Gold Derby has Best Actor divided between Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea and Denzel Washington for Fences, with Joel Edgerton as a third possible option for the race that still has no official frontrunner. Before the Fences trailer dropped, no one was really sure what to expect from Washington. Now that we’ve seen the trailer we’re guessing he’ll be a tremendous threat for a few reasons, which we’ll go into later. Casey Affleck is a strong contender because the entire film is driven by his internal emotional world. Finally, Joel Edgerton is similarly brilliant, showing his dazzling versatility in a much more subtle performance than the other two in Loving.
As we did with Best Actress, we’ll look at what generally drives a Best Actor winner. I believe there are three things:
1) They greatly transform themselves with a disability, weight gain, accent, disguise, brutal experience.
2) they star in a very popular Best Picture frontrunner and/or winner but usually goes with #1 – if they don’t transform themselves and merely star in a Best Picture winner, they sometimes lose, especially in the modern era.
3) They are a beloved, popular veteran that either people really like a lot (Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets) or they are very very overdue (Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart, Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman, Paul Newman, The Color of Money).
Those are the three ways actors tend to win. Jeff Bridges is the only winner since the Oscar race expanded from five nominees to more than five to win without a corresponding Best Picture win. Let’s look at how they’ve won:
2015-Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant — overdue, transformed himself with brutal shoot/suffering, Best Picture frontrunner
2014 – Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything — transformed himself into Stephen Hawking, Best Picture nominee
2013 – Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club — transformed himself by losing 40 pounds, Best Picture nominee
2012 – Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln — transformed himself INTO Lincoln, Best Picture nominee
2011 – Jean DuJardin, The Artist – acted in a silent film, Best Picture winner
2010 – Colin Firth, The King’s Speech — transformed himself with disability, Best Picture winner
2009 – Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart — transformed himself as a drunk, but OVERDUE VETERAN
2008 – Sean Penn, Milk — transformed himself into Harvey Milk, Best Picture nominee
2007 – Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood — transformed himself into an oil man, plus Best Picture nominee
2006 – Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland — transformed himself into Idi Amin.
2005 – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote – transformed himself into Capote, Best Picture nominee
2004 – Jamie Foxx, Ray — transformed himself into Ray Charles, Best Picture nominee
2003 – Sean Penn, Mystic River – OVERDUE VETERAN, plus Best Picture nominee
2002 – Adrien Brody, The Pianist – transformed himself by losing weight, Best Picture nominee
2001 – Denzel Washington, Training Day — transformed himself into an evil villain OVERDUE VETERAN
2000 – Russell Crowe, Gladiator — Best Picture winner
1999 – Kevin Spacey, American Beauty — Best Picture winner
1998 – Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful — Best Picture nominee
1997 – Jack Nicholson, As Good as It Gets — transformed himself with disability, BELOVED VET, Best Picture nominee
1996 – Geoffrey Rush, Shine — transformed himself with disability, Best Picture nominee
And on and on it goes. You can see that there is a slight shift in 2000 away from popular stars like Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe who really won because their movie won towards more transformative performances where the actor is expected to do more and be more for their Oscar. Being a big star that everyone likes won’t really cut it starting with 2001 and moving forward. Now, you really do have to be either way, way overdue, or you have to transform yourself. In general, it always helps to be in a Best Picture nominee or winner.
We’ve seen a few of the performances that are up for the prize but haven’t yet seen Denzel Washington’s whole performance in Fences. We’ve seen Joel Edgerton and Casey Affleck.
Last year, all five frontrunners were predicted to be nominated early in the race. The only performance that had not been seen by the end was Leonardo DiCaprio. It was assumed he would win before anyone saw the film and his performance lived up to expectations. The year prior to that, only Bradley Cooper from American Sniper had not been seen by now. And before that, Christian Bale for American Hustle and Leonardo DiCaprio for Wolf of Wall Street were the late comers.
With one or two exceptions, we should expect to be getting the bulk of our nominees from films we’ve already seen. If there is a hard core Oscar winning performance on the horizon, I would expect we would have already heard about that performance. There is no Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant this year – there is no one hovering around who is overdue in that way.
My problem with Casey Affleck winning is that he does not really transform himself in Manchester by the Sea. He’s a relatively young actor and is not yet anywhere near overdue. I cannot find a recent example that supports him as a winner. That doesn’t mean he won’t win or can’t win. He could catch a wave of buzz and with enough support from critics he could pull in a win. A similar thing revolves around Edgerton. He’s not overdue and though he does transform himself and is quite brilliant in this incarnation, I’m not sure there is enough there to beat Affleck, for example. These two side by side seem to point to Affleck.
That brings me to Denzel Washington for Fences, Dev Patel for Lion or some other performance we haven’t seen and can’t predict, like Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge or Silence, Matthew McConoughey in Gold, Joe Alwyn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. These are the late breakers that might surge in the later part of the year.
And then there is Tom Hanks for Sully. Hanks won two lead Oscars back to back, a feat only accomplished before by Spencer Tracy. Those two wins have him up as the opposite of overdue. But Sully is such a massive hit, and the character is such a beloved hero that it’s possible, just possible that he could ride a kind of wave. He would win his third Oscar for a transformation and being a beloved vet who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since Cast Away, 16 years ago.
But really, what might be the driving force behind this year’s Best Actor race could revolve more around the idea of the lack of diversity in the Oscar race. Might this prize not go to a white actor at all, might it instead go to an actor of color, like Dev Patel in Lion or more likely at the moment, Denzel Washington for Fences.
Nate Parker, incidentally, will be trying to shift gears a bit this week as The Birth of a Nation prepares to open. He’s going on 60 Minutes just prior to the film’s opening. How that plays might determine whether he’s among the Best Actor contenders. It is, as always, a very competitive year.
I do not know the answers but my socks were knocked off by many performances this year – Affleck’s, Edgerton’s, Hanks’ — just amazing. I did get a bit of “that funny feeling” I sometimes get during the Oscar race when I see something I think “is it.” And though it’s way too soon to tell how this will go – honestly, there is no real solid frontrunner and it could go anyway, but – but – but – that funny feeling tells me that Mr. Washington could be looking at his third Oscar win, and second win for lead, which would make Oscar history; no black actor has won two leading actor Oscars, though plenty white actors have. Not Sidney Poitier, not Morgan Freeman, not Denzel Washington. It’s President’s Obama’s second term as the nation’s first black President. It’s been ten years since a person of color won Best Actor. If there is any year where we might break that record, it’s likely this one. Just saying.
The five I would say at the moment are the strongest — without having seen Fences yet:
Denzel Washington, Fences
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Tom Hanks, Sully
Michael Keaton, The Founder
Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge/Silence
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Miles Teller, Bleed for This
But it’s a bear. Best Actor this year is a bear. We know that it’s strongly tied to Best Picture. We know that in general they prefer a transformative performance. We know that Oscarssowhite. But in many ways, we’re drifting in this category. It could go either way.