Nominees: Richard Jenkins (The Visitor); Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon); Sean Penn (Milk); Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)

Sean Penn, in 'Milk'
Winner: Sean Penn
After Mickey Rourke won the Golden Globe and delivered his touching speech, it appeared that momentum might have been shifting away from early favorite Sean Penn to the Comeback Kid. Penn’s victory at SAG put him back out front, but this is a tight two-man race.

Penn has other factors working in his favor. First, he plays a real person. Oscar is a sucker for stars transforming themselves for lofty biopics: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland), Helen Mirren (Elizabeth II in The Queen), Marion Cotillard (Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote in Capote), Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles in Ray), Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist), and so on. Second, Milk has widespread Academy support that The Wrestler doesn’t have: eight nominations, including Best Picture. But watch out for Rourke if voters decide that it’s too early for another coronation for Penn, who won this award just five years ago for Mystic River.

Nominees: Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married); Angelina Jolie (Changeling); Melissa Leo (Frozen River); Meryl Streep (Doubt); Kate Winslet (The Reader)

Kate Winslet, in 'The Reader'
Winner: Kate Winslet
Both Streep and Winslet won SAG awards for their performances, but Streep won as a lead actress and Winslet won the supporting race. Winslet was campaigned as a supporting actress for The Reader, hoping to earn a Best Actress nod instead for Revolutionary Road, but Oscar voters thought differently, so it’s tough to know which tea leaves to read.

Read these: Winslet is a six-time nominee and has never won. If she loses this year, she will tie the record for the worst Oscar shut-out among actresses. Her Golden Globes acceptance speech was one of the touching highlights of the night, and Academy voters may want an encore. Now her film is nominated for Best Picture, so in a race that never had a clear frontrunner it appears she is poised to finally have her moment.

Nominees: Josh Brolin (Milk); Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt); Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight); Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)

Heath Ledger, in 'The Dark Knight'
Winner: Heath Ledger
It’s dangerous to call anyone a lock, especially in circumstances as uncommon as these, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine Ledger losing this prize. His Joker is widely considered an iconic screen turn. If he were alive today, voters might give themselves permission to let their snobbish biases lead them to a more traditional candidate (i.e. someone other than the comic book villain), but knowing that this will be the last performance of the actor’s tragically unfulfilled career, they couldn’t get away with checking off any other name.

Nominees: Amy Adams (Doubt); Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Viola Davis (Doubt); Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)

Penelope Cruz, in 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'
Winner: Penelope Cruz
Is there a more confusing category than this? Kate Winslet won both the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for The Reader, but since Oscar nominated her for lead actress, there’s no way to be sure who their favorite is among these five. A case can be made for any of them.

Viola Davis’s 11-minute performance in Doubt had massive impact, and brief, impactful turns have won before (Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love, Beatrice Straight in Network). But her co-star Amy Adams has more screen time and is a Hollywood star on the rise; she was nominated three years ago for Junebug, and though she wasn’t nominated last year for Enchanted, she performed on the telecast for that film. The Academy is clearly fond of her.

Marisa Tomei’s upset victory for My Cousin Vinny is one of the most talked about in Oscar history, so she can never be ruled out, but The Wrestler is more a showcase piece for Mickey Rourke and Tomei’s role may be too subtle in comparison.

Taraji P. Henson has an advantage the others do not: she is in a Best Picture nominee, which means her film has Academy-wide support. And though her performance is relatively slight, it is more or less a version of the kind of role that won an Oscar for Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind.

Last is Penelope Cruz. Her comic turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona did well among critics, earning awards from the New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups, but if critics were a direct indicator of Oscar Sally Hawkins would have been nominated for Best Actress. Still, the Academy has a history of affection for Woody Allen’s muses (Mira Sorvino, Dianne Wiest x2) and an even greater history of awarding sexy starlets. She just won Best Supporting Actress from the British Academy (BAFTA), which is as close to an indicator as we’re going to get. My money’s on her. But hedge your bets.