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Oscar will love Bardem’s charismatic killer

No matter how you slice this year’s best supporting actor category, it’s an interesting stewpot of distinguished actors giving unique and powerful performances.

Two killers, a lawyer, a retiree and a spy. Or one Spaniard and four Yanks. Or an Oscar-winner, two prior nominees, and two first-timers with a 50-year age difference.

No matter how you slice this year’s best supporting actor category, it’s an interesting stewpot of distinguished actors giving unique and powerful performances. It’s one of the few categories this year to show some love to “Into the Wild,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” three movies that were considered at some point along the way to be big-time Oscar bait. It also includes the only acting nomination for the “No Country for Old Men” ensemble, despite an abundance of terrific work by that film’s cast.

It’s also one of the few Academy Awards that most prognosticators think has a sure-thing winner. But that’s the kind of thinking that’s been disproven time and again in Oscars past.

Predicted winner: Javier BardemWhether it’s Sir Anthony Hopkins’ turn as an urbane psychopath in “The Silence of the Lambs” or Forest Whitaker’s recreation of the genocidal Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” the Academy has shown time and again that it loves a charismatic killer. And while Bardem’s Anton Chigurh — the terrifying, floppy-haired murder machine of “No Country for Old Men” — isn’t particularly chatty or seductive, the intensity of his performance has made him the favorite.

Like most Spanish actors who make a splash on these shores, Bardem, 38, first came to the attention of American audiences by starring in a Pedro Almodóvar film (in his case, “Live Flesh”), although anyone who saw him fill a pair of briefs as an underwear model in Bigas Luna’s outrageous “Jamón Jamón” already pegged him as a performer to watch. His Oscar-nominated turn in “Before Night Falls” and his riveting work in “The Sea Inside” cemented his cred among art-house audiences, even if they failed to turn out for “Love in the Time of Cholera” or “Goya’s Ghosts.”

In some ways, Chigurh is one of Bardem’s less interesting characters — there aren’t a lot of notes for the actor to play, and in many ways this ruthless killer with no backstory and no strong motivation comes off like “Halloween” boogeyman Michael Myers with a little bit more dialogue. But as the standout player in an impressive film, this year’s SAG and BAFTA winner looks likely to bring “el Oscar” back home with him.

Casey Affleck

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Can you really call the co-lead of the film “supporting”? When your co-star happens to be Brad Pitt, who is also the producer of the film, the answer is apparently “yes.” But while Affleck definitely beats out his competitors in this category for most screen time, his achievements aren’t just a matter of quantity over quality. In “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Affleck creates a fascinating character out of Ford, making him equal parts starstruck fan of the legendary gunfighter and squirrelly stalker who will eventually bring down his idol. It’s extremely difficult to play an introvert on screen without disappearing into the character’s shyness, but Affleck’s Robert Ford is a vivid loser that deserves to be mentioned alongside Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

Affleck’s nomination not only spotlights a great film that didn’t get the respect it deserved from its studio or from audiences, but it also caps an extraordinary year for the young performer. 2007 also saw him star in “Gone Baby Gone,” the directorial debut of his brother Ben, and what might have seemed to be a disastrous experiment in nepotism wound up revealing hitherto unseen sides to both Afflecks’ talent. If there’s any justice, Casey, 32, will continue to snag great roles while Ben will continue his journey on both sides of the camera. Even if Casey goes home empty-handed on Oscar night, he’s on a winning streak.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

It’s a saying often credited to Katharine Hepburn that the right people win Oscars, but usually for the wrong movie. Whoopi Goldberg gave one of her greatest performances in “The Long Walk Home,” but snagged an Oscar that year for “Ghost.” The Academy snubbed Paul Giamatti’s outstanding work in “American Splendor” and “Sideways” in successive years, but nominated him afterward for “Cinderella Man.” And now, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s riveting leads in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “The Savages” were overlooked in favor of “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

Not that Hoffman, 40, isn’t just great in (and, in fact, the best thing about) “War,” but it’s certainly the least interesting of the three movies in which he appeared last year. Of course, it’s also the one with a major studio behind it, so go figure. Were there any justice to the Oscars (and there never is), Hoffman and not Cate Blanchett would have been a multiple nominee this year. That said, Hoffman’s performance as CIA spook Gust Avrakotos is a curmudgeonly delight. Bringing wit and brio to a role that many actors would have reduced to pure grump, Hoffman always finds the laugh without pounding it to death, and in doing so, steals the movie outright from his higher-profile (and no doubt higher-paid) co-stars.

