LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After 15 years in the movie wilderness, Mickey Rourke could crown his comeback with a coveted best actor Oscar on Sunday.
But the star of "The Wrestler" will first have to knock out Sean Penn, seen as Rourke's main rival for Academy Award glory thanks to his performance as slain San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk in the movie "Milk."
"It's a real heavyweight bout between the wrestler and the gay rights slugger. It's been a back-and-forth slugfest," said Tom O'Neil, columnist for awards website www.TheEnvelope.com.
Frank Langella, nominated for playing disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon," is seen having an outside chance.
The two other nominees are Brad Pitt for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and Richard Jenkins for the little-seen movie "The Visitor." Both are considered long shots.
Rourke, 56, and Penn, 48, split the early movie awards with Rourke taking a Golden Globe and BAFTA and Penn winning the Screen Actors Guild trophy and a slew of critics prizes.
Movie pundits say Penn may have the edge because he is respected -- if not loved -- in the industry. He already won one best actor Oscar for playing a grieving father in the 2003 movie "Mystic River."
"Milk" also has a best picture and best director Oscar nomination, reflecting widespread support among Academy Award voters for the movie at a time when the battle over same-sex marriage is a hot topic in California.
But Rourke is far from down and out.
"This may be a case where Academy voters love the story of a comeback," said Pete Hammond, movie critic with Hollywood.com. "This movie has been sold as the resurrection of Mickey Rourke and I think that has taken hold."
Rourke's performance as a washed-up professional athlete trying to make a comeback closely mirrors his own career. A talented young actor of small 1980s gems like "Diner" and the steamy blockbuster "9 1/2 Weeks," he later acquired such a volatile reputation on set that acting jobs dried up.
Yet, in this awards season, Rourke has seemed contrite for his past behavior and his widely hailed performance has helped him regain some of his former glory.
Still, Rourke, who took up boxing in the 1990s, has not quite shaken off his bad boy ways.
His recent award acceptance speeches have been littered with curse words, he raised eyebrows by thanking his dogs for his Golden Globe, smoked on the BAFTA red carpet in London and slugged champagne from the bottle backstage.
Whether that has helped or hurt his chances of a first Oscar will not be clear until the awards are announced on February 22.
"He's got this attitude 'I blew it, I went off and boxed and took my dogs and sat in the corner,'" Hammond said. "It is disarming. It's different. It's fun."
Maybe it is too different for Academy voters.
Movie scholar and documentary maker Richard Schickel said his favorite performance was by Langella in "Frost/Nixon."
Some Oscar watchers have tipped him as a surprise winner because he is an industry veteran and this may be his last chance at the film industry's top prize. Others think Penn and Rourke could split the vote among the roughly 6,000 voting members of the Academy, allowing Langella to triumph.
"Frank's is a really towering performance. If there were any justice, it would take the prize," Schickel said.
"Sean Penn is an authentically great actor. And you could say, let's award something to the comeback kid Mickey Rourke. But maybe we want a safer, more respectable choice. If it was me, I'd pick Langella."
Editing by John O'Callaghan