The ads will stop. The cocktail parties and screenings are over. At 5 PM PST on Tuesday, ballots were finally due for the 81st Academy Awards and the 2009 awards season began to close.  The accountants will now start counting the votes and all any nominee, consultant or studio head can do now is pray for a couple of wins and, in some cases, figure out how to spend even less in the trades for next year's campaign.

As discussed previously, the drama in this year's Oscars lie in the acting categories . And somewhat unexpectedly, a fascinating two-man race has come down to the wire for Best Actor.

BEST ACTOR

The nominees are....

Sean Penn, "Milk"
Lowdown: Has two things going for him: (1) He won the SAG Award and (2) this is the easiest way for the Academy to recognize Best Picture nominee "Milk," recipient of eight total nods.
Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
Lowdown: What a case of bad timing.  Any other year Langella would be a lock for his captivating performance as Richard Nixon.  Unfortunately, the flashier Penn and Rourke have stolen his thunder.
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
Lowdown: The sentimental comeback favorite, but does a BAFTA and Golden Globe win carry enough momentum to beat Penn?  It's possible...
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
Lowdown: Nice recognition for a well-liked Hollywood veteran and film.
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Lowdown: If the movie were more loved, he'd have a real shot of winning. His time will come.

The twist to this year's race is that both Penn and Rourke are longtime friends and would no doubt be happy for the other to win (we assume).  Rourke, however, has been campaigning like he clearly wants it more.  Winning his first Academy Award would be the prefect ending to one of the longest and difficult comebacks the movie industry has ever seen.  Plus, Rourke gave a nails to the bone performance as a former champion pro wrestler who just can't give it up when his better days are clearly behind him.  And yet...

The biggest red flag against Rourke winning is the obvious fact that Penn beat him head to head for the equivalent SAG Award and, as you may already know, actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy.  Will so many of them really change their vote? Or, are there enough Rourke fans in other branches to make up the difference? You do the math.  And yes, while Penn already has an Oscar statue, there is some irony in that his performance as a slain gay icon may be easier to take for the Academy's old guard than Rourke's gritty and dark turn.  If there is one thing "The Dark Knight's" exclusion from the Best Picture race taught us, it's that the membership of the Academy is still primarily old.  Like, very old.  And in this case, Rourke's personal baggage may sadly be too much for them to handle.

Still, it's truly a toss up.

Winner: Sean Penn, "Milk"

As we countdown to the biggest night of the year, here's the rundown of even more Oscar content this week on HitFix:

Monday: Best Supporting Actress Prediction: Viola Davis
Wednesday: Best Actress, Best Screenplay spotlights
Thursday: Best Picture, Best Director spotlights and Team HitFix Picks (yep, the whole crew)
Saturday: Coverage of The Spirit Awards, where Hollywood honors its Indie brethren.
Sunday: Breaking coverage of the 81st Academy Awards with red carpet galleries, winners, running blog and the ever-popular wrap "Best and Worst" of the show.

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