Nominees: Josh Brolin, Milk; Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt; Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight; Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Prediction: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Peter Finch died in January 1977, about a month before he was nominated for Best Actor as the loony anchorman in Network; he became the first deceased artiste to win an acting Oscar. Ledger died, at 28, a year ago today. He will be the second. The trifecta of his performance's impact, the movie's blockbuster status and the Academy's sentimental necrophilia makes this close to a sure thing.
His reading of the Joker instantly obliterated Jack Nicholson's version in the 1989 Batman, and even Cesar Romero's on the '60s TV show. It would be a masterfully creepy achievement and an Academy contender even if it weren't preceded by the shocking news of Ledger's demise. Awarding his work here will also atone, in a way, for the Academy's oversight of Ledger's very deserving performance as Ellis in Brokeback Mountain.
Robbed: Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading
Quietly, and with insufficient recognition, Thespian McDreamy has built an imposing record with some cool and dangerous choices. Just in the past few years, he's played the frantic husband in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, the restless, doomed outlaw in that pensive Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and, of course, Benjamin Button, who learns that life is worth living in reverse. Maybe Pitt's biggest surprise was as the doofus spa-boy Chad Feldheimer in this Coen brothers quasi-comedy. While some of the movie's attempts at boffo laffs misfire, Pitt was brilliant in the role of a pleasant imbecile. All the ingenuous star quality he parades in Benjamin Button, he sits on here. The loosey-goosey walk he masters is the funniest thing in the picture.