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Oscars: Will the strong, silent type win Best Actor?

Monday - 2/20/2012, 4:51am  ET

Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON - Oscar week is upon us, so each day, we're handicapping the race to help with your Oscar party pools. We start with a look at the "Best Actor" category, a strong class where a true underdog is emerging as the front-runner.

Who Should Win: Jean Dujardin ("The Artist")

Who Will Win: Jean Dujardin ("The Artist")

Jean Dujardin - "The Artist"

French actor Jean Dujardin has risen out of obscurity to win two bellwethers in the Oscar race, the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, for his role in "The Artist." He plays George Valentin, a silent movie star who worries that talking pictures will ruin his career in 1927 Hollywood. He must weigh his career against his heart, when his actress love interest (Berenice Bejo) finds a budding career in the very movie technology that has silenced his stardom.

Dujardin's performance explores similar territory as Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950). Unlike Swanson, Dujardin has to do it without dialogue, as "The Artist" is itself a silent movie. He deserves to win for his ability to express his character's thoughts and feelings without words, relying solely on facial expressions and body language. He also echoes Fred Astaire in a few tap-dance numbers that make his performance all the more impressive.

George Clooney - "The Descendants"

While Dujardin won the Golden Globe for "Best Actor - Comedy/Musical," George Clooney won "Best Actor - Drama" for "The Descendants." It's the most emotional performance of his career, playing the heir of a Hawaiian land trust, who at the time of a big sale, must deal with the loss of his comatose wife. While spreading the news of her impending death, he uncovers a family secret that changes his opinion of his wife and helps him reconnect with his impressionable daughters.

Clooney would be the odds-on favorite if he hadn't already tasted Oscar gold for "Syriana" (2005). However, that win was for Best Supporting Actor, so don't be surprised if the Academy gives him the top acting prize this time. His role in "The Descendants" continues to disprove the "pretty face" stereotype that was put to bed long ago with "Good Night and Good Luck" (2005), "Michael Clayton" (2007), "Up in the Air" (2009) and "The Ides of March" (2011), for which he is also nominated this year for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Brad Pitt - "Moneyball"

Clooney's "Oceans" pal Brad Pitt was also in two movies this year, the mainstream sports flick "Moneyball" and the acclaimed art tapestry "The Tree of Life." The latter contains his better performance of the two, as a hard-nosed father in post-war suburbia. Ironically, his Oscar nomination comes for "Moneyball," playing the stat-driven general manager of the Oakland A's trying to raise a daughter and change the way baseball teams are built.

It's times like these I wish the Academy went back to awarding Oscars for an actor's entire body of work in a given year, rather than a single film. This approach has already earned Pitt the Best Actor prize by the National Society of Film Critics, who awarded him for both "Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life." No matter, Pitt's Oscar is long overdue after "Thelma and Louise" (1991), "Se7en" (1995), "Twelve Monkeys" (1995, Oscar nominated), "Fight Club" (1999) and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008, Oscar nominated). Unfortunately, his role as the manager in "Moneyball" pales in comparison to these roles. A Brad Pitt win this year would be one in a long line of make-up Oscars.

Gary Oldman - "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

The dark horse in the race is Gary Oldman for the spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." You know him as Sirius Black from the "Harry Potter" series. In "Tinker Tailor," he plays a veteran spy who tracks a Soviet agent and shares the screen with last year's Best Actor winner, Colin Firth ("The King's Speech"). The film was directed by Tomas Alfredson, who got great performances out of two child actors in the horror masterpiece "Let the Right One In" (2008), which was remade for Hollywood as "Let Me In" (2010). This time, it's Alfredson doing the remaking, updating the 1979 BBC television series starring Alec Guinness. Those are impossible shoes to fill, from "Star Wars" (1977) to "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), but Oldman fills them admirably, earning his first Oscar nomination for a most subtle performance.

Demian Bichir - "A Better Life"

Rounding out the bunch is Mexican-native Demian Bichir for "A Better Life." He plays a hardworking landscaper raising a kid amidst gang violence and fears of deportation in contemporary Los Angeles. It's the first Oscar nomination for Bichir, who's been steadily rising the ranks with such roles as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che" (2008) and a recurring role on TV's "Weeds" (2008-2010). While the film is the least known of all the films up for Best Actor, Bichir's performance may be the best socio-economic commentary.

Countdown to the Oscars: Join WTOP for an in-depth look at all nine Best Picture nominees every Wednesday and Friday until the Academy Awards on February 26.

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, and check out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)