Hill looks like the odd man out here, not just because he's 1/3 the age of Plummer and Von Sydow, but also because he's the lone comedian in a group of generally serious thespians known for their classical training or Method meticulousness. A lot of pundits were expecting another senior, Albert Brooks (who's 64 and a previous nominee in this category for "Broadcast News" back in 1988), to be nominated for his shocking turn as a brutal gangster in "Drive," but apparently, Oscar voters had room for only one comic-turned-serious-thespian, and it was the one who, backed by Hollywood power player Brad Pitt, rode a wave of Oscar love that included five other "Moneyball" nominations. (It didn't help Brooks that "Drive" had a fair amount of off-putting gory violence, or that distributor FilmDistrict all but ran out of money and has spent Oscar season undergoing major corporate restructuring at a time when other distributors have been devoting attention and cash to vigorous awards campaigns.)
A lot of other names on this year's Supporting Actor short list were also old enough for AARP membership -- 53-year-old Viggo Mortensen ("A Dangerous Method"), 62-year-old Jim Broadbent ("The Iron Lady"), 50-year-old George Clooney ("The Ides of March"), 68-year-old Ben Kingsley ("Hugo"), 52-year-old John Hawkes ("Martha Marcy May Marlene"), 55-year-old Christoph Waltz ("Carnage"), and "Margin Call co-stars Kevin Spacey (52) and Jeremy Irons (63). Some were even expecting the Academy to use its final opportunity to honor the Harry Potter franchise by nominating 65-year-old Alan Rickman for his surprising, moving performance in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2." (Sorry, Professor Snape, the cool kids have snubbed you again.) Only three potential nominees besides Hill were under the age of 50: 48-year-old Pitt (for "The Tree of Life"), 25-year-old Armie Hammer ("J. Edgar"), and longshot Andy Serkis (47) for his acclaimed motion-capture performance as smart simian Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
Among the nominees, Plummer was considered a shoo-in for playing a senior who comes out of the closet late in life in "Beginners," as was Branagh for playing real-life Oscar favorite Laurence Olivier in "My Week With Marilyn." (Branagh's only previous acting nomination came in 1990 for playing the Shakespearean warrior king in "Henry V," which was also his directorial debut, echoing the achievement of Olivier, who also made his movie directing debut with the same play in 1944 and starred in it as well.) Nolte's nomination for playing an alcoholic-dad-cum-fight-trainer was something of a surprise, given the failure of "Warrior" to make much of a dent at the box office, but the movie worked as a male sports weepie, and the Academy likes an underdog/comeback story -- especially when it echoes the actor's arc in real life. (Nolte scored two previous nominations in the 1990s, then went through a notorious wilderness period in his personal life, but is now back on track as a dependable character actor, one who even has a weekly TV drama series, "Luck," that's about to debut on HBO.)
In retrospect, the Oscar predictors should have paid more attention to the Screen Actors Guild nominations, since four of the five supporting actors nominated for SAG awards made Oscar's cut. The only one who didn't was Hammer, replaced on the Academy's list by Von Sydow, who steals "Extremely Loud" with his extremely silent performance. (Given the windfall of nominations for "The Artist," this is clearly the year for silent performances.) Here, "Extremely Loud" may have benefited from its late release; it was one of the last of this year's Oscar hopefuls to be screened for awards viewers on DVD and in theaters (too late, perhaps, for SAG voters), so Von Sydow's performance was fresh in a lot of Academy members' minds.
In the Supporting Actress category, Oscar often likes dewy young things, from Marisa Tomei to Jennifer Hudson. But the Supporting Actor category has often served as an opportunity for Oscar voters (who tend to be older themselves) to honor veterans who've gone previously unrewarded, like such recent winners as Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, and Chris Cooper. Still, we haven't seen a list like this since 2002, when veteran Jim Broadbent ("Iris") beat a list of fellow vets that included Jon Voight, Ian McKellen, and Ben Kingsley, along with token youngster Ethan Hawke.
Hill, of course, has never been nominated before; incredibly, the over-50s on the list have each been nominated only once or twice, and none has ever won. Von Sydow's only nomination, for a movie career spanning more than 60 years and several classic films in many languages, came in 1989 for "Pelle the Conqueror." Plummer, who's been making movies for more than half a century and also has his share of classic films, didn't earn his first nomination until age 80, two years ago, for "The Last Station." Nolte's last nomination (for "Affliction") came 13 years ago, while Branagh's only acting nomination came back when Hill was six. Given the buzz for Plummer, including his Golden Globes victory last week, he'll probably win the SAG and the Oscar as well, but all four of these old-timers are long overdue for first-time wins. Jonah Hill will surely get another chance; let's just hope it doesn't take another 40 or 50 years.