Could We See an Oscar Upset in the Supporting Actor and Actress Races?

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Photo: Focus Features, Warner Brothers

While the leading Oscar races feel pretty locked up for Brie and Leo, the supporting categories offer some room for surprises. Yes, both Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress have their front-runners, but you could make an argument for almost everyone in those categories to surprise ... and below, we'll do just that. Here's a deep dive into those ten contenders, starting with the Best Supporting Actor nominees who have the steepest odds stacked against them.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

The Long Shot: Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Hardy is the only man in this category to star in two Best Picture nominees this year, and the film he’s been recognized for may very well take Oscar’s top prize. So why is he the weakest Supporting Actor contender? In part because there’s been no perceptible bump for him: This was a late-breaking nomination after Hardy failed to score with SAG or the Golden Globes, and his surprise Oscar nod was taken more as a sign of overall strength for The Revenant rather than a display of Hardy’s own awards-season mettle.

The Medium-Strength Contender: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Rylance is a well-respected British theater actor whose Oscar chances, I think, are overestimated by the tastemakers in New York and London who know Rylance more for his stage work. While Rylance does very good, precise work as an insular Russian operative in the first hour of Bridge of Spies, he starts to hit repetitive beats and then vanishes for about half the movie, much like the movie itself has by now faded from the forefront of most Oscar voters’ minds.

The Lovable One: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
If Academy members pick the actor they like most, Ruffalo will get their vote. The three-time nominee stands out among the Spotlight cast — not only is his journalist character more demonstrably unusual and tic-ridden than his colleagues, but he gets to deliver the big, emotional speeches this small movie mostly eschews. Ruffalo is also an outlier in his own category, since he’s the lone cuddly one in a race field with remote character actors and troubled macho men. Don’t underestimate the amount of people who’d want to see Ruffalo up on that stage simply because he’d be gracious, smiling, and adorable.

The Dark Horse: Christian Bale, The Big Short
Another three-time nominee who won back in 2010 for The Fighter, Bale is revered by his peers as one of the best actors of his generation. The first act of The Big Short basically gives itself up completely to Bale’s eccentric financial wizard; it’s almost as though Bale’s performance itself — far-reaching, free-associating, and with a keen mind working underneath — dictates the unique way that the movie is shot and edited. If The Big Short wins Best Picture (and it still has a very good shot), you’ll know it's because Bale will triumph here first.

The Frontrunner: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Stallone’s comeback narrative is almost too good to be true: Oscar-nominated for the very first Rocky, he resurrected his character to give a career-best performance in Creed, and in so doing, resurrected his career as well. The only thing that gives me pause is that SAG didn’t nominate him, and while I’ve seen some pundits attribute that snub to Creed’s late-breaking momentum, it’s important to note that in the week the SAG nominations were announced, Creed had outgrossed The Big Short, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and most of the other films that were likely to contend in this category. That lack of support from his fellow actors gives me some pause, but without a strong No. 2 for Stallone detractors to rally around, I still think he’ll triumph in the end.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

The Long Shot: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
A lot of people were surprised that McAdams squeezed into this category — even the actress herself seemed a bit startled by her nomination — but as the only notable woman in her vast, praised ensemble cast, she was well positioned to benefit from the love shone on Spotlight. Her work is ultimately too unshowy to prevail, but like Jacki Weaver, who got a surprise Best Supporting Actress nod simply for being a part of the well-awarded Silver Linings Playbook cast, the nomination is enough.

The Veteran: Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Like McAdams, Leigh is the only woman in a male-fronted cast, but no actress in a Quentin Tarantino film has ever won an Oscar for it (criminally, Uma Thurman wasn’t even nominated for Kill Bill), and The Hateful Eight didn’t catch on with the Academy like the director’s previous two efforts. This iconoclastic actress more than deserved her nomination, but there’s not enough of a base for this movie to take her any further.

The Medium-Strength Contender: Rooney Mara, Carol
Has Alicia Vikander stolen Rooney Mara’s Oscar spotlight? For a while there, it looked like this category might come down to those two in-demand actresses, but aside from a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Mara’s awards-season campaign has idled, and her movie was more appreciated than beloved by the Academy. Plus, if you’re voting for the woman who’ll smile, cry, and be effusive upon winning … well, that’s not Rooney Mara.

The Dark Horse: Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs has had the kind of Oscar campaign that could cause whiplash: It came into this season with tons of heat, then flopped at the box office and saw its prospects demolished by many a pundit. But while the movie didn’t make it into the Best Picture race, Winslet has shown surprising awards-season strength as Jobs’s right-hand woman, picking up a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for the role. In both cases, due to category confusion, she wasn’t competing against Alicia Vikander’s Danish Girl performance; still, if you had to pick a real threat here, Winslet has got the goods.

The Front-runner: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
The Academy loves an ingenue, and few young actresses had a better 2015 than Vikander. She popped as the robot in Ex Machina and seemed to show up everywhere, toplining period dramas like Testament of Youth, adding style to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and even sweeping through Burnt for a hot minute. The fact that Vikander is so damn good in The Danish Girl just put a point on things, and the Academy will happily take this opportunity to coronate her. She’s in.