The weird way the awards lined up this year, like someone moving the cat bowl, has set an unpredictability in motion most of us have never experienced. ”I just want unpredictability” people always say. Well, be careful what you wish for because when predictability goes out the window so does your ability to accurately predict the race. Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Critics Choice award for Best Lead Supporting Actor, Christoph Waltz won the Best Lead Supporting Actor for the Golden Globes and Tommy Lee Jones won the Best Supporting Supporting Actor from the Screen Actors Guild. Usually, only one wins all three and then wins the Oscar. That makes it a totally wide open race. Coming on strong, and maybe the only contender who is doing so, is Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook. It had been expected, Silver Linings, with its four acting nominations would have handily won the SAG ensemble, taking De Niro with it. But Tommy Lee Jones was the surprise winner there. Funnily enough, Supporting Actor, like Adapted Screenplay, pits three movies against each other once again: Lincoln, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. You might think that what wins in this category could be an early sign of what will win Best Picture. But it also might be that what wins here wins precisely because it isn’t going to win Best Picture. One thing’s for sure, for the first time in a very long time the name that gets read at the Oscars will feel like a surprise. The Globes and the SAGs tend to divide evenly as to which is the better precursor, with a slight edge given to SAG. That would place the contenders sort of like this: 1. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln (won 18 years ago for The Fugitive) 2. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (won 3 years ago for Inglorious Basterds) 3. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master (won 6 years ago for Capote) Even steven: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook (won lead 31 years ago for Raging Bull and supporting 37 years ago for Godfather II) Alan Arkin, Argo (won 5 years ago for Little Miss Sunshine) All five of these, it must be said, are equally brilliant. There is really no other way to say it. In a year with so many wonderful supporting turns these are a good representation — but let’s not forget Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained, James Spader in Lincoln, Eddie Redmayne in Les Miserables, John Goodman in Argo and in Flight, and Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty. It’s difficult to measure the lead performances — Hoffman and Waltz — against the supporting ones but that’s the situation we’re in. Waltz, in particular, feels ludicrous in this category. And let it be said you have Weinstein vs. Weinstein. vs. Weinstein. Three supporting actors from Weinstein. It’s not a surprise that Hoffman is nowhere to be seen, Waltz very rarely seen and Robert De Niro EVERYWHERE. Check out Hollywood-Elsewhere’s coverage of De Niro EVERYWHERE. Doing less publicity, or no publicity, is Alan Arkin (“You can go fuck yourself … with all due respect”) and Jones, who showed up at the Globes, did his part, and then got turned into a grumpy cat meme, and then was a no-show at the SAGs. How it all ends up, I don’t know. Are they really not going to give it to De Niro when he’s doing the Jeff Bridges-Meryl Streep hardcore campaigning? I still say it’s anyone’s game but let’s talk about the performances. 1. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist who stands at the opposing end from President Lincoln, doesn’t agree with him in any way but is forced to work with him in order to help pass the 13th Amendment, which felt like insurmountable task. Jones has many great scenes (“It’s late, I’m old.”) but probably his best scene is when he’s forced to say: “I don’t hold with equality in all things only with equality before the law and nothing more.” He is then confronted with “That’s not so! You believe that Negroes are entirely equal to white men. You’ve said it a thousand times.” And Stevens must repeat, “I don’t hold with equality in all things only with equality before the law and nothing more.” Like many of Jones’ best scenes in Lincoln what happens happens internally; we see how hard it is for him to have this chance to say what he really believes to be true but he has a higher goal in mind. He knows if he comes off as a raving abolitionist the cause is finished. But he does get this in: “How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits impermeable to reason with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood! You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!” And that is probably why he’s such a powerful supporting actor contender: he comes to us like a warm embrace, the only one who is allowed the opportunity to lay into one of the most staunch racists in Congress. Even if Lincoln hovered somewhere in between Thaddeus Stevens did not. Jones also quietly gave probably one of the best performances of his career this year in Hope Springs opposite Meryl Streep. Tender, revealing, moving — it was all but ignored. But that performance helps this performance because the two are so different. Jones’ Stevens is a hard-shelled politician who wants to change the world. His