This might take the cake as the year's most unpredictable category. Composed entirely of past winners, there are no narratives of “overdue actor still waiting for first Oscar” to be had. And with a pair of co-lead performances masquerading as supporting amongst true supporting players in popular Best Picture nominees, it leaves the contest as wide open as we've seen in years.
Despite not winning a single critics prize or precursor award, Alan Arkin has been a consistent presence this season for his welcome comic relief in the presumed Best Picture frontrunner Argo. Nominations from BFCA, Globes, SAG, and BAFTA indicated a strong foundation of support for his zinger-spewing producer Lester Siegel, and even though it's arguably the slightest of the nominated five performances, general love for the film could make him one to watch.
Another contender who hasn't won too many precursors but should be considered a stealthy threat for the victory is Robert De Niro for is comically OCD gambler in Silver Linings Playbook. The rationale for De Niro taking this is that of these five previous winners, it's been more time since his last win than the other four – over 30 years ago for Raging Bull! Many new voters in the Academy have never had a chance to vote for this living legend (his last nomination coming in 1992), and a campaign blitz in the last couple of weeks might give him an edge over contenders with less media exposure.
Contenders like, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman, nominated for his fiendishly charismatic turn as a post-war cultist in The Master. Having won the lion's share of critics prizes, and having the unfair advantage of actually being a co-lead performance, you'd think he'd be in better shape, but it seems that the industry as a whole wasn't that taken with the film. Too enigmatic for most, I guess. Strange to think that the best performance of the bunch might be bringing up the rear in terms of the Oscar race, but in this category, this year, anything can happen.
The odds-on favourite seems to be Tommy Lee Jones, who took the SAG Award for his portrayal of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. The film seems to be on the cusp of winning several categories, this one included, but little things might hurt him in a race as tight as this. Things like that silly Internet meme of him looking quite unimpressed at the Golden Globes, or his no-show at the SAG Awards due to illness. They may have no effect after all, and nor should they, but in the absence of a clear frontrunner, the politics of likability could come into play.
Finally, the most recent winner in this tournament of champions is Christoph Waltz, nominated for playing a bounty-hunting German dentist in Django Unchained. His wins at the Golden Globes and BAFTA were necessary boosts of exposure for him and the film, and if voters really feel compelled to award the film somewhere, they could do it here (or Original Screenplay). Co-lead status and the likability of his character may help, but as with all Tarantino films, Django is divisive, and the affectations of Waltz's charming performance may strike some voters as too similar to his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. It was just three years ago.
Will win: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Runner-up: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Should have been nominated: Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower