I think we can safely say that Best Actor is now down to a two-man race. Sometimes the race can split between two favorites, leaving a third option to surge in the 11th hour. I’m not sure that is going to happen this year but we’ll take a look back at the years when it did happen.
This race is primarily down to Eddie Redmayne (Globe, SAG) and Michael Keaton (Globe, Critics Choice). Stats-wise, you have to go back to 2003 to find a year when the SAG did not match the Oscar. In 2001, Russell Crowe was winning everything for A Beautiful Mind until there was an incident at the BAFTAs where Crowe cornered a backstage PA. It wasn’t like today’s race because back then there was more time between the rush of the race and the Oscars. They were still being held in March (as they should still be) and thus, there was more contemplation time. That allowed for an historic win for Denzel Washington who won alongside Halle Berry. In 2002, the famous Daniel Day-Lewis vs. Jack Nicholas vs. Adrien Brody allowed for one of the few surprises we’ve ever seen at the Oscars in the later years. But since then and in every other year, Best Actor at the SAG matches Best Actor at the Oscars. It is one of those stats you can take to the bank.
On the other hand, this is a weird, unpredictable year, with not a lot of sure bets so far. We don’t even know what is going to win Best Picture, or Best Director. The other three acting categories do seem sewn up. It’s only Best Actor, the single most competitive category this year (insert unnecessary explanation here) that could really swing either way.
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Michael Keaton as Riggan could not be more different. One is a high achiever, the other a notable failure. One is in a traditional British drama that everyone tends to like, the other is decidedly American, even with its Mexican director, and a highly stylized satire. Both films are loved for different reasons. Both men are loved and pitied. Both men have difficulty with women. One man changes how we think about time, space and the universe — overcoming the obstacle of a disease that left him immobile. The other about a man trying to overcome the obstacle of a culture that has left him behind.
The problem with Keaton winning over Redmayne is that it’s difficult to put the two performance side by side and have the majority choose Keaton. It is a little like last year with Matthew McConaughey alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. One gets votes for physically transforming his body and going as deep as an actor can go – the other gets points for essentially playing themselves but doing it really really well; they succeed mostly on how popular they are with fans and industry voters. If you did not know who Michael Keaton was, what his background was, and you set that performance alongside Redmayne’s it would be a no-brainer.
This was also, incidentally, the dynamic that played out between Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt (he’d already won an Oscar by that point) who mostly played himself very well, and Adrien Brody for The Pianist, which was the more transformative performance. Side by side, it was a no-brainer. There was also Daniel Day-Lewis in the mix for Gangs of New York but not only had he also already won an Oscar but no one liked that movie. Well, except me.
Finally, the potential spoiler in the race is not likely Benedict Cumberbatch, who has been hurt by having to film Sherlock overseas. The charming Englishman might have been able to work it if he’d had the opportunity. Bradley Cooper is actually the one to really fear for being the Adrien Brody that could upset this race.
While I don’t really think it’s possible, both American Sniper and Cooper have been underestimated from day one. No one thought Sniper was a good enough film to make it into the race but so many critics and voters disagreed with that. Some thought Cooper might make it in for Best Actor but he was considered a long shot. Now, you have a situation where he could win if the other two frontrunners split the vote and Sniper has enough support in the Academy to pull it through.
If Cooper did win, that would certainly reward the heartland demographic that will likely tune into the Oscars for the first time with Sniper in the race. Cooper’s was also a transformative performance – he gained a lot of weight and became Chris Kyle, for better or worse.
But I still think it’s down to Redmayne and Keaton.
Why Keaton could win: If Alejandro G. Inarritu wins the DGA and Birdman is headed for a massive Best picture win, that could pull Keaton into the fold. Conversely, if Richard Linklater wins the DGA, there could be more votes going to Keaton to make up for the non-win for Birdman. After all, Birdman is an ensemble piece but it’s really all about Keaton. Voters might decide that Boyhood and Linklater deserve to win Best Picture and Best Director but that they will share the wealth by giving Keaton the big win.
Why Keaton might not win: If voters elect to give Birdman Picture and Director, they won’t feel obligated to pick Keaton and will go with Redmayne instead, as they did at the SAG.
Why Redmayne could win: When you put the performances side by side one is clearly more difficult and accomplished. Not everyone liked Birdman – the characters are all prickly and self-centered. That’s part of the joke, of course, but it’s a subtle shift, not an obvious one like Redmayne as Hawking. Even people voting for Keaton will likely admit that Redmayne’s is the more difficult and therefore the better performance. He’s also working the publicity circuit harder than anyone else. He’s everywhere all of the time.
Why Redmayne might not win: Voters could feel that he’s young yet. He has a bright future ahead of him, where this could be Keaton’s last chance to win. My own sympathies tend to lean in that direction since I don’t hold much value in any of these awards as meaning anything unless they mean something. A Keaton win would, to me, mean something.
Whom do you think will prevail?