As awards season enters the last week and a half before Oscar nomination ballots are due, the "great settling," as its been called, isn't yet upon us.  This magical few days or weeks when the collective Academy consciousness coalesces to determine one best picture winner (whether they know it or not) usually occurs before the nominations are announced, but not always.  Yes, "The Artist" is clearly the frontrunner this time around, but its hardly the lock "Slumdog Millionaire" or "The King's Speech" were in recent years.  That could easily change over the next few weeks as guilds such as SAG, PGA and DGA determine their own year end winners.  What's much more intriguing this season, however, are the acting races. 

To be frank, it's been a long time since all four races were still in question at this point in the season.  Usually there is always a category or two that "appears" undetermined all the way up to the show, but there is usually at least another race where the winner has been forecast since November or December.  Recent examples include Helen Mirren for "The Queen," Daniel Day-Lewis for "There Will Be Blood," Mo'Nique for "Precious," Jennifer Hudson for "Dreamgirls," Reese Witherspoon for "Walk the Line," Hilary Swank for "Million Dollar Baby," Heath Ledger for "The Dark Knight" and Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds," among others.  2012 appears to be a completely different story. Obviously, the winds can quickly change if an actor snatches up all three precursor awards (Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA), but it seems highly unlikely when predicting these competitive races.  With that in mind, let's take a look at where the field stands for each acting honor stands today.

BEST ACTRESS

Expected nominees:
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Michelle Williams, "My Week with Marilyn"
Tilda Swinton, "We Need To Talk About Kevin"
Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"

Potential party crashers:
Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Charlize Theron, "Young Adult"

Expected victim: Close

Frontrunner: Davis
Expected Challengers: It's arguably between Streep and Davis and call it a gut instinct, but isn't this where Swinton shocks with a win?  Nah, didn't think so either, but unless Davis sweeps SAG, Globes and BAFTA (likely Swinton's to lose), there will be questions regarding this race until Oscar Sunday.

BEST ACTOR

Expected nominees:
George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Michael Fassbender, "Shame"
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "J. Edgar"

Potential Party crasher:
Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"

Expected victims: DiCaprio or Fassbender

Frontrunner: Clooney or Pitt depending on who you believe
Expected Challengers: It's honestly coming down to the two "Ocean's Eleven" stars, but a split give the win to Dujardin or Fassbender.  If Clooney wins SAG, Pitt wins GG (or flip the results) and Oldman/Fassbender win BAFTA it could be the closest race since Adrien Brody surprised in 2003.  Now, if Pitt or Clooney win both SAG and GG?  Either will immediately, and obviously, become the presumed frontrunner.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Expected nominees:
Octavia Spender, "The Help"
Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
Bérénice Bejo, "The Artist"
Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"

Potential party crashers:
Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"
Sandra Bullock, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Carey Mulligan, "Shame"
Vanessa Redgrave, "Coriolanus"

Expected victim: McTeer or Woodley

Frontrunner: Spencer, but will Chastain's nod cancel out any chance of a win?
Expected Challengers: The double "Help" nods put the entire field in play.  Multiple nominations have happened 12 times since 1980 in this category alone, but a winner between the two has only occurred four times (Melissa Leo for "The Fighter," Jessica Lange for "Tootsie," Dianne Wiest for "Bullets Over Broadway" and Catherine Zeta-Jones for "Chicago,").  And if Spencer doesn't win? Well, if McCarthy makes the cut she might be halfway to EGOT in less than a year (never say never people). Or, more likely, Bejo pulls off a Roberto Benigni and gives "The Artist" an unexpected acting honor.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Expected nominees:
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Kenneth Branagh, "My Weekend with Marilyn"
Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"

Potential party crashers:
Brad Pitt, "The Tree of Life"
Max Von Sydow, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Ben Kingsley, "Hugo"
Viggo Mortensen, "A Dangerous Mind"

Expected victim: Hill

Frontrunner: Plummer, but it's a tenuous lead at best.
Expected Challengers: Brooks has the best shot to beat Plummer, but with "Drive" finding far less major guild support than expected can FilmDistrict really propel him to a win? The bigger question is whether Nolte, who also is long overdue, will make the field.  If he does, he could end becoming the biggest party crasher of them all. 

What do you think of this year's acting races? Share your thoughts below.

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