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Predictions Friday – A Best Actor Race Without a Frontrunner

While there are plenty of Best Actress contenders vying for the top prize, there is a presumptive frontrunner and her name is Emma Stone. Her performance in La La Land is next level in terms of everything Stone does really well. The film La La Land, also the frontrunner for Best Picture, succeeds because of Stone, mostly. Without her 100% conviction and commitment to the part it might have come off as something less than it is. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone commit fully to the idea of a modern musical but Stone goes deeper than required, both when she’s singing and when she isn’t. It’s rare to see a movie capture the spirit as well as this one does every time Stone is in the frame. She brings it home with a solo towards the end that, I think, wins the Oscar. Still, there are more performances yet to see, and no doubt Natalie Portman is bringing heat with Jackie. Viola Davis is waiting in the wings with Fences, a film no one has yet seen.

The Best Actor race has gotten slightly less attention. Perhaps that’s because among films that showcase Best Actor contenders there are still quite a few major titles left to be seen — like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, like Silence, like Fences. What we think we know now might dramatically change just a few weeks from now. What is a little surprising is that there isn’t a standout frontrunner being predicted by now, which there usually is.

Last year, Leonardo DiCaprio was predicted to win for The Revenant long before the film was seen. He lived up to the hype and did, in fact, win. It’s still sort of surprising that Michael Keaton did not prevail after being tauted for months as a strong frontrunner for Birdman. Keaton WAS Birdman. He was the reason the film did as well as it did. In the end, the film won Picture and Director but Eddie Redmayne won for playing Stephen Hawking, the more physically challenging role.

That brings us to the challenge we face this year. So far, the two or three performances being bandied about for the win aren’t physically challenging, lacking that factor we’ve come to expect. Let’s take a look:

* Nominated for Best Picture
+ Won Best Picture

+ Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant – Didn’t gain weight but put himself through the most grueling shoot he’s ever endured. Extra thing: He was brutalized by a bear, left for dead, cut up, scarred, slept in a dead horse – won Oscar.

* Eddie Redmayne – Played a man afflicted with ALS to the point where he could only move his eyebrow to communicate. Extra thing: Confined to a wheelchair, gnarled his body like a contortionist – won Oscar.

* Matthew McConaughey – Lost 40 pounds to play a man dying of AIDS, withered himself down to nothing and went to emotional places he’d never gone before. Extra thing: weight loss

* Daniel Day-Lewis – What can be said except that it was a brilliant performance by a brilliant actor in a brilliant movie. Extra thing: He became Lincoln.

+ Jean DuJardin in The Artist – Silent film star who tap danced and smiled a lot and starred in a movie everyone loved. Love and a bit with a dog. Extra thing: He conveyed an entire performance with just physical expression and no dialogue.

+ Colin Firth in The King’s Speech – He had a stutter and everyone was in love with him and the movie. Extra thing: that stutter.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart – It was his time, plus he campaigned hard. Convincingly played a drunken cowboy singer on the road to redemption. Extra thing: film vet, overdue status

Only once since the Academy expanded Best Picture to more than five nominees has an actor won whose film was not also nominated for, or won for, Best Picture. Most of the films nominated each year for Best Picture have a strong Best Actor component to them. Thus, it makes sense that the winner would star in a film that is also a strong contender for Best Pic. All bets are off when someone like Jeff Bridges enters the scene. They’re going to be making a play for a win based on the fact that they never won after decades of great performances. This was also the case, to a degree, when Meryl Streep won for The Iron Lady up against Viola Davis, who was in a Best Picture contender. Streep won partly because she had not won an Oscar in a very long time.

So that brings us back to this year. Of the frontrunners listed by sites like Gold Derby, or AwardsWatch or Awards Circuit, three names keep cropping up:

Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
Denzel Washington for Fences
Joel Edgerton for Loving

Some have Washington out front, most have Affleck, and some have Edgerton. We’re pretty sure that both Manchester by the Sea and Loving will receive Best Picture nominations. Let’s take a quick look at how many Best Actor wins there have been for directors directing themselves. Spoiler: It’s not a lot.

Hamlet, Lawrence Olivier – 1948
Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni – 1998

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Denzel Washington to become the frontrunner. Anything is possible within the realm of the Oscar race, but given that he’s already won two Oscars there might not be the same urgency to award him again. On the other hand, his performance is supposed to be beyond brilliant, and with no legit frontrunner at the moment Washington could make history as the first African-American director to win an Oscar in a film he directed himself.

