Though the early buzz around “Dreamgirls” has faded, Eddie Murphy still looks like the frontrunner here for his role as fictional soul legend James “Thunder” Early. Long popular for his comedic impressions, Murphy channels that energy so seamlessly into his creation of an authentic, drug-addled Motown icon that he should overcome even the terrible press surrounding his latest cinematic trash (“Norbit”) to pick up this award early Sunday evening.

Drew Philp
Courtesy of Paramount

While Murphy is the conventional choice, there are strong cases to be made for two other contenders in this category. Djimon Hounsou struck the deepest cords of genuine sympathy as a distressed villager in “Blood Diamond,” and Mark Wahlberg resonated complete command in his every scene as a crude police captain in “The Departed.” Both men are respected character actors and their Hollywood stock is rising, but their roles will probably be considered too minor to win.

Of the other two nominees, longshots Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”), Haley has the slightly better shot, but then the nomination itself is recognition enough for a no-name actor thrust into the Oscar circus. Arkin, meanwhile, though an integral part of a best picture nominee, wasn’t even the best supporting actor in his own film (that would be the tragically overlooked Steve Carell).

It’ll come down to Murphy and Wahlberg and, if voters are in a Scorsese mood, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Wahlberg pull the upset.

VERDICT
NOMINEES

Alan Arkin, “Little Miss Sunshine”
Jackie Earle Haley, “Little Children”
Djimon Hounsou, “Blood Diamond” Eddie Murphy, “Dreamgirls”
Mark Wahlberg, “The Departed”

Will win: Eddie Murphy
Should win: Djimon Hounsou

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