The Best Actor race has been packed at every stage this year, with no end in sight, and other promising films still yet to be seen. We’re still waiting on Sam Mendes war epic 1917 before we can fill up the already WAY TOO PACKED Best Actor race. What will make the difference in who gets in and who doesn’t often comes down to three key factors:
1) Strength of the Best Picture vehicle (The Irishman, if it goes in strong will sweep De Niro with it).
2) Strength of the performance on its own.
3) Status or love for the actor.
Those are the three key deciding factors that can be enhanced by a sharp publicity team behind them. And each of those currently dominating the Best Actor race now, in general, has all three. So, as far as we can tell, which performances right now easily have all three? (General disclaimer – nobody knows anything until the season officially starts, and right now it’s still in the echo chamber phase).
As we know from recent past, since the Academy expanded the ballot in 2009, the only Best Actor contender to win without a corresponding Best Picture nomination was Jeff Bridges who won for Crazy Heart. Other than that, every Best Actor winner has starred in BP nominee. Thus, when looking for our frontrunner we need first to be looking for the potential Best Picture nominees.
A preferential nomination ballot means that the most passionate favorites will earn a top spot. And any of those three key factors can drive passion. But in general, it’s actors that decide, since they’re by far the largest branch. Not bloggers, not critics, not producers, not writers, or even directors — but ACTORS. This is their call, whose performances land. Actors are very particular about their craft. Star power, as always, is a major factor.
So the first question will be is Robert De Niro the frontrunner for Best Actor and does that mean The Irishman is a de facto frontrunner for Best Picture? I think that it is too soon to declare any actor or film a frontrunner with so much competition, so many variables, and narratives yet to be born. But I will say in terms of De Niro, the actors will have the final say on whether they see the performance as a pure performance and not too enhanced by CGI. While the de-aging has zero impact on those of us who have seen the film, actors are a different animal than critics. Many of them may feel threatened by that which they feel is about to diminish or alter the perception of their work. Will that be the case here as it’s been with motion-capture performances, like in the Lord of the Rings series or Avatar? Most of The Irishman doesn’t employ the technique but the first part of it does. It’s a wait and see on that one, I’d say.
But there is no question that, right now, the actors in The Irishman drive the thing, which is funny considering in Scorsese films it’s the directing that ordinarily does. But here he pulls back a bit, I’d say, and leaves a lot of it up to De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci. It is, to that extent, an actors showcase which makes it a lot more like The Departed, which won Best Picture.
So De Niro is a major force, without a doubt. Right behind him, Leonardo Dicaprio for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a near lock, if you like putting your chips on one contender. The film itself, to my mind, remains the frontrunner to win — its main challengers right now, I’d say, would be Jojo Rabbit and The Irishman. We’re still waiting to see 1917 and Little Women, thus, a lot can change, but for now DiCaprio’s work in Once is most likely one of the five.
Next, we have Eddie Murphy, who has never won an Oscar and was shafted for Dreamgirls in 2006. Now I know this is outside the conversation folks are having about the Oscar race but having seen the film I can tell you he’s a contender and if he’s a contender for the nomination, he’s a contender to win. His Dolemite is endearing and memorable. While the film and the performance haven’t yet picked up the kind of buzz that you’d expect (because it’s such a crowded race already), Dolemite only has one direction to go and that’s up. The box office will be very impressive and I expect people will fall in love with him and with the movie. I even think Dolemite, along with The Irishman could get into the SAG ensemble category. At any rate, keep an eye on it. Dolemite at the Oscars would breathe a lot of necessary life into a mostly dour affair.
Jonathan Pryce is fantastic in The Two Popes, another Netflix movie, and it isn’t clear how this all will go. Which films are most likely to get in for Best Picture COULD determine whether or not an actor gets in. In Pryce’s case, it would definitely help if the film overall was included. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar, but love for the performance is going to have to also be love for the film. His Pope Frances is a revelation and hopefully, he will be recognized.
Adam Driver is the fourth Netflix contender in Marriage Story. Out of Telluride, he was seen as the frontrunner but I was never sure about that. Once again, it will have to depend on the two key factors: how many Netflix films are getting in, and whether or not Marriage Story gets in. Marriage Story’s fate, like The Irishman, like Dolemite, like The Two Popes, sits squarely on the idea of the merging media platforms and roll-outs for feature films. It’s kind of nuts, actually, there are so many options this year with an abundance of films and performances that are “Oscar-worthy.”
Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit is one of those performances that could get swept aloft in enthusiasm for the film. He’s great throughout, as is the entire cast. The performance on its own would not have a chance but if it’s a strong Best Picture frontrunner, which it is, his is a performance to consider, even with all of the competition because either it will be met with passionate enthusiasm or it won’t. Passionate enthusiasm means nominations across the board.
Adam Sandler gives probably a career-best performance in Uncut Gems, which I suspect will do very well with early critics awards. While it’s a possible bet for Best Picture too, it’s really Sandler who has the strongest shot at a nomination. At least sight unseen. I might change my mind on it once I see the film.
Joaquin Phoenix is the kind of actor who is respected enough to earn nominations in the past and his work in Joker is apparently one of the best of the year (I have yet to see the film). He’s definitely one of the strong contenders who could get in on performance alone, even if the film itself doesn’t make it in for Best Picture. It will need a lot of support from critics and it could very well get it.
Finally, George MacKay and/or Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917 might be the fifth Best Actor contender who gets in on the strength of the film, which looks really really good. Quite a feat to act an entire movie in a single take (even though there’s some slight of hand). In fact, the entire ensemble might be rewarded in such a case – that is a huge challenge for actors overall – it’s like doing a play where you don’t break character for two hours. How they achieved the feat for this film is going to be interesting to discover.
Other strong contenders are Michael B. Jordan for Just Mercy, Christian Bale for Ford V. Ferrari, and Antonio Banderas for Pain & Glory. Banderas, in particular, seems to have a really good shot at getting in, with or without his film being nominated for Best Picture, but to win he would need that extra boost. Bale would benefit from overall love for his film, and Jordan is one of those who could get in either way.
Those that are less certain, but not total write-offs yet, include: Edward Norton for Motherless Brooklyn, Robert Pattinson for The Lighthouse, Taron Egerton for Rocketman, and Adam Driver again for The Report.
Right now, my five would be:
Robert DeNiro, The Irishman
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite
Leonardo Dicaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes or Adam Driver, Marriage Story (not both)
Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Christian Bale, Ford V Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory