It's less than a week to go until the 81st Academy Awards and unlike previous years where there was only a category or two whose outcome was in doubt (no pun intended), this show will have a good deal of suspense with all but one of the major acting categories locked up.  Now, it goes without saying that the crowd-pleasing "Slumdog Millionaire" is going to win a lot of trophies on Sunday night, but this week we're going to take a look at all the major categories, many of whom are not represented with a "Millionaire" nominee. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

The nominees are....

Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Lowdown: Are you kidding? Biggest lock in a decade.
Josh Brolin, "Milk"
Lowdown: Reward for a number of great performances over the past few years, including this one (and I called this nod way back in October at the film's San Fran premiere).
Robert Downey, Jr. "Tropic Thunder"
Lowdown: Comedic turns rarely get recognized, but like Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl," Downey, Jr. is also getting the love for putting money in producer's pockets as well as for a charismatic and classy comeback.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"
Lowdown: If he hadn't already won an Oscar for "Capote," publicists would be screaming from the rafters this was the performance to reward him with one.
Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"
Lowdown: Let's be honest, considering how unloved the movie is, he's just happy to be here.  Great career boost.

If you took Ledger out of the equation, this would be a very tight race between Brolin, Hoffman and Downey, Jr. with either of them being able to pull it out.  However, his tragic death aside, none of those performances are strong enough to overtake the iconic transformation Ledger accomplished as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

I was lucky enough to be one of the first audiences to see "The Dark Knight" and the minute I walked out I was on the phone to a friend telling them, much to their disbelief, that Ledger was going to get nominated for an Academy Award.  Unlike other myopic "Knight" fans and prognosticators though, I wasn't ready to singlehandedly give him the statue in July before the rest of the field was determined.  Historically, the only time the Academy has given a posthumous Oscar was to Peter Finch who died a month before nominations were announced.   However, as the months have passed, it's clear Ledger's accomplishment wouldn't be overshadowed by anyone else whether he was as still with us or not.  In 1990, Jack Nicholson played the same character in Tim Burton's blockbuster "Batman" and stole the show from star Michael Keaton (an unconventional choice in itself).  In "The Dark Knight," Ledger collaborated with director Christopher Nolan and accomplished an almost impossible task.  He came up with such a different take on the psychopath that he made the character completely his own.  And not only that, but he delivered a performance that will be part of the cinematic landscape for decades (yes, decades) to come.  So, in all fairness (and trust me, they know it) the other nominees don't stand a chance.

Winner: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

The nominees are...

Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Lowdown:   She could easily win, but she could easily lose.
Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"
Lowdown: Her third nomination continues to prove her previous win for "My Cousin Vinny" was not a fluke.
Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Lowdown: Industry veteran had very little screen time, but still may have overshadowed her more famous co-stars.
Amy Adams, "Doubt"
Lowdown:  Adams should have been nominated last year for "Enchanted," but gets the cumulative recognition for her steady work here.
Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Lowdown: Probably the most relatable character and welcoming performance in a movie in desperate need of more emotion.

Are you looking for some real suspense?  Well, this category has it in spades.  Before the nominations were announced, conventional wisdom had Kate Winslet winning this role for her performance in "The Reader" and loosing the Best Actress race, where she'd be nominated for "Revolutionary Road," to "Doubt's" Meryl Streep.  At least, that was the hope of Winslet's camp and The Weinstein Company, who produced the film.  Instead, the Academy correctly recognized Winslet's performance as a leading one and changed the dynamics of the supporting race. 

Cruz has long been the frontrunner here, but she has only one major win to her credit: last week's BAFTA Award.  She lost both the Golden Globe and the SAG Award to Winslet for "The Reader."  More disturbingly, she hasn't been able to work the L.A. awards circuit since her nomination, as her competition has, because of other commitments.

On the other hand, Davis and Tomei (the only other real competitors here) have been workin' it. Whether making the annual pilgrimage to the Motion Picture & Television Fund's retirement home (while it's still operational) or hitting the Santa Barbara Film Festival or numerous private parties, the ladies have been making their case.

And it looks like it's working.

There has been enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Viola Davis is ripe for upsetting Cruz whose comic performance in "Barcelona" may not be as appreciated as much as earlier thought.  Tomei is also perceived warmly by Academy voters, but her previous win has hurt her.  Yes, thoughts such as "Is she really deserving of being called a two-time Oscar winner?" do race through voters heads. 

Davis, on the other hand, made the biggest impact in the shortest amount of screen time in "Doubt."  She also has been a steady and solid actor in both TV and movies and the more people who fondly remember you in this town the more votes you get.  It can really be that simple.  So, it may sound like going out on a limb (especially with polls closing tomorrow, Tuesday the 17th at 5 PM P.S.T.), but...

Winner: Viola Davis, "Doubt"

Who do you think will win Best Supporting Actress and Actor? Post your thoughts below.

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

Tuesday:
Best Actor spotlight
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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