It’s odd that so many observers are concluding they know beyond any doubt who is going to win Best Actor so early in the season. It’s only September. Those out of the gate are coming in hot with their takes. It’s hard to tell at this stage if that’s good or bad. The films and performances they’re talking about are for movies that haven’t even been released yet.
Each contender will be writing their “Oscar story” starting now. Every contender and winner will have one. Sometimes it’s a comeback story, sometimes it’s a “they finally win” story. Sometimes it’s an underdog story. But the story must build from momentum, not from what a critic or pundit or blogger thinks. Sure, they can guess but I’m reading stuff like so-and-so is winning for sure. I guess it doesn’t matter what people say. We’re not curing cancer here. We’re just wildly guessing, hoping to get it right.
Last year, almost at this exact time, I wrote a piece called Gary Oldman and his challengers. It was a bit all over the place in terms of predictions, with a few names up front, like Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread. But it was clear that around this time last year it was Gary Oldman’s to lose. This year, there isn’t a frontrunner like that in the Best Actor race. There are a few contenders who seem strong heading in, but we’re missing one big one and that’s Christian Bale as Dick Cheney for Vice.
Oldman had an urgency about his win. The first reason was that he was overdue. The second reason was the his work in Darkest Hour, despite the chattering online, was unequivocal. There wasn’t going to be a better performance. That was pretty clear. But it was more than that. It was how Oldman acted “on the campaign trail.” He didn’t just take it for granted that he was winning. He was out there, doing interviewers, talking to people, showing himself to be kind and grateful for the awards so far. He was building his momentum and Oscar story from the perspective of someone who did not believe he was going to win, but also the perspective of someone who knew it was now or never to reach for it.
One of the Oscar stories this year, so far, is Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born. His directorial debut alongside one of his best performances makes him a top contender for the big prize. Will they give him Best Actor if the movie doesn’t win Best Picture? It’s easy to see him winning at SAG, though, isn’t it? The combo of the movie’s popularity with actors and his own career trajectory seems like a pretty good Oscar story right now.
But he’s got competition. Viggo Mortensen has a pretty good Oscar story, the least of which is that he appears to have gained a lot of weight to play Tony Lip in Green Book. He’s also an actor who has transformed himself again and again to play a variety of different characters. But the real reason he’s such a strong contender is the warmth for his character and the film overall. That could prove too much to resist — if Green Book heads into the race as one of the top contenders for Best Picture, his chances double. But we’re not there yet. He is about as overdue, if not more so, than Cooper is.
And then there’s Willem Dafoe playing Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Talk about your Oscar story. Dafoe came really close last year with The Florida Project. It was clear that he was at a stage in his career where people really want to reward him for such a long and as such unrewarded career. The only problem is that often Best Actor is married to Best Picture. That has been true of all of the winners for Best Actor since they expanded the ballot, save for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.
Gary Oldman–Darkest Hour
Casey Affleck–Manchester by the Sea
Leo DiCap–The Revenant
Eddie Redmayne–Theory of Everything
Matthew McConaughey–Dallas Buyers Club
Jean DuJardin–The Artist
Colin Firth–The King’s Speech
Jeff Bridges–Crazy Heart
Of these past winners, two of them were featured in Best Picture winners.
Speaking of Best Picture, one of the strongest contenders right now is First Man, Damien Chazelle’s biopic about Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong so perfectly, and the entire movie is just his face, sometimes just his eyes. Gosling takes us into a man who was mostly opaque, someone who did not show his grief even to his wife. It’s a marvelous work and his best performance.
That’s before you get to Christian Bale. We hold a spot for him because we know great he is, and we know how great of a director Adam McKay is. But no one has seen the movie yet. Does Bale have an Oscar story? He doesn’t really because he’s already won an Oscar, for supporting. A win for him in lead would be because he turned in an unequivocal performance.
That’s five already. The way punditry works online is that we tend to pack the list of frontrunners with our favorites. But we don’t know if we’re right, or wrong. We just take a guess. There are only five slots. But there are other possibilities — like John David Washington, who is the lead in BlackKklansman. If that is a film that will get nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, there is a good chance he will be nominated.
There are two old timers, neither of whom have won an Oscar for Best Actor and that’s the esteemed Robert Redford, whose Oscar story could bring down the house playing a bank robber in The Old Man & The Gun, and Clint Eastwood for The Mule, playing a guy who grew flowers but was also a drug mule. They’re both playing outlaws and both are in the last gasp of their careers. Neither can be counted out.
The race is so packed that how does one even begin to fit in the well deserving Ethan Hawke for his work in First Reformed? Hawke plays a priest who must decide what to do with the information and realization that all of this is about to end and that it’s the fault of humans. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is without question one of the best films of the year but the Oscar race is a funny thing. It rarely captures the right movies. It captures the ones who work the hardest to be paid attention to.
Lucas Hedges has two performances, which will likely split his the vote among his supporters. He plays a young gay writer whose parents force him into gay conversion therapy in Boy Erased, and he plays a former drug addict fighting for sobriety and working through his relationship with his mother in Ben is Back. Both are great but how to decide?
Hugh Jackman plays Gary Hart in The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s second film this year. It’s a great performance but it will just have to come down to how much voters like the movie overall. Then there is Matthew McConaughey in White Boy Rick and of course, last but not least, Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. But as you can see, things start to get very packed as the season wears on. Picks tend to revolve around films that people like a lot, and the performance gets dragged along with the film — or vice-versa. They like the performance so much the film gets dragged along. Either way, Picture and Actor are forever linked.
It’s probably still too early to talk about the Golden Globes. Do any of these I’ve mentioned qualify for a Musical/Comedy category? Well, Green Book might — and A Star is Born might — and BlackKklansman might. I’ve heard yes and no on all of these. But whichever one does break through, that could give an acting contender a chance to win where they might not ordinary get one. Or if Cooper and Mortensen are both in comedy — then someone in drama could win and run with the momentum there.
Either way, it’s still too early to call winners. You have to wait until at least everything has been seen. And it hasn’t been. Tick tock. Tick tock.