After a 3-part series highlighting the 2010 Best Picture hopefuls and their realistic Oscar chances, I now turn to the acting races beginning with the men in contention for their lead performances. Of course there is always debate over what constitutes a leading vs supporting role and indeed  the line does get blurred in some instances for competitive reasons. For instance, in 1991, Anthony Hopkins probably could have gone either way for his Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs but went for lead and won. Conversely, after toying with a push for lead in 2005’s Syriana, George Clooney made the strategic switch to the less competitive supporting category and won. Interestingly, he faced off against Brokeback Mountain’s co-lead Jake Gyllenhaal who dropped down to supporting category in order to avoid facing off against his co-star Heath Ledger who was eventually nominated for lead actor. Over the course of this young awards season, there has been some buzz here and there about the category status of leading men like Wall Street: Money Never Sleep’s Michael Douglas, The Fighter’s Christian Bale, The Kings Speech’s Geoffrey Rush, Fair Game’s Sean Penn, and Another Year’s Jim Broadbent. All of them have now comfortably settled into supporting mode – at least in the eyes of the studios campaigning them. As far as the Academy is concerned, the ultimate decision will be up to the actors’ peer group and that branch is always capable of surprise. Here is the rundown of those who remain firmly committed to going after the top prize for Best Actor In A Leading Role:

COLIN FIRTH in THE KING’S SPEECH (The Weinstein Co)As the stuttering King George VI,  Firth faces a difficult language challenge that he flawlessly pulls off while delivering a 3-dimensional portrait of a man who overcomes all odds to lead his country in a time of war. OSCAR CHANCE: After getting his feet wet in the awards season game with his Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning performance in A Single Man, Firth seems ready to go for all the gold this time around. The fact that the movie is likely to be a frontrunner can only help his chances here. At this early stage, it could be Firth’s to lose.

JAMES FRANCO in 127 HOURS (Fox Searchlight)As Aron Ralston, the extreme sports aficionado who cuts off his own arm when he winds up between a rock and a hard place, Franco is virtually never off screen and has the kind of tour-de-force role that makes people stand up and take notice. OSCAR CHANCE: Would seem a shoo-in for a nomination if queasy voters don’t pass out while watching their screeners (which keeps happening at the Industry screenings). Depending on the movie’s fate, Franco could be disarming competition on the final ballot, too.

ROBERT DUVALL in GET LOW (Sony Pictures Classics)An Oscar winner in this category in 1983 for Tender Mercies, Duvall is an actor’s actor who is back in a strong leading role and runs with it. If the performance can regain momentum from its summer opening, Duvall should be back in the game for the 7th time. OSCAR CHANCE: The film was a strong specialty success for Sony Pictures Classics which plans to go all out for their star. Duvall is on the circuit working it, too, so his Get Low chances seem high if he can keep the Big Mo going.

JEFF BRIDGES in TRUE GRIT (Paramount) – Very few have yet seen the Coen Brothers take on this western classic but coming off his big Best Actor win for last year’s last minute stealth entry, Crazy Heart and back firmly in character mode  Bridges’ interpretation of Rooster Cogburn may be well timed. OSCAR CHANCE: Only two other actors in history, Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks, have been able to pull off back-to-back Best Actor wins  but several have done the win/nomination  combo and that may be what Bridges settles for here.  John Wayne won the 1969 Best Actor prize for the original and no actor has managed the feat of duplicating an Oscar win by playing the same role in a remake.

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO in SHUTTER ISLAND (Paramount) and INCEPTION (Warner Bros) – To be or not to be, that is the question for Leo. To be nominated for Shutter Island , a  February release or Inception, a July release or to be totally forgotten  by actors with short memories. Both Leo studios are planning a big push and he’s got highly emotional moments in each but the big question is does he cancel himself out? OSCAR CHANCE: This guy is overdue but runs the risk of being completely overlooked  because unfortunately he is really good in both. Shutter shows the wider range and Martin Scorsese directed him into a previous nomination for The Aviator so it’s probably the best bet if he just wants to get behind one pony in this race and avoid the split votes.

MARK WAHLBERG in THE FIGHTER (Paramount) – As ‘Irish’ Mickey Ward, Massachusettes native Wahlberg is jumping into the Oscar ring with another Boston-bred character in this emotional true life boxing story. His first nomination came in 2006 for supporting in another Boston-based project, The Departed so his home turf has been good to him.  OSCAR CHANCE: The film is still largely a mystery but has nevertheless generated strong  early buzz for co-stars Christian Bale,Amy Adams and Melissa Leo but they are all in support. Whether  Wahlberg can carry the flag in the lead category against stiffer competition  is a question which should begin to be answered once Paramount starts screenings in earnest next week.

BEN AFFLECK in THE TOWN (Warner Bros) – Affleck wrote and directed himself into his finest performance in years in this gritty crime drama also set in the Boston area. Another native using his hometown for inspiration , Affleck hit all the right notes in a film that has been one of the Fall’s big adult success stories.  OSCAR CHANCE: The actors branch love fellow thesps who can do it all so they might want to reward Affleck with his first acting nod but it’s something of a long shot. He could get points though for suffering the slings and arrows of critics and coming back so strongly  following the Eastwood model.

JESSE EISENBERG in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Sony Pictures) – It certainly could be ‘the role he was born to play’.  There hasn’t been a greater match between actor and role all year than watching Eisenberg come into his own playing the ever-so-complex Mark Zuckerberg. OSCAR CHANCE: With his adept handling of Aaron Sorkin’s dazzling dialogue, Eisenberg will no doubt impress fellow actors and it’s the kind of intelligent script young thesps are rarely handed.  Despite usual reluctance to nominate actors in this age range in the Best Actor category , Eisenberg is a real contender.

