Barkhad Abdi (‘Captain Phillips’) rises dramatically in Supporting Actor Oscar race

Seemingly overnight, Barkhad Abdi has become a top Oscar contender for Best Supporting Actor. He received a lot of positive attention upon the release of “Captain Phillips” in October, but a lack of name recognition combined with the short attention span of the awards season caused him to be mostly disregarded as a possible contender. I myself predicted him early on, only to move him lower and lower and finally off my list. Suffice it to say he’s back on my list now.

I say it happened overnight, but it actually happened over a couple of mornings: first when he was nominated for a SAG Award on December 11, and then 24 hours later when he was nominated at the Golden Globes.

After those nominations, he rose up quicklyl in our Experts’ predictions. On Dec. 10, he was in seventh place with 33/1 odds. By Dec. 15, he was in the top five and his odds improved to 16/1. He showed up again in the Critics’ Choice Award nominations on Dec. 16 and the next day was in fourth place with 12/1 odds. As of January 3, he’s in third place. (See the changes for yourself by going to our Best Supporting Actor chart page. Scroll down and change the calendar dates.)

The months following “Captain Phillips'” release brought excitement for films like “Nebraska,” “American Hustle,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” each with potential Supporting Actor contenders with bigger names, and maybe that’s why we expected Abdi to get lost in the shuffle.

But the factors that made him a contender in the first place hadn’t changed. As the leader of a group of Somali pirates, he’s the film’s primary antagonist, but he’s more than a stock villain. The audience is invited to identify with him, if not exactly root for him, and he holds his own opposite star Tom Hanks.

The strength of the film itself didn’t hurt. It’s a heroic against-the-odds thriller, critically acclaimed (83 on MetaCritic) and also a popular hit ($104 million domestic, double that worldwide), helmed by a prestigious director (“United 93” Oscar nominee Paul Greengrass).

Assuming he’s safe for a nomination, can Abdi actually win? The closest comparison is probably Haing S. Ngor, who won Supporting Actor in 1984 for “The Killing Fields.” Like Abdi, Ngor was a foreign-born actor making his film debut in a true story about his nation of birth – Ngor from Cambodia, Abdi from Somalia.

But Abdi will have to get past Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club“), who has swept up most critics awards, and Michael Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave“), who features in a Best Picture-frontrunner. That may be difficult, but not impossible. As Tom O’Neil explained, we’ve been underestimating “Captain Phillips” all along.

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