Can evil Jake Gyllenhaal (‘Nightcrawler’) snatch Oscar away from heroic rivals?

In “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a narcissistic, opportunistic and perhaps psychotic Los Angeles journalist, who ruthlessly hunts down bloody crime video to sell to a ratings-hungry local TV station. The film and his performance have earned great reviews (76 on MetaCritic, 94% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes), but is the role too evil for Gyllenhaal to break into the Best Actor Oscar? Or will his villainy help him stand out from the competition?

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Best Actor is often filled with do-gooders and heroic biographical figures, and this year is no exception. The race includes laudable real-life subjects like physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) in “The Theory of Everything,” persecuted code-breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) in “The Imitation Game,” civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in “Selma,” and famed painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) in “Mr. Turner,” to name a few.

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There’s one other noteworthy villain in the mix: Steve Carell as unstable billionaire John du Pont in “Foxcatcher,” though the character’s isolation and possible mental illness could make him more pitiable than diabolical.

Other roles in the race are morally ambiguous, like Joaquin Phoenix as a pot-smoking detective in “Inherent Vice” and Michael Keaton as a vain actor in “Birdman,” but they’re mostly sympathetic. That leaves Gyllenhaal as perhaps the only bona fide baddie in contention.

Villains have been known to win Oscars in recent years. Charismatic, theatrical supporting roles like Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds,” Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” and Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” all appealed to the academy with their portrayals of unrepentant evil.

Every once in a while, a bad guy (or girl) wins the lead race also. Consider Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Kathy Bates in “Misery,” Charlize Theron in “Monster,” Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland,” and Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood.” Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom would probably get along well with Denzel Washington‘s corrupt detective Alonzo Harris from “Training Day,” who also left a trail of destruction through the streets of L.A. on his way to a Best Actor Oscar.

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But they’re still the exception and not the rule. Nice guys still tend to finish first, like recent champs Matthew McConaughey as crusading AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” Colin Firth as stuttering George VI in “The King’s Speech,” and Sean Penn as pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk in “Milk.”

One thing’s for sure: Lou Bloom wouldn’t hesitate to step over Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing to grab awards for himself, but will the academy let him? Use our drag-and-drop menu below to make your predictions.

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