husband in Hope Springs had to be unearthed from years of hiding his feelings. It was quite a year for Mr. Jones all around. I think he is the frontrunner to win this, whether Lincoln wins any other Oscars or not. 2. Robert De Niro — De Niro gets bumped not because he’s won anything but because he’s getting the Meryl Streep treatment from last year and when the Weinstein Co goes after Oscar this hard it rarely fails. They’re now going for two of the three acting Oscars they’re nominated for — Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, in addition to continuing to push hard for Silver Linings to win Best Picture. De Niro plays Bradley Cooper’s OCD dad who believes in the juju of football, gambles and tries to help his son control his bi-polar mood disorder. He is someone who has lived with it and really just wants his son to have a happy life. De Niro is a great actor but usually he’s rewarded for playing more serious roles, like Jake LaMotta (“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, I haven’t had a winner in six months.”) and the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II. He’s never really been rewarded for his comedic work, and for me, at the top of the list was his Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy (“What about when I gave you my SPOT!”) One of the reasons I don’t think he’s won yet for Silver Linings is because people confuse this part with his work in Meet the Parents. But the old Dave Karger rule could apply here, which is, “if they want to give the movie something,” De Niro could be that something. Usually there is only room for one major standout and in Silver Linings it’s Jennifer Lawrence. That’s another reason. Still, hardcore campaigning can close the gap. 3. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained — One of the most delightful things about Django, though pause to reflect how the film’s best performance, Jamie Foxx, was roundly ignored. To me, Foxx was the standout. Waltz was great but doing what he always does — charm the pants off of us with funny, elaborate stories. ”And this is my horse Fritz!” The collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz is so good it’s on the level of Scorsese and De Niro even. Waltz just knows how to say those lines. But the Weinstein Co. ain’t going to campaign against themselves with Waltz so if he wins it won’t be because of that. Waltz is funny throughout Django Unchained and offers the film much of its heart as he seems to speak about things no one else does — the notion of owning another human being and then being the person who frees him. Waltz’ best scene is the one where he and Django are hidden in a saloon and waiting for the town’s sheriff. The whole scene is just so brilliantly written. What he does for a living — bounty hunter — juxtaposes with his gentle nature and makes for a very complex character, albeit a lead. 4. Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master — It’s a shame that The Master was sort of overlooked by the awards community. In fact, it was hated by many. It’s not really a plug and play movie and requires an active viewer, like many of the year’s best films. But Hoffman’s bizarre L. Ron Hubbard incarnation is one of his best ever. His job to put one over on his followers, to make them think he knows what he’s talking about. Hoffman’s job is to let us know that he doesn’t. But again, it’s a Weinstein Co. campaign and they’re not going to push hard for it with De Niro out front like that. There are so many wonderful films that were swallowed this year because they didn’t fit into this year’s themes in the films that struck a chord with voters. The Master was one of those. Amour seemed to overshadow it in terms of critics’ love and Django Unchained took the There Will Be Blood slot this year and The Master dangles in the periphery, soon to be discovered long after the dust settles where it will remain, admired for years to come. ”Admired not loved,” if there ever was a phrase during awards season I hated above all others, that would be it. 5. Alan Arkin in Argo — It’s hard not love to Alan Arkin even when he’s just playing Alan Arkin as he always does. He slips right into Argo as neatly as a glove and of course, along with John Goodman, has all of the film’s best lines. ”I took a leak next to him at the Golden Globes.” It is a charming, likable performance but not a particularly deep one. He’s probably the one contender that you might think, well if he wins, that signals Argo is about to win Best Picture. His best scene, of course, is when he’s talking to the agent to try to get the rights to the screenplay for Argo, and gets to say my favorite line, “If I’m going to produce a fake movie it’s going to be a fake hit.” But it really does feel like a wide open race. For the first time ever since I’ve been covering the awards, save for the days when the Oscars were held in March, like back before 2003, there is more time to ruminate on the frontrunners as ballots don’t even go out until the 8th, three days from now. That seems like a long time for voters to ruminate — which means campaigning is going to go into overdrive. With supporting actor, like many of the other categories, it’s a cliffhanger, my friends. I don’t expect to do very well at all with my predictions but for now I’m sticking with Mr. Jones.