It’s been a rough year for lead actors in films: none of them have emerged unscathed. Even Ryan Gosling as the jazz musician following his dream in La La Land realizes all too late that he took the best things in life for granted. But that’s nothing when you consider Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea who wishes his worst regret was taking his wife and kids for granted. What he suffers in this film is something he can’t ever get over. He’ll never be over it. It will haunt him until the day he dies. This much is abundantly clear in Manchester by the Sea. He lives for his nephew and barely so. Affleck led the race early in the year because the Kenneth Lonergan work is among the most highly acclaimed films of the year.
Affleck, indeed, has been earning acclaim since Sundance. But Nate Parker was the person who led the very early part of the race back then. Once he was taken out of the race because of a 17 year-old case, Affleck really rose to prominence. Which is somewhat ironic since Manchester by the Sea really is about someone trying to get over something terrible that happened in the past – something he can’t wrestle free from. The film makes the case that mistakes in one’s past, deliberate or careless, can be and should be forgiven. The internet clearly doesn’t agree, with regard to Parker anyway.
Affleck seemed to have no challenger for the win until Denzel Washington came along. His breathtaking performance in Fences, despite being mostly ignored by the critics (no comment) towers above the rest. That is simply the fact of the matter. Maybe people don’t like his character as much as some of the others, maybe they’re not fans of Washington, or maybe they think three Oscars is too much for him. And indeed, actors who are directed by themselves do have a harder time winning for whatever reason. Roberto Benigni is one example where they did.
But Washington and Affleck did seem to be the two strongest. That is, until the one-two punch of Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge and Silence. A British actor, he tackles a southern accent in Hacksaw and a Portuguese accent in Silence. In both films he is imbued with Christ-like characteristics – a martyr who chooses an unconventional path and very much operates from a position of faith. Strangely enough, he fights Japanese soldiers in both films: first in 17th century Japan in Silence, and then later in WWII in Okinawa. He has farther to go in Hacksaw Ridge, where he starts out as a bright eyed idealistic soldier who then becomes so deeply affected by the ravages of war he emerges a changed man, although at the end he remains true to his pacifism.
Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a Private First Class for the U.S. Army who wishes to serve his country, but refuses to pick up a weapon and fight. He works as a medic on the battlefield and ends up saving the lives of many men by helping them and not getting killed himself. It must be said about Hacksaw Ridge that the battle scenes are astonishing. Although many have said that they indulge too much in violence – rather, I think that’s the whole point of them. Humans are violent by nature, and it took this kind of perspective to break through to audiences who have become accustomed to scenes on the battlefield in the many films that have been made about them. Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Longest Day, etc. But Hacksaw Ridge, I thought, was symbolic in nature since it very specifically makes the point about someone who is choosing non-violence amid the most violent, bloody, unimaginable horrors of war. You find yourself thinking throughout the film, why do we do this to each other? And indeed, why do we?
Garfield then plays a Portuguese Jesuit priest in 17th century Japan who seeks out the “hidden Christians” or “Kakure Kirishitan” who continue to practice the Catholic faith after it became illegal to do so. Based on the novel by Japanese Catholic Shūsaku Endō, the story explores the test of faith amid suffering, but specifically the suffering of others. How can God remain silent when so many are dying just for the chance to believe? The priest then has an internal argument with God – and wonders whether he is self-serving by not renouncing his faith to save so many who follow him. Garfield must endure watching the torture and deaths of innocents, which eventually nearly destroys him.
In both films, Garfield really is an observer whose participation either saves lives or gets them killed depending on how you look at a conscientious objector on the battlefield or a priest whose faith in God is stronger, in some cases, than his desire to save lives. In both films there is no easy answer for the actor, who wrestles with his own morality. God does not tell him what to do in Silence, because of course, for the most part (without spoiling the film) the “word” silence means just that. But he is guided by his faith, no doubt. In Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, he does not buckle while watching the carnage unfold.
That gives us two Andrew Garfield performances and both are worthy of awards recognition. And, given the level of difficulty and the versatility he displays, it’s also possible he could win, Adrien Brody style, for one or the other. Therein lies the rub. How to choose?
Tom Hanks in Sully, Joel Edgerton in Loving, and Ryan Gosling in La La Land are also among the strongest contenders for the prize. If La La Land goes over very big, Gosling will be among the five nominees. But right now I’ll wager that it’s Hanks and Edgerton, just barely. Of course, if Garfield’s two competing roles cancels him out by vote splitting, all three could get in.
One thing to consider, of course, is if La La Land is indeed your Best Picture frontrunner, then it seems likely that the lead performance will get in. Gosling learned to play piano for the part so that he would look authentic doing it. Chazelle didn’t want to cut away and put someone else in there – he wanted it to really be Gosling.
One thing we can say for sure – the Best Actor race is competitive, with no one single name locked and loaded for the win.
What we do know is that these performances really are tied to Best Picture, even if the last time all five were in Best Picture nominees was 2013:
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Denzel Washington, Fences
Andrew Garfield, Silence + Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Joel Egerton, Loving
Chris Pine, Hell or High Water
Outside the realm of Best Picture, you have:
Adam Driver, Paterson
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Warren Beatty, Rules Don’t Apply
Miles Teller, Bleed for This