Nate Parker is in the same dilemma with The Birth of a Nation, and even if he has given the performance of the year it will be unfairly judged against Parker’s personal life.

Casey Affleck’s deep dive into grief in Manchester by the Sea puts him at the top of the list at the moment because it is, so far, the most moving performance by any actor of the year. But since he isn’t a drug addict, he isn’t impersonating someone famous, and he didn’t lose 40 pounds, one wonders if there will be a performance like THAT that might pull in a win. One we just haven’t seen yet.

There is also the chance that Peter Simonischek could make it in for Toni Erdmann. While it’s an extremely competitive race, his is a bit of a standout in terms of characters we fall in love with. One wonders whether or not he will be in the running, even though it’s not an English language film.

Still to come will be Joe Alwyn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Andrew Garfield in Silence or Hacksaw Ridge, Michael Keaton in The Founder, Matthew McConaughey in Gold, Will Smith in Collateral Beauty, along with films that have already been seen and admired, like Dev Patel in Lion and Tom Hanks in Sully.

Finally, and most importantly, the actor I’m most wondering about right now is Liam Neeson in Silence. A three hour torturous religious epic by Martin Scorsese makes me wonder whether or not Garfield’s might be that one with the extra something that pushes it over the edge. At first it seemed like Neeson was going to be supporting and Garfield lead but then I found this quote:

“Silence was especially difficult to shoot because much of the film required the use of remote locations throughout Taiwan and East Asia. The production started to take shape when Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson (who also worked with Scorsese on Gangs of New York) joined the cast and reportedly lost more than 20 pounds for the lead role. Scorsese quickly signed notable young actors Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) to help tell the story.”

20-pound weight loss, never won an Oscar before, starring in a Martin Scorsese epic? Yeah, Neeson may very well be our guy. At least, it seems like that at the moment. There is some question as to whether his role is a lead or not — but if so, yeah. He might be the one. But most people who know the book say that Neeson is supporting, not lead. That would shift things obviously. Perhaps the above quote is wrong. Neeson might be a winner either way.

Update – studio confirms that Liam Neeson is SUPPORTING. So I will remove him from lead and put him in supporting.

For now, barring some major shift in the race, it seems logical to call Casey Affleck the frontrunner.

Here are our current predictions

Best Picture
1. La La Land
2. Loving
3. Manchester by the Sea
4. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
5. Silence
6. Moonlight
7. Sully
8. Fences
9. Lion
10. Arrival
11. Jackie
11. 20th Century Women
12. Hell or High Water
13. The Birth of a Nation
14. Hacksaw Ridge
15. Passengers
16. Nocturnal Animals
17. The Founder
18. Florence Foster Jenkins
19. The Girl on the Train
20. Allied

Best Actor
1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2. Andrew Garfield, Silence
3. Joel Edgerton, Loving
4. Denzel Washington, Fences
5. Tom Hanks, Sully
6. Dev Patel, Lion
7. Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s
8. Ryan Gosling, La La Land
9. Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation
10. Miles Teller, Bleed for This

Best Actress
1. Emma Stone, La La Land
2. Natalie Portman, Jackie
3. Viola Davis, Fences
4. Amy Adams, Arrival
5. Ruth Negga, Loving
6. Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
7. Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
8. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
9. Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
10. Rooney Mara, Una

Best Supporting Actor
1. Liam Neeson, Silence
2. Aaron Eckart, Bleed for This
3. Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
4. Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
5. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
6. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (or someone else from Moonlight)
7. Steve Martin, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
8. Timothy Spall, Denial
9. Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
10. Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress
1. Naomie Harris, Moonlight
2. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
3. Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (or Certain Women)
4. Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
5. Nicole Kidman, Lion
6. Molly Shannon, Other People
7. Laura Dern, Certain Women or The Founder
8. Felicity Jones, A Monster Calls
9. Rooney Mara, Lion
10. Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures or Moonlight

Best Director
1. Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2. Jeff Nichols, Loving
3. Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
4. Martin Scorsese, Silence
5. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
6. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
7. Denzel Washington, Fences
8. Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
9. David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water
10. Pablo Larraín, Jackie

Original Screenplay
1. La La Land
2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Loving
4. Hell or High Water
5. Jackie
6. The Founder
7. Florence Foster Jenkins
8. Miss Sloane
9. Gold

Adapted Screenplay
1. Moonlight
2. Fences
3. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
4. Silence
5. Arrival
6. Lion
7. Indignation
8. Sully
9. Hidden Figures
10. The Girl on the Train