The recipient of the Oscar is marked with a (*).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine*
Arkin is a veteran actor, and he landed a plum role as Grandpa in this dysfunctional family road film. He's hilariously profane, spewing his unfiltered thoughts about everything that happens while secretly continuing the heroin use that got him kicked out of the nursing home. He's not completely rough though: he shows great tenderness in his scenes with Abigail Breslin, as he coaches Olive for her beauty pageant and is the only one who seems genuinely interested in Olive's dream. Though he does fine work, he doesn't really have a lot of scenes to work with, and is absent for a large chunk of the film. And I felt that though Arkin and Breslin were great, the real Oscar-worthy performances come from Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette. Still, Arkin is impressive, and the voters certainly felt so, since he took home the trophy.
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Haley was working as a security guard when he auditioned for Little Children; the former child star's roles had long since dried up, and he was just making ends meet. But he came roaring back to the cinema with his powerful, magnetic performance as Ronnie, a convicted pedophile who moves back into the suburbs with his mother, sending panic through the neighborhood. Haley turns in a terrific performance, making Ronnie a sympathetic character despite some demented tendencies (the end of a blind date takes a turn to the disturbing). His magnificent pool scene summarizes the character perfectly: he's viewed as a monster by the world, but he just wants to be normal again. It's a deft performance, and Haley earned his nomination.
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Though Blood Diamond wasn't one of 2006's best films, Hounsou's performance was the best part of it. The Beninese actor has always been reliable for great work, and he continued that trend with Solomon Vandy, a fisherman who escapes a rebel diamond camp to find his son. While his partner, Danny Archer, is much shadier, Vandy is steady and true, a morally clean man who only wants to be reunited with his family. Hounsou does a great job at showing the psychological toil Vandy's situation is taking on him, and he gets a truly devastating scene when his son, now a child soldier, doesn't recognize him anymore. Unfortunately, the film often relegates him to the background, preventing him from being able to shine too brightly.
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Five years later, Murphy's performance is still a revelation, perhaps even more so given the films he's completed since. Murphy has always been known as a comedian, and he was at his funniest in the '80s, but then he got caught up in prosthetic makeup and fat suits and saw himself quickly become the punchline rather than the one telling the jokes. His performance as James "Thunder" Early, a James Brown-esque soul singer, in Dreamgirls was a diamond in a career coal mine, fully lived-in and astonishingly bold. Of course it featured the outrageous manic energy and humor that made Murphy a star to begin with, but it also presented his serious dramatic chops as Early struggles with heroin addiction and womanizing. Many people believe that the heavy marketing and release of Norbit, Murphy's return to fat suits, before the ceremony cost him the Oscar. But the performance here was more than worthy.
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
The Departed featured plenty of great performances from talented actors ranging from Leonardo DiCaprio to Matt Damon to Jack Nicholson to Alec Baldwin to Vera Farmiga. But the true standout of the film is Wahlberg, who plays the profane, abrasive Sgt. Dignam. Dignam is a man who won't take crap from anyone, and spends all of his screentime letting everyone else know that. He's in the film just long enough to make a crucial impact without overstaying his welcome, and Wahlberg throws himself into the role with gusto. Plus, he gets the film's best lines ("I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.") and delivers them with terrific energy. And that's to say nothing of his third-act stunner. So far, it's the rapper-turned-underwear-model-turned-actor's only acting nomination, but if he can land a part this good again, he should see more in his future.
1. Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
2. Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
3. Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
4. Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
5. Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine