By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It's been a long hike from the Austrian Alps to the Hollywood Hills for Christopher Plummer, but the actor best known for playing the steely captain with seven children in "The Sound of Music" looks set to finally win his first Oscar.
Plummer, 82, is front-runner in the best supporting actor category on Sunday that in many years is a sort of film veterans achievement award for recognizing beloved, but somehow neglected, older men.
After almost 200 movies and TV shows, and hundreds more appearances on stage, the Canadian actor may finally clinch the most coveted prize in the movie industry for playing a 75-year-old who joyfully comes out as gay after a long marriage, but who swiftly succumbs to terminal cancer.
"Christopher Plummer is the sentimental favorite," said Pete Hammond, movie writer for website Deadline Hollywood.
"It would be a huge upset if anybody but Christopher Plummer were to take this home, and it is only his second Oscar nomination, so he is way overdue," Hammond said.
But Plummer has a rival who is just as beloved, overlooked and respected by his peers.
Swedish-born Max von Sydow, also 82, is mounting a strong challenge for his performance as an elderly World War Two survivor who becomes a mentor to a young boy after the September11 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center buildings in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close".
And von Sydow does it all without uttering a word. His character in the Oscar best picture contender, known only as The Renter, does not speak because of the trauma of witnessing a World War Two bombing as a child.
If either of the two men win at Sunday's Academy Award ceremony, he will become the oldest person ever to win an Oscar, surpassing "Driving Miss Daisy" star Jessica Tandy by two years.
"We have two 82 year-old veterans slugging it out in a category that has a history of honoring the senior statesmen of Hollywood," said Tom O'Neil of awards website Goldderby.com.
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Nick Nolte ("Warrior"), 71, British actor Kenneth Branagh ("My Week with Marilyn"), 51, and rising star Jonah Hill ("Moneyball") who at 28 is by far the youngest of the bunch, round out the supporting actor race.
Plummer, who missed out on an Oscar two years ago for his portrayal of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station", said that his role in "Beginners" was the most fun he ever had on camera.
"I enjoy being different as much as I can be, but this was different on a very simple, human level. I have never had such a relaxed and good time playing anything on screen. It was an enchanting story," Plummer told Reuters.
Plummer, who chose not to play the Hollywood leading man game early in his career and opted for classical Shakespearean roles on stage, has swept up every other award this season.
But industry watchers say he may have made a blunder when he chose not to make the five-hour plane journey from his U.S. east coast home to attend the traditional Oscar nominees lunch in Beverly Hills two weeks ago.
"Max von Sydow got the only standing ovation of the day, and got a lot of attention, and there must have been about 300 voting members of the Academy in that room, so that was a very good thing for him," said Hammond.
Born in Sweden, von Sydow also has an illustrious 60-year career on stage, television and film, including 13 movies with the late, legendary director Ingmar Bergman.
Best known as the priest in 1973 horror movie "The Exorcist", he was also Oscar-nominated for his lead role in 1987 film "Pelle the Conqueror".
But O'Neil said Plummer likely has the edge as both men face off for possibly their last chance at winning a competitive Oscar.
"Plummer has got everything going for him. He is a past nominee who appeared in two best picture Oscars -- 'The Sound of Music' and 'Beautiful Mind' and he plays gay and dies a hideous death on film," O'Neil said.
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)