LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - With this year's lead actor race heating up to be one of the most crowded ever, it's a little strange to look over candidates for supporting actor and see some empty space.

22 Oct 2014 - 9:57 AM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2014 - 11:29 AM

Which is not to say there aren't some amazing performances in the mix. J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash"), Mark Ruffalo ("Foxcatcher") and Edward Norton ("Birdman") are considered locks for a nod, and all are outstanding in wildly different and breathtaking performances.

[ Read: Review of Foxcatcher ]
[ Read: Review of Whiplash ]

Beyond that, there are a lot of great performances but few sure things. Ethan Hawke delivers beautifully subtle work in the beloved "Boyhood," and seems a good bet to land his second acting nomination. Robert Duvall's name has been bandied about for "The Judge," but that has more to do with him being Robert Duvall than praise for the performance. The rest is attributed to movies that have yet to screen or truly build buzz.

[ Read: Review of Boyhood ]

Josh Brolin has been singled out for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," but it remains to be seen how the offbeat (and that's being polite) film will play with the Academy. Other names that come up are in movies no one has seen -- Albert Brooks in "A Most Violent Year," Miyavi as the villain in "Unbroken" and Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf in "Into the Woods."

While I'm not one to advocate category fraud, I can't help but wonder if a case couldn't be made for moving some of the fine actors from the lead category to supporting. Sometimes it's a fine line between the two, and going supporting can often pay off -- Christoph Waltz has twice won Oscars for roles that some argued were lead performances, in "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained." And sources confirm that Waltz will go supporting again in December's "Big Eyes," even though the role originally seemed a lead, based on the script.

This question has already been addressed with Steve Carell in "Foxcatcher," where some have said it could be considered a supporting performance, but Carell is (admirably) staying put in lead, and his heralded turn will likely land a nod despite the crowded field. Things are less certain for Ralph Fiennes in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Some are saying he can only get a nom if he changes categories, the argument being his character is technically supporting Tony Revolori's lead character.

[ Read: Review of The Grand Budapest Hotel ]

Then again, there were those who advocated that Anthony Hopkins' legendary turn as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs" should go supporting, as he's onscreen for less than 30 minutes. The fear was that he would be bested by Nick Nolte, who was earning raves for "The Prince of Tides," undoubtedly a lead role. Of course, we all know how that ended: Hopkins walked away with lead actor, "Silence" became one of only three films to sweep the top five categories and Hannibal Lecter became an icon.