David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor

Leaving artistic issues aside, you could—at first glance—say that the competition for best original score isn’t a fair fight this year. Three of the nominees—Mychael Danna (Life Of Pi), Alexandre Desplat (Argo), and Thomas Newman (Skyfall)—have never won an Oscar, and one of them (Danna) is enjoying his first nomination. Dario Marianelli won once before, but his nom for Anna Karenina is only his third. So who’s the heavyweight in the ring? None other than John Williams (Lincoln), who has won five Oscars for original score, as well as one for adapted score.

Williams is basking in his 39th nomination for original score. His first was for The Reivers (1969), starring Steve McQueen. His closest competitor within this group is Newman, who is savoring his ninth nom since 1994, when he earned two—for Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption. Desplat is suiting up for his fifth round since 2006, when The Queen first brought him close to Oscar gold.

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Though virtually omnipresent on the Oscar ballot from 1990 to 2005, Williams has been less visible since the 2006 film year, though this year marks the second in a row in which he’s back on the ballot—and last year, he was there twice: For The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. As for this bunch going mano a mano, Williams was absent the first year Newman was nommed, but since then—in 1999, 2002, and 2004—neither won when the other was also in competition. And the same was true the one year, 2005, that Williams and Marianelli previously duked it out—the younger composer’s first time in the ring. Newman and Desplat have also sparred before—in 2006, the latter’s Oscar debut, and 2008—with neither emerging victorious.

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So where does that leave us this time around? A case can be made for the lately hyper-prolific Desplat, who also wrote the scores to this year’s best picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty and original screenplay nominee Moonrise Kingdom. And the talk of Argo walking off with the best picture statuette could add some kick. But two years ago, Desplat was up for The King’s Speech, which landed the big prize even as he emerged empty handed. Indeed, in the past dozen years, only three films have secured both the best picture Oscar and the prize for best score.

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Still, the Academy has shown a fondness for novel instrumentation. Slumdog Millionaire took the award four years ago, and the year before that, Marianelli won for Atonement, in which he ingeniously incorporated a typewriter into his music. For his part, Desplat seamlessly weaves into the Argo score a mix of Middle Eastern instruments—including the ney, oud, kemenche, and ethnic percussion.

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Newman, an heir to Hollywood’s most storied film-score dynasty, has the most noms without a win in this quintet, so accrued good will could be a factor in his favor. But Skyfall is the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, and some of the film’s most memorable cues were written by others—including John Barry, a four-time score winner who was never even nominated for his Bond music.

Given the Academy’s penchant for sentimentality and tradition, some might write off the idea that a first-time nominee—in this case Danna, also nommed for best song—could win, but Oscar history suggests otherwise. For the past two years, the statuette for score has gone to an Oscar debutant—Ludovic Bource (The Artist) last year and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) the year before. In fact, from 2000 on, seven of the 12 winners had never been nominated before their first victory.

Yet Marianelli offers formidable competition with his endlessly inventive score to what could have been a very tired subject, Anna Karenina. Without ever sounding forced, his music to Anna is consistently, often surprisingly, catchy—something the Academy seems to favor given recent winners like Bource for The Artist, Michael Giacchino for Up (2009), and A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

That leaves Williams, now 81, the grand old man of Hollywood film scoring. He hasn’t won an Oscar since Schindler’s List (1993), which could bode well for him a la Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. (Oscar loves a comeback.) And his score for Lincoln is top-drawer—anthemic, comfortable, and ideally suited to the subject. But Williams has been amply recognized already for his contributions to cinema, and unless the Academy intends to send a valedictory message, it might choose to spread the love. That’s certainly been the pattern in recent years. Once a far more predictable category, best score’s days as a bellwether seem a thing of the past. But that’s no bad thing, because the Oscars need upsets, too.