Since Hoffman’s already got a freshly-minted Oscar from “Capote,” it’s unlikely that the Academy will be swayed his way again so soon. But it’s good to know that this august body is paying attention to one of the most exciting artists gracing the screen today.

Hal Holbrook

Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch in Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild - 2007
Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch in Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild - 2007

It seems astonishing that this marks the first Academy Award consideration for the legendary Hal Holbrook, who turns 83 a week before this year’s ceremony. It just seems that, over the course of his amazing career in film and on stage and TV, he would have made his way down this particular red carpet at least once. But no, it’s his poignant turn in “Into the Wild” that has finally gotten him to this pinnacle.

And this isn’t just one of those sentimental, “oops, we never get around to nominating you” nominations, either — Holbrook displays sides we’ve never seen before as Ron Franz, a lonely retiree who crosses paths with drifter Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) and provides him with one last possibility of real human contact before Chris disappears from society entirely. Past regrets, new friendship, and the idea of redemption are subtly enscripted on Holbrook’s work here, and it’s a revelation that we might never have expected from such a familiar performer.

Were he to surprise the oddsmakers and win, Hal Holbrook would certainly give one of the evening’s great acceptance speeches. But even if he doesn’t, he’ll no doubt turn around, get back on the road, and continue to bring “Mark Twain Tonight!” to new audiences around the country.

Tom Wilkinson

George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson
This photo released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows actors Tom Wilkinson, left, as Arthur Edens and George Clooney as Michael Clayton in a scene from \"Michael Clayton.\" Many in the film industry are already thinking about the Academy Awards. The film,being shown at the Toronto Film Festiva.l will be the object of many a awards watcher's attention. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Myles Aronowitz) ** NO SALES **WARNER BROS. PICTURES

If you’re going to open a movie with a lengthy, manic monologue from a character about whom the audience knows nothing, you’d better cast a brilliant actor who can hook in viewers from the get-go. That’s certainly what writer-director Tony Gilroy did in “Michael Clayton,” giving the film’s first major speech (and juicy close-up) to Tom Wilkinson, a British actor who’s become more and more familiar to American audiences since his portrayal of an unemployed boss–turned-stripper in “The Full Monty.”

Earning a second Oscar nomination this year (following his best actor nod for “In the Bedroom”), Wilkinson, 59, brings a palpable intensity to the role of Arthur Edens, a brilliant corporate attorney whose mental instability actually liberates him to become a more moral human being, one who wants to redeem himself for years of corporate malfeasance. Playing a man who finds his conscience when he goes off his bipolar meds, Wilkinson avoids the pitfalls of showboating that would have no doubt tripped up a lesser actor, balancing fervor and mania with pain and sadness.

But Wilkinson has certainly shown himself capable of working both sides of the fence, deftly juggling comedy and drama in his prolific screen career. His stinging performance in Woody Allen’s otherwise negligible “Cassandra’s Dream” takes its place alongside the nutty Dr. Howard Mierzwiak in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” We’re never quite sure what we’re going to get from Wilkinson, but audiences always know it’s worth going along for the ride. Even if his work in “Michael Clayton” doesn’t clinch him an Oscar, it’s a notable addition to Wilkinson’s ever-growing gallery of terrific performances.

Should have been nominated: Michael Cera

Columbia pictures provided this photo of (left to right) Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in \"Superbad.\" (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures/Melissa Moseley)Melissa Moseley / Columbia Pictures

But not for the Oscar-anointed and slightly overrated “Juno,” rather for his vulnerably hilarious performance in “Superbad.” As the sweet, shy Evan, Cera vividly captures all the awkwardness of adolescence, bringing to almost-too-painful-to-watch life an average kid who just wants to get the girl and be the life of the party. Over the course of an evening, we see Evan’s attempts to score booze, his trepidations over the scary adult world, and his intimate bond with best pal Seth (Jonah Hill), culminating in his poignant realization that gaining a girlfriend and going to college will take him on a scary path away from everything he’s ever known. For all the film’s raunchiness and outrageous humor, “Superbad” has a sympathetic, human core, and much of that comes from Cera.

His exemplary work on TV’s “Arrested Development” and in “Juno” would be sterling additions to any young actor’s résumé, but it’s “Superbad” that confirms the 19-year-old Cera as a bright young thing destined for both comedic and dramatic greatness.

Alonso Duralde is the author of “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men”; find him at