Sunday's Academy Awards will end up being a coronation for a select few actors and actresses. In a perfect world, the supporting categories would mean that the lesser-sung performers in the Hollywood ecosystem would finally get their moment in the spotlight, but that's rarely 100% true. This year, plucky characters like Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence find themselves in the running against actual newbies like Barkhad Abdi and Lupita Nyong'o (along with veterans getting their first shot at the spotlight like June Squibb). 

Thankfully, star power is but one factor in the odd formula that makes up Oscar voting decisions. Who's up for a deep five into the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories? The big questions of Oscar night will be whether Jennifer Lawrence will win back-to-back Oscars, and whether a 30 Seconds to Mars frontman can be the pinnacle of thespian skill for 2013.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Why They’re Here: Barkhad Abdi is the classic unknown who rides in with a performance opposite Hollywood royalty and holds his own. He hasn’t been around long enough to piss anybody off. He makes voters feel good about themselves because their nomination has given him a career highlight. Bradley Cooper is a borderline lead in a movie that’s basically an excuse for actors to go hog-wild, and actors (the largest branch in the Academy) love that. Fassbender was arguably overdue for a nomination, and the Academy has a long history of loving villains in this category. Jonah Hill has apparently charmed the Hollywood establishment with his ability to latch onto giant A-listers like Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio and not embarrass himself by comparison. Jared Leto ticked off quite a few boxes on the awardability checklist, including physical transformation, performing well beyond what were perceived as his limits, and dying nobly.

Which Nomination Will Be Hardest to Remember in a Year: If I'm taking a Sporcle quiz or other such test of Oscar trivia and am asked to name this category's nominees, which one will I have the hardest time recalling? It's tempting to say Jonah Hill, the least of this year's performances. But the curiosity of Hill being a two-time Oscar nominee will probably keep him on the brain for a bit. Remembering the nominees in any other category will lead me to Cooper. Ditto Fassbender. Not so for Barkhad Abdi, unless Hollywood does right by him.

Who Should Be Here Instead: SAG nominee James Gandolfini (Enough Said) and Golden Globe nominee Daniel Bruhl probably hold the biggest claims to the “snub” designation. Chris Cooper was probably one big scene short of getting attention for his very good work in August: Osage County. One of these days, we'll all realize what a treasure Bill Nighy is, and on that day, we will celebrate performances like his in About Time

Historical Precedents the Nominees Should Cling To:   

  • For Barkhad Abdi, Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds in 2009 (first-time nominee and sole representative of his Best Picture-nominated film; heretofore unknown in America; playing an antagonist who becomes something a bit more)
  • For Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale in The Fighter in 2010 (borderline lead in a David O. Russell film that the Academy showered with acting nominations)
  • For Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men in 2007 (featured villain in a Best Picture frontrunner)
  • For Jonah Hill, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 (vulgar sidekick in a polarizing Best Picture nominee)
  • For Jared Leto, Tim Robbins in Mystic River in 2003 (swept all the precursor awards and won in tandem with his Best Actor co-star Sean Penn) 

The Real Contenders: In all honestly, this should be Jared Leto and no one else, but for the sake of a good argument, let's say that Barkhad Abdi winning the BAFTA means that he has a bit of momentum as an outsider. But really, this award has been wrapped up since Leto swept the New York and L.A. critics awards back in December. 

Fun with Stats: If Leto does win, he'll be only the sixth Best Supporting Actor to sweep the New York critics, L.A. critics, Golden Globe, and Oscar, after Melvyn Douglas (Being There), Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment),  Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). 

Prediction: Jared Leto

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Why They're Here: Sally Hawkins was the beneficiary of a whole bunch of scenes with the presumed Best Actress frontrunner, and maaaaybe a little bit of residual guilt that she didn't get nominated for Happy Go Lucky in 2008. Jennifer Lawrence is an unstoppable cultural force whose popularity among young and old and and (most importantly) people who make buckets of money off of highly profitable film franchises and their stars is insanely high. Also she gives an incredibly flashy performance, one whose verve often masks its shaky fundamentals. Nyong'o is an exciting fresh face and a crucial component of 12 Years a Slave's most indelible scenes. Roberts is a co-lead and giant superstar engaging in an actressing pas de deux with her other co-lead in a movie engineered to make actors envious. Squibb is an incredibly likeable, sassy old person, who manages to remain likeable when she's playing incredibly mean, sassy old people.

Which Nomination Will Be Hardest to Remember in a Year: June Squibb won't be the most household name after the 2013 Oscars have come and gone. But I wonder if Hawkins is so overshadowed by Blanchett that her nomination will fade as the years go on.

Who Should Be Here Instead: For all the Best Picture love shown to Her, it's a shame none of that could trickle down to its supporting actresses. The resistance to a voice-only performance like Scarlett Johansson's is understandable (if misguided), but Amy Adams would have been just as worthy. Neither Allison Janney (The Way Way Back) or Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) were in films that were remotely on the Academy's radar, but certainly Fruitvale Station was on the fringes of awards discussion, making the omissions of Spirit Award nominee Melonie Diaz and National Board of Review winner Octavia Spencer sting. And, of course, there's Oprah. SAG nominated for her work in The Butler, her star power could not stack up to the white-hot intensity of Sally Hawkins or June Squibb.

Historical Precedents the Nominees Should Cling To:   

  • For Sally Hawkins, Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love in 1998 (the last time Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress came from the same movie)
  • For Jennifer Lawrence, NO ONE (no one has ever won an Oscar in a supporting category the year after they won in a lead category)
  • For Lupita Nyong'o, Juliette Binoche in The English Patient in 1996 (featured supporting player in a Best Picture frontrunner who managed to best the far more famous contender standing in her way)
  • For Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago in 2002 (incredibly famous actress slumming it in the supporting category for a co-star who won't win Best Actress anyway)
  • For June Squibb, Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck in 1987 (lippy old woman played by likeable veteran actress)

The Real Contenders: This is easily the tightest of the four acting races, with Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong'o headed for a photo finish. The precursor season has lined up almost exactly 50/50, with Lawrence taking the New York Film Critics, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA, while Nyong'o took the L.A. Film Critics, the SAG Award, and the Broadcast Film Critics. Lawrence is still facing the problem that she won just last year, and the Oscars are very reticent to hand out back-to-back wins. By all indications, Lawrence and/or her camp know that a win for her wouldn't really be much of a help to her career and indeed may well push that impending backlash against her past the precipice. Will the Oscar voters do the best thing for everyone involved and reward Nyong'o (the better performance anyway)?

Fun with Stats: Of the eight women who have won Best Supporting Actress for their feature film debuts (Lupita Nyong'o would be the ninth), only Mercedes McCaimbridge and Gale Sondergaard were ever nominated again. 

Prediction: Hold your breath until Christoph Waltz opens that envelope, but I think it'll be Lupita Nyong'o, in the end.