Mahershala Ali “Green Book”
Role: Real-life jazz pianist Don Shirley, who embarks on a risky concert tour of the South.
In his favor: This is Ali at his most urbane, but not far under that sophisticated shell he reveals a painful awareness of his character’s place in pre-Civil Rights Act Dixie. (G/S/B, Globes winner)
Then again: He won this award just two years ago; the Academy might want to spread the spoils around.
Role: Flip Zimmerman, who covers for his black colleague in a perilous ruse.
In his favor: Driver’s earnest deadpan serves him well, both as an empathetic co-worker who has his own skin in the game, and in his role-within-a-role as an unrepentant racist. An impressive twofer. (G/S/B)
Then again: It might be tone-deaf to honor the white man in a film called “BlacKkKlansman.”
“A Star Is Born”
Role: Bobby Maine, brother and manager to a rock star.
In his favor: That voice, a growl so iconic that Bradley Cooper strove to emulate it. Elliott plays Bobby as a stoic punching bag who tells the truths that need to be told. And he’s an old-school actor’s actor of the type the Academy loves to honor. (S)
Then again: He’s eclipsed by the power of the two lead performances.
Richard E. Grant
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Role: Jack Hock, an outcast’s partner in crime and booze.
In his favor: This is a guy you’d love to hang out with, and Grant plays him with unbridled mirth. Swooping in and out of Lee Israel’s orbit, he puts a manic veneer on the loneliness that binds them. His AIDS diagnosis lands as a gut punch to Lee, and to us. (G/S/B)
Then again: Is the jolly gay best friend stereotype played out?
Role: George W. Bush, president of the United States.
In his favor: In a word, he’s a hoot. With his faux-sincere squint and meandering drawl, he gives Bush a good ol’ boy’s air of genial cluelessness — but also political shrewdness, even with pork rinds hanging from his lip. (G/B)
Then again: Could he pull off back-to-back victories? It’s a feat almost as rare as a father and son becoming president.
Michael B. Jordan
Role: Erik Killmonger, threat to Wakanda’s Prince T’Challa.
In his favor: He’s the straw that stirs the drink, the villain who sets the plot in motion. And he’s so charismatic you just can’t root against him.
Then again: “Black Panther” is such an ensemble effort, it seems unfair to single out any actor.