By Phil Wallace

The nominees for Best Supporting Actor include portrayals of a rugby star, an army captain, a child rapist/murderer, a Nazi colonel, and Leo Tolstoy. Four of the nominees are fairly well-known to American movie buffs, but it’s an unknown actor who is heavily favored in this category.

First we have Matt Damon for Invictus. This is Damon’s second acting nomination, the first being for Good Will Hunting 12 years ago (he won the original screenplay Oscar with Ben Affleck). Damon plays South African rugby star Francois Pienaar, who was the captain of the World Cup champion 1995 team and became a friend of Nelson Mandela. Damon did a decent job of playing Pienaar, but his performance is completely overshadowed by Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela.

Perhaps, I’m not familiar enough with South African rugby players, but despite gaining considerable muscle for the part, Damon seemed to make Pienaar appear weak. He’s hardly the inspiring leader one would expect from an underdog champion, and his teammates don’t really seem interested in what he has to say. His manner in convincing the Springboks to buy into Mandela’s vision is, well, unconvincing. Still, I guess he had the accent down. In reality, Damon is nominated for the wrong role, as he should have earned a Best Actor nomination for The Informant!

Second, is Woody Harrelson for The Messenger. This is Harrelson’s second Oscar nomination, the first being for Best Actor in The People vs. Larry Flynt 13 years ago. 2009 has been a comeback year of sorts for Harrelson, who hasn’t done anything significant on the silver screen for most of the past decade. But the former Cheers star won fans with Zombieland and his role in The Messenger has won rave reviews.

Still, it’s hard to see Harrelson winning this category. Despite a series of more serious roles in recent years, he’s viewed as a goofball by much of the Hollywood establishment. Additionally, The Messenger was not widely seen, and given its few nominations in other categories, it’s highly probable that Academy voters won’t even bother to watch the DVD.

The third nominee is Christopher Plummer for The Last Station. It’s hard to believe, but this is Plummer’s first Oscar nomination and it comes at age 80. (He does have two Tony Awards though.) If Plummer has any chance, it’s because the Academy wants to honor this incredibly talented and well-respected actor while they have the opportunity. But unfortunately for Plummer, few people saw The Last Station, and while I’m sure his portrayal of Leo Tolstoy was excellent, he was considered a borderline nominee to begin with.

Next we have Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones. Surprisingly, this is also Tucci’s first nomination, and it comes at age 49. Many Oscar pundits I’ve spoken with believe that Tucci is nominated for the wrong part here, as he won plaudits for his role in Julie and Julia. In The Lovely Bones, Tucci offers a chilling performance as a child rapist/murderer. But unfortunately for Tucci, most critics felt his acting was the only good thing about the movie. Historically the Academy punishes good nominees in bad movies, and it looks like that will fell Tucci here.

Finally, we have Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds. Completely unknown in the U.S. just six months ago, Waltz quickly endeared himself to the Hollywood establishment for his portrayal of the viscous and opportunistic Colonel Landa. Waltz deftly switches between English, German, and French in the film, and remarkably adds tension to his every scene through his weirdly calm behavior.

Waltz does a perfect job of playing the film’s super villain Nazi, who is ultimately out for himself and cares little for others. Inglourious Basterds simply doesn’t work without him.  Just last year, Waltz was a struggling Austrian actor, who predominantly appeared in “B”-rate German television programs. But Quentin Tarantino unearthed a star when he found Waltz, and now he’s well on his way to appearing in multiple star-studded American films.

After winning the SAG, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA, it’s hard to see anyone besides Waltz winning the Oscar. And quite frankly, he deserves it too.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!