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The Crowded Best Actor Race Outsizes Category

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2013 is one of those years when the Oscar category for Best Actor could double from five to ten without breaking a sweat. This isn’t strictly true for any of the other categories, although Foreign Language, Documentary Feature and Animated feature could fill ten slots with ease.   Since around 1945, the Academy reduced the Best Picture category to five.  The following year, the other categories that had more than five, like cinematography and sound, were also pared down to under five.  The previous year they stopped naming ten Best Picture nominees. From then on, every category was limited to five and under.  This year, the Best Actor race begs for expansion. There is simply no way to reward all of the deserving contenders.  What factors will make the difference between one or the other?

The two leading contenders right now are Robert Redford for All Is Lost versus Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave.  Giving both of them heat is Matthew McConaughey. Redford is the only previous nominee.  The other two would be first-timers.

All three actors play survivors of a physical and psychological adversity. They all refuse to give up when their circumstances become too unbearable to imagine.  Redford’s ordeal is singular, more metaphysical and metaphorical than Ejiofor’s or McConaughey’s — both of whom dwell in the harsh realities of history, crimes against humanity, and bigotry.  That automatically gives these two actors somewhat of an advantage. The gravitas is evident.   On the flip side, Robert Redford is as much an icon in Hollywood as there ever was. In addition, he’s a brilliant filmmaker in his own right. Furthermore, he’s an independent thinker, a bit of an outsider, and has given so much back to the film industry with the Sundance Film Festival, not to mention all the other ways he’s contributed to the lives and careers of his fellow artists.

Robert Redford‘s own persona adds immeasurably to the depth he brings to All Is Lost. You are watching Robert Redford but you are also lost in the character he plays, in awe of how raw he appears.  It could easily have been just an Oscar grab — a melodramatic reach for the big prize. But it isn’t.  That is what is so memorable about it.  Actors know the difficulty in portraying a character’s inner life with no dialogue at all. In many ways, when the silents vanished actors lost much of their need ability to convey emotion and meaning without words.  But Redford’s eyes and face tell a whole story all their own, delivering his character’s journey, inside and out, all without uttering a word.  What could be more impressive for any actor?    The Academy is ruled by actors — given Redford’s status, his performance and the level of difficulty, he has to take the number one spot to win.

On the other hand, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in 12 Years a Slave. His is the more emotionally wrenching role. He has the advantage of starring in the film that’s either the Best Picture frontrunner or certainly one of the top two predicted to win. He too carries his film, with the help of an adept ensemble.  We get to witness his internal transformation, from the beginning when Solomon Northup is a free man who looks after his family throughout the slow decline of his beaten spirit as he is put in shackles and treated like a dog. Worse than a dog.  By the end of the film you’re wrecked. All you are left with is the tiny glimmer of happiness in the way things turned out.  His character is one the Academy will want to reward, either with a prize for Best Actor, or with the prize for the film for Best Picture.  One of those will be walking home with hardware on Oscar night.

Matthew McConaughy has been treated shabbily by the Academy in the past. He’s never even been nominated for the work he’s done. This year, he’ll have three films once again — Mud, Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club. It is for that that he will likely see his first Oscar nomination.  He lost an astonishing amount of weight to play Ron Woodfruff but his work in the film isn’t just about the way he looks. He takes his part deeper than anyone thought him capable of.  The anger and denial he expresses about his circumstances are heartbreaking, to be sure. But it becomes something much more valiant when he dares to hope for survival. When he beats back death’s grip, that’s when he soars.  If Ejiofor and Redford split the vote, McConaughey could take it. But the film needs Best Picture heat for that to happen.

The fourth mostly locked position is Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.  Hanks is, it must be said, one of the continuing greats.  It isn’t just Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but it’s Saving Private Ryan. It’s Big. It’s Cast Away.  It’s even last year’s Cloud Atlas, which proved Hanks has bigger balls than almost any other of his contemporaries.  But this year, with Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks he will likely be a double nominee. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Hanks could be bumped for one nomination and not the other in such a competitive year, but the last fifteen minutes of Captain Phillips — not to mention the first hour and a half — are unforgettable. No thinking actor is going to watch that scene at the end and not want to jot down Hanks’ name as one of the year’s best.

