Willem Dafoe has never won an Oscar. It was surreal watching the awards community get so firmly behind him with The Florida Project, but when you finally saw the movie it was pretty clear that it was an understated role — too understated to win an Oscar. It was much more about sentiment towards him as an actor and perhaps liking the heroic character he played. Either way, Dafoe is the lead in At Eternity’s Gate as Vincent Van Gogh. Owen Gleiberman says Dafoe portrays Van Gogh with “luminous intensity and power.” Coming off the heels of his Best Actor win at Venice, coupled with his status as veteran character actor overdue for an Oscar win, it looks like Dafoe has a real shot at Best Actor this year, even if the film isn’t audience or Best Picture-friendly.
In general, Best Actor is fueled by Best Picture and vice-versa, unless the actor is well overdue, in which case it doesn’t matter. Think: Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Paul Newman in The Color of Money, etc. It always helps to have Best Picture heat because you know people are going to watch the movie at least, if nothing else.
When you talk about Best Actor this year, you can’t do it without talking about Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s Vice. It’s the performance everyone has been waiting for, the one he gained a shit ton of weight for — and knowing how good of an actor Bale is, expectations could not be higher. That means if you asked any Oscar blogger at this moment in time about Best Actor, this one would be right at the top of the list. But no one has yet seen the film, so it’s all a little up in the air.
Bradley Cooper seems to be making some Best Actor noise out of Toronto for A Star is Born, more in Canada than Italy, it seems. If he wins this, he’ll be only the third actor ever to win while directing himself. The other two are Lawrence Olivier for Hamlet and Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful. Cooper does reportedly give one of his best performances here (or near career-best) as the guy who helps make a star, which then breaks him.
Hugh Jackman is fantastic as Gary Hart, playing him as opaque as he needs to be for Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner. Hart is still a guy whose motives were somewhat perplexing then, and remain so to this day. Since back then we were actually debating whether someone’s private life was fair game for press and the public, it makes sense that he would be so miffed by the mere question being asked. Now, nothing and no one seems to have a right to privacy on any level whatsoever. It’s actually as though everyone is in politics and all of their history and behavior is fair game. The Front Runner is one of the handful of great films about semi-recent American politics, a group that includes Primary Colors, Game Change, Recount, and Wag the Dog. There are others, but those are the ones that grapple with things like integrity vs. “character,” and what it is exactly we’re looking for in our leaders anyway. Jackman seems like a good bet for a nod, at least right now.
John David Washington seems a pretty good bet for BlackKklansman, especially if the film has the stuff for Best Picture, Best Director, and screenplay nods. It seems like a shoo-in for a SAG ensemble nod in a year of really great ensembles already. Washington (Denzel’s son) plays the role with mostly a comedic/sarcastic edge, and that makes him very entertaining but it also means it could miss if more “serious” performances edge him out.
Lucas Hedges is competing against himself with two brilliantly played performances in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s slow burn film about conversion therapy, and Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back, about how a mother fights to save her addict son’s life one Christmas Eve. Hedges is also in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, but Boy Erased and Ben Is Back probably are the two that will be his best shot at a nod. They could have him run supporting in Ben is Back (even though he’s clearly lead), but he is most definitely lead in Boy Erased.
Steve Carell is also going to be competing against himself with two performances. The first is Beautiful Boy, another movie about addiction, playing opposite likely supporting actor nominee Timothee Chalamet. The second is Welcome to Marwen, which is really “All Steve Carell All the Time” (though no one has yet seen it).
Ethan Hawke gives one of his best and most fully realized performances in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. He plays a man of God whose faith is questioned when the crisis of climate change becomes impossible to ignore. He wrestles inwardly with not just his belief in God, but in the ways he’s held his own life together. It unravels slowly but spectacularly.
The best male performance I’ve seen this year is Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man, still the best film I’ve seen this year and much of that is due to Gosling’s performance. But whom are we kidding — this film is top to bottom genius work from Damien Chazelle. Although I admired his work in Blue Valentine, and in (of all things) Crazy Stupid Love, I’ve never seen Gosling dig into character work like he does here. It is subtle and it’s possible that people watching the film don’t know anything about Neil Armstrong. The more you know about him, the more impressed you are with Gosling. But he does have one heart wrenching scene where he must break down on camera — really cry. I suspect the reason he’s so good in this scene, and throughout the movie, really, is that Gosling is now a dad. He has connected deeply to that unending sorrow of being a parent who loses a child or who potentially could lose a child. Once you become a parent, you are plagued by this “what if.” Could he have done it without really knowing that deep agony? I’m not sure. Either way, I don’t know if this year is Gosling’s year, or if he’ll have to wait until he gains 50 pounds in mid-life to win one. Ugly them up, as they say, and pretty boys can finally win Oscars.
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody — by all accounts this is going to be another strong performance that might rise to the top of the pile once more people see the film. So far, only a hand-picked segment have seen some footage. He’ll have a real shot at a nod if it’s half as good as the trailer looks.
Robert Redford, The Old Man and the Gun — the role that is potentially the last of Redford’s long and esteemed career may be a bit understated to make it into the top five with such stiff competition. It is nonetheless worth seeing. The film is a pleasure to watch from start to finish and much of that is due to Redford’s on screen presence.
If I had to choose five right now, which is way to early to do that, I’d probably go with:
Christian Bale, Vice
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
John David Washington, BlackKklansman
Ryan Gosling, First Man
But it’s a tough call, I tell you that. A very very tough call.
How about a poll?