Although there are some young Hollywood turks trying to break through in an ‘Extremely Large and Incredibly Close’ race for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, 2011 may eventually become known as the year of the veteran. Acting legends with decades of iconic screen performances and Oscar winners dominate the field of frontrunners in one of Oscar’s most crowded and intriguing categories. With names like Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Albert Brooks, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hanks and Robert Forster in the mix, the pedigree of contenders for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role is formidable indeed. But could a relative newcomer like Jonah Hill or Patton Oswalt swoop in and take the whole thing? Here are the major players.
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, BEGINNERS
Plummer turns 82 this month and is enjoying a major resurgence in a film acting career that goes back to 1958, when he made his debut in Stage Struck. Since then his fine screen roles have often been eclipsed by his own stage-struck ways with a number of memorable performances in the theater including a couple that won him Tony Awards. He only just received his first Oscar nomination two years ago for The Last Station, but with his touching role as a 75-year-old widower who finally decides to come out of the closet, he may grab the actual statuette this time. An effective, if small, supporting role in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo only adds to his chances.
MAX von SYDOW, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
With a life spent before the cameras for over 60 years, the 82-year-old von Sydow is an acting legend whose work ranges from several landmark Ingmar Bergman films to the harrowing Exorcist. Yet like Plummer (who is just eight months his junior), he incredibly has been Oscar-nominated only once, for 1987’s Pelle the Conqueror. But his touching and completely wordless performance as a distant grandfather in Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close could finally be his ticket to the Kodak stage.
KENNETH BRANAGH, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
Another acting icon, Laurence Olivier, is also part of this year’s supporting race — but in this case he is being channeled by none other than Olivier fan and student Kenneth Branagh, who portrays Olivier in 1956 as he was directing and starring with Marilyn Monroe in The Prince And The Showgirl. Branagh has tackled many Olivier screen roles like Henry V and Hamlet (he even directed the remake of Olivier’s Sleuth), but taking on the actual persona of the man himself was particularly challenging and puts him — and his mentor — right back in the Oscar race.
BEN KINGSLEY, HUGO
Already an Oscar winner for 1982’s Gandhi, Kingsley effectively takes on the role of film pioneer Georges Melies in Martin Scorsese’s valentine to the early days of movies. With a total of four nominations split evenly between lead and supporting categories, Kingsley is an Academy favorite who once again creates a memorable character, one with great meaning for the filmmakers who will be voting. Will being the only serious candidate in a 3D movie also separate him from the pack?
ALBERT BROOKS, DRIVE
Until now Brooks was only known for comedy — those he wrote and directed and those he starred in. He was even previously Oscar-nominated for his hilarious supporting turn in 1987’s Broadcast News. But none of his previous work prepared critics and audiences for his nasty, villainous Bernie Rose in the noirish thriller Drive. But his brilliant interpretation and cool new screen persona should deservedly win him a second Oscar nomination.
BRAD PITT, THE TREE OF LIFE
Pitt is a double threat this year. He’s already won the New York Film Critics award given for both Moneyball and The Tree Of Life, and ever since its debut in Cannes, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner has sparked Oscar buzz for Pitt’s effectively low-key change-of-pace and critically acclaimed work as a 1950s-era father. Could he become one of those rare thesps who score both supporting and lead actor nominations in the same year? Don’t bet against it.
JONAH HILL, MONEYBALL
Pitt’s co-star in Moneyball who was best known for his antics in movies like Superbad enjoyed his first taste of awards buzz for shedding several pounds and shrewdly underplaying the whiz-kid genius who comes up with an inexpensive formula to create a winning baseball team. Going head to head with Pitt, Hill proved he could hold his own just as he did in last year’s lesser-known Cyrus.
KEVIN SPACEY, MARGIN CALL
Although the film was well-received at its Sundance debut, Margin Call was not considered a major awards contender, even by its own distributor. That has changed with several early awards and Oscar talk for two-time winner Kevin Spacey, who has spent a lot more time in recent years running London’s Old Vic rather than on his own film career. A change-of-pace performance won raves and could put Spacey back in the front row at the Oscars.
PATTON OSWALT, YOUNG ADULT
Perhaps best known as a stand-up comedian and the voice of the lead rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille, Oswalt is quickly establishing his credentials as a serious actor, first in the critically acclaimed indie film The Big Fan and now on a larger scale as a lonely man whose life was defined by an unfortunate incident in high school. His scenes opposite Charlize Theron are awkward, funny, poignant and memorable.
CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITIES
GEORGE CLOONEY, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, PAUL GIAMATTI, THE IDES OF MARCH
A great actors showcase, this political thriller provides three great supporting roles for a trio of Oscar and Emmy winners (including its director, Clooney). But they may all cancel each other out. Hoffman could have the edge among them due to his other fine supporting turn in Moneyball.
NICK NOLTE, WARRIOR
Another veteran in the race, Nolte’s searing performance as a wayward father may not have been seen by enough voters in this box-office challenged but much admired early September release.
TOM HANKS, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
This two-time Oscar winner’s presence as a devoted father and husband who is killed on 9/11 is felt throughout the film, but his actual extremely limited screen time rules him out and means von Sydow has the better shot.
ARMIE HAMMER, J. EDGAR
Getting to run the gamut from his 20s to his dying years, Hammer made a strong impression as the loyal confidante and companion Clyde Tolson in Clint Eastwood’s biopic of FBI legend J. Edgar Hoover. But despite the complex nature of his role, most of the awards talk seems centered on Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead turn.
ROBERT FORSTER, THE DESCENDANTS
Occasionally a performer can take limited screen time and win an Oscar. Think Judi Dench and Beatrice Straight among others. In only two scenes, Forster was unforgettable.
CHRISTOPH WALTZ, JOHN C. REILLY, CARNAGE
Both male stars had their moments, but Waltz once again stole the show in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Broadway hit. Still, it’s hard to imagine either one breaking out on their own, which means a split decision and a tough road to a nomination.
VIGGO MORTENSEN, A DANGEROUS METHOD
As Sigmund Freud, Mortensen again proves he is one of the most versatile actors around. Don’t underestimate the admiration his fellow actors have for him.
JOHN HAWKES, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
After breaking through with his first nomination in last year’s Winter’s Bone, can he make it two in a row even though the film hasn’t gained a lot of awards traction?
DAVID THEWLIS, THE LADY
It may be called The Lady, but in dual roles as her cancer-stricken husband and his brother, Thewlis was flawless throughout. The question is will enough voters even see it to give him a shot in the race.
COREY STOLL, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Playing the embodiment of a young Ernest Hemingway with deadpan precision, this little-known actor stole the show in Woody Allen’s greatest box office success. Could he be the category sleeper? He already has nabbed a Spirit nod.
JIM BROADBENT, THE IRON LADY
Oscar winner Broadbent (Iris) is always formidable in any role he tackles, and he certainly delivers as Denis Thatcher, doting husband of English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The problem is that Denis was always overshadowed by his wife in real life, and the same is true opposite Meryl Streep here.
TOM HIDDLESTON, WAR HORSE
Hiddleston is a standout, particularly in one scene, but the horses are the actors people seem to be talking about.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Another War Horse thesp stood out in the new adaptation of the John LeCarre spy thriller, but for some reason buzz has yet to build for his sterling performance. Based on this work, his time is coming.
ANDY SERKIS, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Serkis is the undeniable king of the ‘Mo Cap actors, and his performance as Caesar the lead ape in this Planet Of The Apes prequel is getting the full campaign support of 20th Century Fox. But the question remains: Is the technique just too controversial among his fellow actors to gain him entry into the golden circle?
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.