Bruce Dern for Nebraska vies the fifth spot with Forest Whitaker for The Butler. By all rights, this slot should belong to Dern, whose unequivocal performance in Nebraska is a career-topper on the level of Redford’s. As the cantankerous Woody, Dern spends much of the movie hovering somewhere between memories of his real life, memories of the life he really wanted, and whatever might exist for him now. He has one move left, a promise given to him by a ridiculous corporation that promises ridiculous things to people, dangling a big payoff in their faces. The Publisher’s Clearing House is a non-reality we all live with. Most of us have the good sense to know we’re being lied to. But Woody is a clean slate, due to the dementia of old age. This landscape of mostly forgotten America, still serviceable to Publisher’s Clearing House is laid out in Alexander Payne’s film so that we are forced to examine what that American dream is and why it fails so many of us. Woody’s sweetness contradicts the way everyone regards him. He’s changed. He’s forgotten that he used to be an asshole. He’s George Bailey in a way, getting a second chance at life.

Forest Whitaker‘s performance in The Butler is also one for the ages. He keeps his feelings closely guarded and yet communicates enormous sensitivity. Much of Whitaker’s performance involves making sure he stays in his place, both at home and at work. As his son breaks free of that trap and into the more militant Black Panthers, so does Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines retreat from it. The best scene he has is when he’s giving out White House cookies for the millionth time — his frustration with his job and his position has almost become too much. And yet he continues to solider on. It is a wondrous work by a very fine actor. Whitaker has won one lead Oscar already so he’d be looking at a chance for his second. He is also part of a narrative emerging in 2013 with an unprecedented number of black actors and filmmakers in the race. If Whitaker and Ejiofor are both nominated it would be the fourth time two black actors have ever been nominated for lead in the same year. While it does, again, feel silly to compartmentalize it like that — when will the trend ever be equalized enough so that we don’t notice? The facts are the facts and the stats are the stats and if The Butler teaches us anything it’s that you can’t really sit idly by and wait for change. You have to turn your head and pay attention to the milestones, call it out, needle it.

The array of great performances continues with Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac sings all of his own songs in the film and fought hard to be cast in the role — a perfect fit which now seemed like destiny. Who else but Isaac could have played Llewyn Davis? The character looks at the world with perplexed innocence, not really knowing where he’s headed until he gets there. His instincts about his own life and career seem horribly off and he keeps making one mistake after another. He can sing. He has talent and perseverance — he’s within tantalizing close proximity to understanding how folk music will evolve after Bob Dylan morphs it into something entirely different. Isaac, as a kind of Dave Van Ronk figure, is a man out of time in a way. He doesn’t fit in with the kind of music people want to hear and yet he isn’t quite good enough to shatter the ceiling as Dylan did. Isaac is magnificent in the role, one of the very finest performances of the year. And yet, the category can only allow for five.

Other strong performances this year include Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station, another true life performance with devastating emotional weight. Casey Affleck in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Joaquin Phoenix in Her, Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight have each earned high praise. Anticipation is high for those still to come — Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and Christian Bale in Under the Furnace and the upcoming American Hustle. There’s Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s Idris Elba in Long Walk to Freedom. There’s Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners. Too many actors, too few awards to honor them all.

As always, the Golden Globes gets to double the possibilities by splitting the names into drama and comedy divisions.

Golden Globe Best Actor Drama might look like this:
Redford
Ejiofor
Hanks
McConaughey
Whitaker

Comedy might look like this:
Dern
Stiller
Isaac
Phoenix
A fifth name to be determined later – James Franco for This is the End perhaps?

The Golden Globes makes it easy. Unfortunately, five slots at the Oscars for Best Actor simply will not do. If things keep going this way, the Academy might be forced to expand the category. The only catch — with the current studio mentality they can’t really justify doing the same for Best Actress. Great roles for actresses just aren’t expanding as impressively and as fast as those for Best Actor right now.

How do you choose five for Oscar? You start with those who have the most important bonus reasons to be nominated. They are popular in the film industry. They have a long reputation of great performances that have mostly gone unrewarded. It helps to be in a Best Picture nominee. It helps if you play a likable character. And it helps if you are a likable actor within the industry. Adding up all of those factors we arrive back at the same place we started. And that’s in a really small room crowded with too much royalty and not enough thrones.