The prohibitive favorite is Christopher Plummer, playing a man coming out as gay in his 70s in Beginners. Plummer has steamrolled through the precursors, and in some ways this is a surprise. Beginners was a little-seen indie from the summer, and while Plummer has been a well-respected actor for many years, he has been more noted for his stage work than his films. His most famous film role, by a large margin, is as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, over 45 years ago.
If there’s a sentimental choice, it might be Max von Sydow as the mysterious mute man who aids the young boy in his quest in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Von Sydow deserves an honorary Oscar for his body of work, especially for his work with Ingmar Bergman (so does Liv Ullman). Perhaps that will earn him a few extra votes for his work here, which is rich and expressive despite his lack of dialogue. There is a history of mute characters winning Oscars, most notably Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda and John Mills for Ryan’s Daughter, as well as Marlee Matlin as a deaf person in Children of a Lesser God.
Actor who play real people do well in Oscar races, and Kenneth Branagh is a delight as Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, though it would seem unlikely that the role has the kind of oomph required to win. Similarly, Jonah Hill, as the sabrematician who helps change baseball in Moneyball, lacks the kind of big scene that wins an award. Perhaps Hill’s change of pace from comedy to drama impressed voters, otherwise it’s a sound but not a flashy performance.
It’s a tough call, but I think my vote would go for Nick Nolte as the recovering alcoholic, trainer, and father of two mixed martial arts fighters in Warrior. Nolte’s work in his golden years just gets better and better, and his work in the last ten years or so, including Affliction, The Good Thief, and Warrior is so stripped down and raw that it almost aches to watch him. He has a few big scenes in the film and kills in each one, and when he falls off the wagon, quoting from Moby-Dick, it’s devastating.
Will win: Christopher Plummer
Could win: Max von Sydow
Should win: Nick Nolte
Should have been nominated: Kevin Spacey, Margin Call