Memorably, it was Brody who stormed the Kodak stage. This year's race could be shaping up into a battle royal of similar proportions with an unusually large number of major stars with serious Oscar pedigrees vying for the five available nomination slots.
This is a pretty daunting lineup to crack for indie actors without any Oscar clout. There is a slim-to-none chance that any more than one actor in the smaller, well-regarded independent movies can get a foothold in the race.
Those "Davids" fighting for a slot include the never-nominated John Cusack in the Weinstein Co.'s quiet family drama "Grace Is Gone"; critically acclaimed newcomer Sam Riley in Weinstein's black-and-white music biopic, "Control"; young Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild"; last year's "Half Nelson" indie contender Ryan Gosling in "Lars and the Real Girl"; irregularly seen Josh Brolin, who anchors "No Country for Old Men"; and veteran stage actor Frank Langella in Roadside Attractions' Sundance favorite, "Starting Out in the Evening."
Relative newcomer, certainly to the Oscar game, James McAvoy of the much buzzed about December release "Atonement" could have the best shot this year. It's likely that his front-running movie will score multiple nominations and could sweep him in. Critically lauded performances by Benicio Del Toro ("Things We Lost in the Fire") and Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises") could get them included, although their films had short box-office stays.
A real stunner could be Chris Cooper from the February entry "Breach," which is hampered by its early release date. "The academy historically has never shied away from the big star," said veteran Oscar consultant and academy member Tony Angellotti. But he cautions that lesser known actors in smaller movies can break through if they make a strong emotional connection with the audience.
"I was at the official academy screening of 'The Pianist' on a Sunday night. There were only about 200 people there but they were walking out in tears. I knew then Brody had a chance," Angellotti said.
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Acclaim from critics groups and their awards can also make a difference for the underdogs, making them seem as inevitable as any of the bigger names in contention. That happened last year when Forest Whitaker won every pre-award in sight for "The Last King of Scotland."
Another big plus for an underdog in a tight race is having a distributor behind you that is determined to bring home Oscar nominations to help boost the box office of their smaller films. No one has done this more successfully than Harvey Weinstein, who delivered three best picture winners to Miramax and got Oscars for scores of actors who weren't necessarily household names when they won.
This year the Weinstein Co. mogul is trying hard to work his magic again with smaller films like "Grace Is Gone," "Control" and "I'm Not There," with its much touted performance by Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan. "Intimate, character-driven films give talented actors like John Cusack, Sam Riley and Cate Blanchett the unique opportunity to display their incredible talents in a profound way -- a way that deeply moves audiences," Weinstein says. "Often, more high-profile and high-budget films don't afford actors that type of opportunity. "It's important to me that these [indie] artists receive the recognition they deserve," Weinstein says.
And he's not necessarily talking about the Independent Spirit Awards when he says it.
Pete Hammond's "Notes on a Season" appears Thursdays on TheEnvelope.com.