In a year when many pundits agree that the leading actor and
actress awards seem like done deals, there are no sure bets in the
supporting categories. These categories have been traditionally
difficult to predict, sometimes picking industry favorites who have
been snubbed before, or oppositely, up-and-coming stars who may
arrive, win their Oscar and never be heard from again (remember
Mira Sorvino? Yeah, I don’t either). This year, the nominees
range from newcomers with tongue-twisting names to old-time
Hollywood favorites. Here’s a recap of some of this
year’s best second bananas.

Starting with the supporting actor category, Benicio Del Toro
grabs his second nomination for his work in “21 Grams.”
In a film heavy on exceptional acting, Del Toro steals every scene
he’s in, which is no easy task when sharing the screen with
fellow nominees Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Benicio won once already
for “Traffic,” and his acting range is even wider here.
Hailed as the next Brando by some, he’ll be sticking around
for some time.

Sharing screen time with megastar Tom Cruise is no cake walk,
but Ken Watanabe is able to do that and then some in “The
Last Samurai.” A newcomer to American cinema, Japanese-born
Watanabe is what holds “Samurai” together through its
slow parts. He holds one of the few nominations for this film.

You may not have heard of Djimon Hounsou, but you will. This
West African actor is a powerful presence on screen, and he brings
the heart and soul to “In America,” a fact-based
personal account of an Irish-American family’s transition to
New York City. He plays the AIDS-stricken Mateo, the type of role
Academy voters love, so watch this underdog carefully.

Believe it or not, Alec Baldwin has never won an Oscar. And
beyond that, he’s never even been nominated. That changed
this year, with his nomination for his role as grisly casino boss
Shelly Kaplow in “The Cooler.” While the film
doesn’t succeed on every level, Baldwin is always on, and
he’s doing his best work here, including an already
distinguished career. William H. Macy may have been snubbed for his
acting in this film, but maybe hard-luck Alec won’t be.

Finishing off the category is Tim Robbins, who recently won a
Golden Globe for Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River.”
The last time Robbins was nominated at the Oscars was for directing
(“Dead Man Walking”), but this marks his debut at the
ceremony being honored as an actor. The most buzz of this category
is around him this year, and if his wife Susan Sarandon
doesn’t hold up the night with an anti-war speech, he might
get to make a speech of his own — an acceptance speech.

The supporting actress category is a tough call as well this
year, leading off with surprise nomination Shohreh Aghdashloo for
the brilliant and tragic “House of Sand and Fog.” While
there has been much talk of Ben Kingsley’s mind-blowing
performance in the film, this Iranian actress has been quietly
winning several critics’ awards for her understated and
heartbreaking work. While not a favorite yet, Marcia Gay Harden
wasn’t either when she won for “Pollock” in this
category, so she may be a surprise come Oscar night.

Speaking of which, Marcia is back this year, after a dry spell,
with her performance in “Mystic River.” In a film
filled with great performances, it is hard to single out the best
ones, but hers ranks at the top. As the jittery and frightened wife
of a suspected killer (Tim Robbins), she proves here that her
previous Oscar win was no fluke.

Holly Hunter has a remarkable Oscar history in that in 1994, she
was nominated twice in two categories (Best Actress and Best
Supporting Actress), winning Best Actress for “The
Piano.” This year she is nominated for the teen-angst drama
“Thirteen.” Hunter has an effortless quality in her
acting, making her one of the most fascinating actresses of our
time to watch. “Thirteen”’s Oscar buzz has cooled
down considerably, so it may not be Holly’s year to win, but
she will remain a hot item for years to come.

A two-time Oscar nominee, Renée Zellweger grabs her third
for the Civil War romance “Cold Mountain.” Understated
would not be the word for her work in this film, as her spunky
performance seems to scream “give me my Oscar NOW.” The
film itself has received mixed reviews, and some have already
forgotten it. Still, many voters may think that she is due, and
after coming off a strong Golden Globe win, Renée may have
it.

Finally, we have the hardest-working actress this year, Patricia
Clarkson. She appeared and was lauded for her exceptional work in
both “The Station Agent” and “Pieces of
April,” and she will soon be seen in Lars von Trier’s
(“Dancer in the Dark”) latest film
“Dogville,” starring alongside Nicole Kidman. If
consistency means anything, Clarkson should get the award. Going
from rarely seen to being everywhere, Clarkson has had a remarkable
year, and what better way to reward that than with an Oscar.

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