The Best Actor race usually hinges on two things. It’s linked to Best Picture by an unseen umbilical cord, and the hunt for heroes. These factors are not 100% foolproof, and as with all things Oscar, there are exceptions, but the general rule is that this is how the Oscars usually go.
Heroes are straight up good people doing good things, Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything, King George IV in The King’s Speech, Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, Harvey Milk in Milk, etc.
Failed heroes are those who tried at life, at stardom, at reaching for something but didn’t quite get there. They are good people trying to do good things but failing, like Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, like George Valentin in The Artist, like Hugh Glass in The Revenant.
Then there are the anti-heroes, the bad guys, who occasionally do win the Oscar, like Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Idi Amin in Last King of Scotland, Detective Alzono in Training Day.
Of all of these, I’d have to say those straight up heroes, especially ones based on real life characters are often hard to resist. The vote goes not just for the portrayal but for the person himself. How do you pass up Daniel Day Lewis doing Lincoln and winning his third Oscar? You don’t.
As far as being tied to Best Picture goes, with the expanded ballot it is rare to win Best Actor without having your film nominated. It has happened once with Jeff Bridges as a failed hero in Crazy Heart.
I would expect this year’s winner to be tied to a Best Picture contender. How do they line up in terms of the three categories?
Straight up heroes playing real life heroes:
Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lipp in Green Book
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man
Lucas Hedges as Jared (Garrard Conley) in Boy Erased
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlackKklansman
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody
Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy
Failed heroes playing real life failed heroes:
Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart
Clint Eastwood as Earl Stone in The Mule
Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker in The Old Man & The Gun
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice
Matthew McConaughey, White Boy Rick
Failed heroes not based on real life people:
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Ben Foster, Leave No Trace
Heroes not based on real life people:
Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther
There are probably names that I’m forgetting, and surely some of these categories are debatable but you get the idea.
This year, at least right now, it looks like we’re putting a failed hero (Bradley Cooper) up against a straight-up hero (Viggo Mortensen) and an anti-hero (Dick Cheney). All three of these actors are beloved in “town.” Cooper appears to have many more friends than I’d realized until A Star is Born launched. He definitely has a cadre of supporters, which means he’s a nice guy to work with on set. People like him and are advocating for him. Viggo Mortensen is a legend in terms of his genuine kindness. And of course, Christian Bale is respected and well liked as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
It’s a tough call. While it seems like Bradley Cooper has this walking in the door, one has to assess A Star is Born’s future overall. If it’s likely to win Best Picture, he’s not likely to win Best Actor, If it isn’t going to win Best Picture, he might win Best Actor. He could do what Lawrence Olivier did, of course, and win both. It’s certainly possible.
Are there other performances that might rise up and overtake these three? Well, it is only October. Anything can happen. Never underestimate Clint Eastwood, who has never won a Best Actor trophy. On the other hand, he’s also directing himself, so there’s that problem Bradley Cooper also has. For whatever reason, it’s only happened twice in all of Oscar history.
I also would not overlook Chadwick Boseman. Though I’ve been skeptical about Black Panther’s chances, if there is a surge of voting behind that movie and it does land in the top categories, good will for the film could push Boseman to the top of the list in a shocking twist to the season. If they want to give the movie something it might be that.
We still have a long way to go yet, but our first real hint will be who takes home the Golden Globe awards. Of course if it’s Cooper for A Star is Born and Viggo for Green Book, well, we’re in the same situation we’re in now.
How about you, Oscar watchers? Who has this?