Dick Cheney, Vincent van Gogh, Tony Vallelonga, and Freddie Mercury walk into a bar. The only one of the five Best Actor nominees that isn’t based on a living person is Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born. The other four are all real live people with their own distinct origin stories.
Each represents a different era in time and has a different reason for being someone important enough to warrant their own movie biography. The only one of these men still alive is Dick Cheney, who remains an important American figurehead, revered by some Americans and hated by others.
Dick Cheney, mastermind and warmonger. Van Gogh, beloved post-impressionist genius who lost his mind and died too young. Tony Lipp, an ignorant kid from the Bronx who got enlightened and made a lifelong friend. Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen and LGBTQ icon.
One of the amazing things about this year’s Best Actor race is that it has come down to the one hero of the bunch. While each of these characters has something heroic about them (even Dick Cheney), the only one unequivocally regarded as a hero is Mercury, both because the rousing songs of Queen live on and because of the way Mercury lived and died. The barriers he overcame and the legacy he left behind are the things that drive the legend and the potential Best Actor win.
With the exception of Melissa McCarthy and Olivia Colman, the Best Actress race is less about transformation and more about authenticity. Not so with Best Actor. This is probably due to the simple fact that, at least so far, history has mostly been made by men, specifically white men. They have had a lock on it for centuries. There are simply more world-renowned men for actors to embody.
All five of these performances showcase actors transforming themselves into someone completely different than who they are. When compared with the Best Actress race, it’s easy to see how few female characters, even powerhouse performances, are given that kind of transformative work to anchor a Best Picture contender. The same goes for actors of color, for the most part.
Why does Rami Malek have the edge? Because he won the Globe (drama) and the Screen Actors Guild. Believe it or not, there was a time when Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t even considered a Best Picture contender and, thus, Malek seemed like a long shot. As late as November 28, we wrote a column called Can Bohemian Rhapsody Defy Critics and Earn a Best Picture Nomination? Well, of course it did, though at the time most people were skeptical.
Malek seems to have the edge because of both his general likability as an actor, the success of the film (currently at $208 mil domestic), and the likability of his character. Meanwhile, Christian Bale’s film, Vice, perversely landed in the comedy category at the Globes. It’s extremely rare for the Globe comedy winner to go on and win Best Actor. In 20 years, only two have done so: Jamie Foxx for Ray and Jean DuJardin for The Artist. By contrast, the Globe drama winner has gone on to win the Oscar 12 out of the last 20 times.
It’s safe to say that Malek’s wins have taken everyone by surprise, though much of that had to do with so much punditry focused on Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born being the early frontrunner. Viggo Mortensen seemed like a lock at some point, due to the fact that he’s never won and Green Book was looking like a film that couldn’t lose. Then it switched over to Christian Bale, though the fate of Vice itself seemed uncertain.
There is no doubt that there was a major disconnect between the critics and bloggers who covered the race and the actual voters. With Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody being so popular with audiences and voters, they really did seem to rise above the chatter, to produce, at the very least, a lead actor win for Malek.
There is no doubt that this has been a confounding season in many ways, and one of those is most certainly the surprise rise of Rami Malek.