to leave him barely recognizable as the same actor who appeared in Hidalgo (2004).

Why he might win: As several critics have pointed out, Eastern Promises marks Viggo Mortensen’s coming of age as a Hollywood actor and movie star. Unlike some actors — *cough* Alec Baldwin *cough* — who are somehow unable, despite their chosen profession, to adopt even the simplest accent—coughBostoncough—Mortensen has proven his ability to mold himself to any role, whether it requires a thick, authentic sounding Russian accent or a casual Western drawl. And his ability to adopt a convincing Russian accent is only the least of Mortensen’s abilities, as we now beginning to see.

Why he might not win: Unfortunately for Mortensen, the numbers are against him this year. In addition to the fact that he is up against several other actors in his category that already have an Oscar on their mantle, there is an unofficial trend in the awarding of Academy Awards that doesn’t often see an actor take home an Oscar in a major category like Best Actor in a Leading Role the first time he is ever nominated. But who knows, anything can happen and maybe Viggo will take home the Oscar in a surprise upset!

Who will win?

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

At this point, the Oscar for Best Leading Actor is a toss-up between Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp and possibly Academy Awards newcomer Viggo Mortensen. It seems unlikely that Viggo Mortensen will take home the Oscar for his first ever nomination, but his performance in Eastern Promises was indeed a strong one, and as we’ve noted several times already, Daniel Day-Lewis has a history of being cheated out of Oscars that he fully deserves. It’s any man’s game; fortunately for us, each of the nominees has earned his place among the best of the best, ensuring that no matter who takes home the gold (statue), it will be well deserved.

Who should win?

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Daniel Day-Lewis should be the actor to take home the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role this year. As we said before, Day-Lewis’ perfected his portrayal of crazed oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, bringing an amazing and complicated character to life and ultimately contributing to, rather than taking away from, the overall film, There Will Be Blood. There is little to criticize about his performance, which simply served to steel his characterization as possibly the best actor ever to grace the silver screen.

Who was overlooked?

Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men

After seeing No Country for Old Men, nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, this year, it seems unfair that neither Javier Bardem (for his role as Anton Chigurh) or Josh Brolin (for his role as Llewelyn Moss) were included in this year’s Best Leading Actor category. Unfortunately for each of these actors, their exclusion from the category is probably due to the fact that it is entirely unclear who the true Leading Actor is in No Country for Old Men. Is it the Anton Chigurh, the sociopathic hit man with the pageboy haircut and propensity for shooting people who irritate him, or is it Llewelyn Moss, the man with a sawed off shotgun and two million dollars?


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