If our current prediction center odds hold true, the Oscar for Best Actor will be a three-way race between Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"), John Hawkes ("The Sessions"), and Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master"). A lot can happen between now and February, but all three actors have history on their side: each plays a type of role that has won acting Oscars in the past.
It's no secret that the Academy loves actors who play real people, especially actors who undergo significant transformations to inhabit their roles (see also: Charlize Theron in "Monster," Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," etc.). Playing well-known figures is particularly advantageous, because actors can show off their skills by successfully mimicking recognizable mannerisms.
World leaders are even further advantaged by stories with built-in social, historical, or political import. Firth's Best Actor-winning performance as stuttering King George VI was set against England's entry into World War II. George C. Scott's winning performance in "Patton" also took place during WWII. Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death.
Day-Lewis's as-yet unseen performance as the United States's 16th president has an equally significant historical context: his Lincoln ends slavery and leads the Union to victory during the Civil War. He currently leads our Oscar predictions with 21 to 10 odds.
But playing a famous historical figure isn't a foolproof method of winning an Oscar. Just last year, Leonardo DiCaprio was considered a Best Actor frontrunner for playing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar," but his hopes were dashed when the film was released to mixed reviews and disappointing box office.
Substance abuse is a recurring theme in Hollywood, both on-screen and off, and the altered states and painful withdrawal symptoms inherent in addiction pose challenges for actors that Oscar voters frequently honor. When such characters are also famous figures, actors can often hit pay dirt. Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") and Jamie Foxx ("Ray") both won for playing famous musicians with substance-abuse problems.
Phoenix, a two-time Oscar nominee, earned his second bid in 2005 for "Walk the Line," in which he played legendary singer Johnny Cash, who abused amphetamines and barbiturates. This year he plays a fictional addict in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." His Freddie Quell is such a heavy drinker he has graduated from mere alcohol to torpedo fuel and paint thinner. Partly as the result of his constant inebriation, he is volatile and prone to outbursts, providing Phoenix with opportunities to deliver the kind of showy emotional performance Oscar voters typically love.
Phoenix currently ranks second among our predictors with 23 to 10 odds.
Like playing a well-known historical figure, playing a character with a physical or mental disability provides an actor with an opportunity to showcase his technical as well as emotional acting prowess. Day-Lewis, in this year's race for "Lincoln," won his first Oscar for such a role: he starred in "My Left Foot" as Christy Brown, a real-life writer whose cerebral palsy left him only able to control the title appendage.
Hawkes's role in "The Sessions" is similar: he also plays a real-life writer, Mark O'Brien, who is unable to control his body or breathe on his own as the result of polio contracted as a child. Near 40 and still a virgin, he hires a sex surrogate in order to experience physical intimacy for the first time. The role limits Hawkes's physical movement to just his head and neck. Will awards voters be as impressed by his performance as they were by Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot"?
We currently rank Hawkes third with 9 to 2 odds.