The Best Actor field of five was intensely fought: neither Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler") nor David Oyelowo ("Selma") made the cut. There could be any number of surprises in this race.
This year boasts three contenders who have never been nominated before. Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," and Eddie Redmayne as cosmologist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything" go head to head in the battle of the Brit genius biopics (Redmayne won the Drama Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA) while the actors branch will recognize themselves in Michael Keaton’s heartbreaking Comedy Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice-winning "Birdman" comeback. Both Keaton and Redmayne get points for degree of difficulty.
But with Bradley Cooper, star of Clint Eastwood’s late-surging box office juggernaut "American Sniper," stealing their thunder, anything can happen in a three-way race. Remember "The Pianist" star Adrien Brody, who surprised the world by beating out Daniel Day Lewis ("Gangs of New York") and Jack Nicholson ("About Schmidt") in 2009? Stranger things could happen.
1. Michael Keaton. If the two Brits knock each other out, Keaton, 63, could emerge at the front of the pack. He is in top form in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s scabrous and exhilarating show business comedy "Birdman," which is all about acting. It skewers the current Hollywood obsession with superheroes as it reveals the psychological pitfalls of the creative process. Keaton got naked spiritually and physically, playing the actor-writer-director of a Broadway play whose mental state is rapidly deteriorating. He makes hairpin turns from being open and vulnerable with his wife, daughter and girlfriend, combative with his lawyer and cast and the critic of the New York Times, and under tremendous duress. And Keaton had to carry this movie through a series of elaborately choreographed long takes that go on from eight to fifteen minutes. Needless to say the Academy actors always respond to a major comeback, which this is. There’s tremendous affection for the veteran actor; this is his first Oscar nomination.
2. Eddie Redmayne, 32, has also earned raves (and the Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA) for his performance as top physicist Stephen Hawking (Errol Morris’s "A Brief History of Time") in James Marsh’s "The Theory of Everything," and is duking it out with Cumberbatch. Oscar perennials Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title ("Les Mis," "Atonement") are pushing Universal’s Focus Features to give the Oscar campaign everything they’ve got. Redmayne, a respected character actor ("Les Mis," "My Week with Marilyn") channels Hawking, now 72, who was twisted by the progressively degenerative disease ALS. Redmayne had to calibrate Hawking’s diminished physical capacity over time with more and more limited means of expression, yet he transmits the man’s joy, wit and brilliance–and love for the woman who saved his life, Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones). Oscar voters tend to be impressed by disease-distorted performances, see: Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot." This is his first Oscar nomination.
3. Bradley Cooper, 39, gives a transformative performance as muscle-bound real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s well-wrought Iraq war movie "American Sniper," a late entrant that is picking up steam in the Oscar race with six nominations but did not land anything from SAG or the Golden Globes. He’s currently earning raves as "The Elephant Man" on Broadway. Three times could be the charm with Cooper’s third consecutive Oscar nomination.
4. Benedict Cumberbatch. Harvey Weinstein is mounting a full court press on the level of TWC’s Oscar-winning period biopic "The King’s Speech" for "The Imitation Game," led by Cumberbatch’s acclaimed performance as Turing. He is a brilliant, off-putting, yet vulnerable mathematician who’s always the smartest person in the room–but he doesn’t work well with others. Many people didn’t know the compelling, recently revealed history of Enigma code-breaker Turing, who single-handedly saved the Allies by staying ahead of Hitler’s every move in World War II. He’s an outsider not only because of his smarts but because he is gay; he’s a lonely, unsung hero who is discriminated against, threatened with prison time, and doesn’t earn the kudos he deserved for his heroic accomplishments. Cumberbatch, 38, is a respected character actor ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "Parade’s End") who thanks to TV series "Sherlock" has built a rabid following (known as Cumberbitches). But he lacks Keaton’s career cred and Redmayne’s considerable charm. This is his first Oscar nomination.
5. Steve Carell, 52, earned rave reviews starting in Cannes as disturbed wealthy scion and wrestling fan John DuPont in Bennett Miller’s precisely written and directed "Foxcatcher." This dazzling character role is surprising for the actor who is best known for comedy ("40 Year Old Virgin") but has earned raves for drama ("Little Miss Sunshine"). He alters himself physically and also explores new terrain as a troubled billionaire with complex and dark feelings. He was nominated for the SAG, BAFTA and Golden Globes. So far Carell has collected six Golden Globe nominations and one TV win ("The Office"), without ever earning an Oscar nomination. He was due.