Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Remember Oscar Night 1999? Four of the nominees for Best Actor were Nick Nolte, Edward Norton, Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks. Estimable gents all: two previously nominated for Academy Awards, the third considered one of the century’s great stage actors, the fourth a two-time Oscar winner—Tom Bleedin’ Hanks. Yet they all lost to… the previously-little-known Roberto Benigni, for the “Chaplinesque” Holocaust comedy-drama Life Is Beautiful. You may recall that the Italian clown prince jumped up and, instead of strolling down the aisle, gaily stepped on the seat-backs of the Academy glamourati, row by row, until he got to the stage. Benigni’s winning of the Oscar was thought to be every bit as surprising as his acceptance of it. Yet Life Is Beautiful had been showered with laurels from its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, through the critics groups’ prize-giving season and including Best Actor awards from the Screen Actors Guild and the British Academy (BAFTA). Benigni really should have been the favorite.
The Benigni rule applies here. The early talk among Oscar watchers was of a showdown between Ocean’s Eleven buddies Clooney and Pitt, both at their mid-career peaks, with Clooney the favorite. But The Artist has won the lion’s share of prizes since its debut at Cannes, where Dujardin was named Best Actor; the French star also took this year’s SAG and BAFTA awards. (And like the Benigni film, The Artist is distributed by Harvey Weinstein, a master masseur of the Oscar system.) Because the movie is favored to win Best Picture, Academy members may decide Dujardin doesn’t need to be cited as well. But the Oscar voters do their loving in bunches, and The Artist, a love letter in mime to classic Hollywood, loved them first. Clooney and Pitt will be around for a while; this may be the Academy’s only chance to pay tribute to the très charmant Dujardin.
Indeed, the real upset would be if Best Actor went to Bichir, the other foreigner whose performance in A Better Life hits the Oscar buttons of poignance and nobility. If that happens, we promise to gallop across desk tops at the TIME offices.