JAVIER BARDEM in BIUTIFUL (Roadside Attractions) – Bardem won a supporting Oscar playing the essence of evil in 2007’s No Country For Old Men but in the Spanish language Biutiful he delivers a full stops-out turn of breathtaking force that took Cannes by storm and landed him the Best Actor prize. OSCAR CHANCE: Cannes isn’t always the best barometer for Oscars and Bardem has to overcome possible reluctance on the part of voters to endure such dark material . Foreign language turns are tougher to get into the race but this one may be irresistible. It’s his best work.

AARON ECKHART in RABBIT HOLE (LionsGate) – Based on the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning Broadway play Rabbit Hole is a heartbreaking,sometimes oddly funny dissection of a married couple who try to survive the tragedy of losing their 4 year old son in an accident.  Opposite Nicole Kidman , Eckhart has his best screen moments yet.  OSCAR CHANCE: It’s a real actors’ vehicle. Many use scenes from the play for auditions and they should like what Eckhart does here. He could be a sleeper entry from this Toronto pickup and mid-December release.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS in SOLITARY MAN (Anchor Bay) – Released in May this small character-driven indie drama gave Douglas solidly unsympathetic material to play as an asshole down-on-his-luck used car dealer.  Reviews for his performance were stellar but the film wasn’t widely seen. OSCAR CHANCE: The sympathy factor for his ongoing battle with Cancer aside, this role is a worthy contender and Anchor Bay was wise to get the screener out early so actors have been watching it already. Due to limited campaign money, this is another longshot but  could be a real contender for a spot if it is able to up its profile and grab enough eyeballs.

RYAN GOSLING in BLUE VALENTINE (The Weinstein Co) – As a young husband trying to keep his crumbling marriage and family together Gosling  opposite Michelle Williams is intense and memorable. Ever since its debut at Sundance critics have praised the raw acting and it’s probably catnip for the actors branch who have already nominated him once for the equally intense and low-budget Half-Nelson. OSCAR CHANCE: Gosling is going to win one day but maybe not for this currently NC-17 rated drama. A nomination however is entirely possible. His colleagues clearly admire the chances he takes.

KEVIN SPACEY in CASINO JACK (ATO) – A two time Oscar winner, Spacey is popular with his peers and here gets to give a full-bodied comic portrayal of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The film gets an Oscar qualification run in December but sadly its 47 year old director George Hickenlooper didn’t live to see his hoped-for  contender take flight. OSCAR CHANCE: Spacey delivers with a wry and funny Abramoff but the question remains whether enough people will even see it  if this little indie  gets outspent and drowned out in the year-end influx of screenings and screeners.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (20th Century Fox) – Gyllenhaal has never been better or more appealing in this vibrant and sexy comedy  where he is teamed opposite Anne Hathaway. OSCAR CHANCE: It could be perceived as too light and frothy  to compete against some of the heavier contenders in the category.  Gyllenhaal’s best shot will likely be at the Golden Globes in the Comedy or Musical category, but people will love the side of him he gets to show here and it could give him a real shot to win there.

PAUL GIAMATTI in  BARNEY’S VERSION (Sony Pictures Classics) – Since its Venice and Toronto debuts there hasn’t been a ton of buzz surrounding Giamatti’s  big , commanding performance in this Mordecai Richter adaptation but that could change with its AFI debut later this week. OSCAR CHANCE: So far Giamatti has failed to make a lot of pundits’  lists and reviews are mixed which doesn’t help his cause. Sadly Barney Panofsky may be an acquired taste.

MATT DAMON in HEREAFTER (Warner Bros) – Damon got a supporting nomination last year under the direction of Clint Eastwood in Invictus and here has the lead as a reluctant psychic  in a film with mixed reviews but some key raves from certain influential critics. OSCAR CHANCE: Damon is solidly dependable and believable but the role may be just too low key to gain much notice on its own.

PAUL RUDD in HOW DO YOU KNOW (Sony Pictures) – The new comedy from James L. Brooks carries a high Oscar pedigree with Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson in key roles but word is it’s Rudd who steals the show  and comparisons to Jack Lemmon are already in the air.  OSCAR CHANCE: Unless there is a groundswell when people finally see it , Rudd’s best bet is in the Golden Globe Comedy or Musical category.

ROBERT DE NIRO in STONE (Overture) – The quirky drama has not lit up the boxoffice and is quickly becoming an also-ran despite some of the best reviews DeNiro has received in some time. OSCAR CHANCE: The low profile of the film is likely to stay that way despite Overture’s intention to send screeners next week.  Despite a nice return , De Niro  is most likely going to be sitting this race out counting his money from  Little Fockers.

JIM CARREY in I LOVE YOU, PHILIP MORRIS (Roadside Attractions) – Long delayed due to distribution problems,  Carrey’s bigger-than-life and edgy work will finally deservedly be seen. OSCAR CHANCE: Very minimal . Even in higher profile films the Academy has always managed to ignore Carrey although he has won 3 Golden Globes and like Rudd and Gyllenhaal could be a contender there and that’s what Roadside is aiming for. They definitely like the guy.

ANDY GARCIA in  CITY ISLAND (Anchor Bay) – This early March release was a real crowd pleaser, albeit on a limited release basis, but the company got the screener out early and some members I’ve spoken too are talking like they just discovered a gem. OSCAR CHANCE: Never say never but this is the longest of shots, a real underdog contender that could place Garcia in the Golden Globe race, but Oscar is clearly another league. Problem is a limited budget makes this  grass roots effort for Academy recognition challenging to say the least despite warm personal reviews for Andy who has the advantage of playing a wannabe actor who gets to do a killer impression of Brando.  Then again few thought Sandra Bullock had a shot last year but her movie made $250 million. City Island did 6.