Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actor is often a category that rewards some distinguished elderly gent — the oldest guy on the list — with a hail-and-farewell prize. Two years ago, Christopher Plummer, then 82, became the most senior recipient of an actor Oscar when he took the Supporting statuette for Beginners. Other examples: John Houseman, 70, for The Paper Chase in 1973; George Burns, 78, for The Sunshine Boys in 1975; Melvyn Douglas, 78, for Being There in 1979; John Gielgud, 76, for Arthur in 1981; Don Ameche, 76, for Cocoon in 1985; Jack Palance, 71, for City Slickers in 1991; and Alan Arkin, 71, for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Arkin was a Supporting Actor finalist again last year, at 78, for Argo, when the average age of the five nominees — Arkin, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones and the eventual winner, Christoph Waltz — was 63.
This year, though, youth must be served: the nominees' average age is 35. To emphasize that they are still in their tender years, the dates whom Cooper and Leto brought to earlier award ceremonies were their mothers. (Leonardo DiCaprio and Joaquin Phoenix took their moms, too.) But one Oscar tradition won't change. The winner will be the oldest nominee: Jared Leto, 42.
Abdi, 28, was born in Somalia, moved to Yemen as a kid with his family and to Minneapolis when he was 14. Working as a chauffeur, with no acting experience or intentions, he was cast as the lead of the pirate crew kidnapping Captain Phillips. (The Academy also likes the young and inexperienced; last year the nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis got a Best Actress nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a role she filmed when she was six.) Instead of driving stars to the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night, Abdi will be chauffeured to a prime seat inside.
Hill, 30, has the snazziest résumé, at least as a box office attraction; the films he's appeared in have grossed $2 billion in domestic theaters. Sometimes he's the lead, as in the hits Superbad and 21 Jump Street, but he's also proven to be a canny chooser of supporting roles; he received an Oscar nomination two years ago as Brad Pitt's nerdy numbers-cruncher in Moneyball. An inexhaustible campaigner, Hill is making the most of working for his ideal director, Martin Scorsese, in the role of DiCaprio's sleazy second banana in The Wolf of Wall Street. He's living the fantasy life of any pudgy kid who spent his teen summers at theater camp — but this particular dream will end in disappointment on March 2.
Fassbender, 36, should have been a big star by now. The German-Irish actor has the good looks (he resembles a younger Plummer) and smoldering charisma to light up any marquee. But in between his young-Magneto roles in X-Men movies he has chosen to headline in intimate dramas (Hunger, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, Shame) and play supporting parts in bigger films (Inglourious Basterds, Prometheus). His Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave is a pure-bred psychosadist, nearly whipping the life out of the one person he loves: Patsey the slave (Lupita Nyong'o). This portrait of stupendous malice has won Fassbender more admirers but, we're guessing, not enough Oscar votes.
(READ: Jessica Winter's profile of Michael Fassbender)
Cooper, 39, has ripened — more quickly and a little less spectacularly than Matthew McConaughey — from a reliable presence in comedies and rom-coms to a top-level dramatic actor. (Less spectacularly, because McConaughey renounced mainstream fare in favor of indie films.) Cooper, leading man of the three Hangover farces, did establish some indie bona fides last year in Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines. But his great good luck was to hook up with director David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook and, the jackpot, American Hustle.
(READ: Our review of American Hustle)
Cooper's Richie diMaso, an FBI agent in hair-curlers, puts the Abscam sting in motion and watches it flourish and fester around him. In a movie with four sensational lead roles, Cooper drew the Supporting straw and earned his second consecutive Oscar nomination, after making the Best Actor shortlist in 2013 with Silver Linings Playbook. Where did his luck run out? In facing prohibitive favorites each time: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and Leto this year. Alas, Cooper is no more likely to take the Oscar from Leto than he was, say, to outscore a two-year-old boy in a basketball game...
The night of Dallas Buyers Club's world premiere last September at the Toronto Film Festival, most of those in the audience were floored first by McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodroof — the actor lost between 30 and 40 pounds to play the homophobe who fell victim to HIV and traveled the world to find AIDS treatments unapproved in the U.S. — and then by Leto as Rayon, the delicate transsexual with a heroic soul. As it happens, Leto had gained 62 pounds back in 2007 to play Mark David Chapman, the world-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, in Chapter 27. When he lost the weight too quickly after the filming, Leto was diagnosed with gout. (Actors are cool. Actors are crazy.) As Rayon, he virtually swept the critics groups' awards late last year and took the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe prizes — all well earned.
(READ: Our review of Dallas Buyers Club)
Leto, who deserved but didn't get an Oscar nomination for his role as a Brooklyn junkie in Darren Aronofsky's 2000 Requiem for a Dream, devotes most of his energy to fronting the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars. On stage at the Dallas Buyers premiere, he mentioned it had been five or six years between movie roles and added flirtatiously, "How can you miss me if I never go away?"
You won't be able to miss Leto on Oscar night. He'll be the one receiving the Best Supporting Actor award. We hope he brings his mom.