The cliché about the Best Actor race goes that whoever has the greatest disability wins. It can be true, of course, because often there is little else to differentiate between equally great performances until you factor in level of difficulty: the harder and rougher the research for the part, the greater the chance an actor has to win. It does seem like the days of just liking a performance are gone. This might be due to so many films with such strong lead actor performances dominating the race. By contrast, women don’t seem to win based on level of difficulty all that often, although they certainly can, especially if they “ugly themselves up” by adding weight or a prosthetic to their otherwise perfect faces. Women tend to win if voters fall in love with them for a season, like Emma Stone last year. While it’s true that the performance matters, what seems to count more for women is their red carpet performance — being dressed up and charming and appearing everywhere all of the time. “Let them look at you, let them touch you” is a pretty good general rule for competitive acting contenders, but especially so for women. Julianne Moore can give a great performance in Still Alice or Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose, but their appearances and likability at events and at the mic matter just as much.
Where men are concerned, the red carpet thing isn’t quite as important but it is still a significant factor. Eddie Redmayne’s work in his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant and exceptional, but he was also the world’s most charming person at events. It did make a difference. Maybe Jean Dujardin would have won anyway for The Artist, but there is no question that his charming personality at events and at the mic made a difference in ultimately giving him the edge. Getting the nomination is about the performance. Pulling in the win sometimes means (though not always) showing up and charming the pants off of voters. This is in stark contrast to how it used to be back when Katharine Hepburn won four Best Actress Oscars while remaining fairly reclusive off screen. Why is it so different now? I don’t know. Actors seem to have less power overall than they used to. They don’t rule the way they once did. That might be part of it.
Gary Oldman gives (up to now) the best performance of the year in Darkest Hour. While it’s true that John Lithgow is brilliant in The Crown, and there have been other Churchills who have won awards, Oldman’s is astonishing. It helps that he’s the entire movie. He doesn’t share it with anyone else and he is essentially speaking throughout the whole film. His Churchill is so exacting and precise while also showing great humanity, humor, and vulnerability — it truly is a miracle to behold. There are your typical backlash-for-the-sake-of-backlash types out there that I’ve read, and surely there are more “was Churchill a bad man?” think pieces still to be written. But if we’re talking about what actors think about acting — not what critics or writers or directors think —but actors? Well, they will be greatly impressed with Oldman’s work here, especially for a man whose career has thus far gone largely unrecognized. It is Oldman’s time but it will be rough going for him, as it will be for anyone who is in line to win an Oscar.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger and Andrew Garfield in Breathe are the two actors with the most difficult disabilities in the race and both could find themselves nominated. One or the other getting nominated is probably better in terms of either winning — both at the same time might set them up a situation where votes will be split. Both stories involve a man faced with a devastating physical trauma — Gyllenhaal as a Boston Marathon bombing victim who loses both his legs and Garfield as someone stricken with polio. Both men seek to find happiness in the face of their disabilities. Both great actors, neither have won Oscars yet, and both are nearing the territory where they’re due, especially Gyllenhaal who turns in great performance after great performance after great performance and is somehow overlooked again and again and again. Without Oldman in the mix, it’s possible that this might have been his year.
That’s three already. Two that most are predicting have not yet been seen: Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming untitled film, and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in The Post. It’s possible both will get in, or one and not the other, or neither. We just don’t know. Given the cred of the projects and the actors involved it seems likely that they’re strong bets, even sight unseen. Day-Lewis has won three out of the five Oscars he’s been nominated for, making a pretty good argument that if he gets nominated he might win. He has three, Hanks has two — and that’s why they won’t be top of the list to win any time soon. On the other hand, you just never know.
Best Actor – Best Picture Connection
Nine out of the last 10 Best Actor winners have come from Best Picture nominees. That’s because the majority of the films in the Oscar race since they expanded the Best Picture ballot tell male-driven stories. Whether that’s due to how Hollywood changed or how the Academy changed is unclear. This year seems like the first in a long while where the Best Picture race could be dominated by women-driven films, which is extremely unusual. Last year, 6/9 of the Best Picture contenders had a male lead or were male protagonist-driven. In 2015 the tally was 5/8, in 2014 it was 7/8, in 2013 7/9, etc. Thus, the films that have a better chance to get in for Best Picture are the films that have the better chance for a Best Actor to win, which only helps Oldman as Darkest Hour, more so than Breathe or Stronger since the Churchill film has the Best Picture heat right now. That might change as the race progresses, of course.
The number of Best Actor nominees that come from Best Picture nominees varies from year to year. All five in 2013 did, but there were only two in 2015. Jeff Bridges managed to win for Crazy Heart even though it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture because he was so overdue for a win. It’s certainly possible that Oldman could still pull in a win even if Darkest Hour wasn’t nominated for Best Picture just because he’s so overdue.
Contrast that with Best Actress, where no Best Picture winner since 2004 has even had a Best Actress nominee, let alone a Best Actress winner. It probably helps to have your film nominated for Best Picture, but it doesn’t seem to really make that much of a difference.
Our Oscar squad picks lay out the other names:
Of these, Chalamet and maybe Jackman will come from Best Picture nominees, but a lot of the others might not. Denzel Washington is always a threat and will still be a threat with Roman Israel, Esq., but the reviews will have to get a bit better if that’s going to happen. Right now, on Rotten Tomatoes, Roman Israel has nine negative and 10 positive reviews. If Academy voters love Battle of the Sexes (if it were up to me, I’d put Steve Carell and Emma Stone in front of the audience when it screens — there are no two people more charming in Hollywood), then Carell could sneak in. But right now, I think Best Actor looks like this:
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger
Andrew Garfield, Breathe
Daniel Day-Lewis, Untitled PTA
Tom Hanks, The Post or Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
The thing about Spielberg and Hanks is that they are so reliably always always good that they are both taken for granted. But I feel like Hanks has built some cred without getting a nomination for too long now. That includes films like Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies. That tells me his time has come — but who knows, right? No one has seen the film and we don’t really know anything about it. Still, I would wager that The Post might finally be the film that lands Hanks his first nomination in almost 20 years. Chalamet is also a strong bet, especially with so many newer Academy members voting this year.
Either way, it’s a strange year when so many Oscar films are more Best Actress-heavy. That makes this year feel not as competitive as it often is in the Best Actor category, at least at the moment. Still, things could change. They always do.
Names to not forget:
Chadwick Boseman playing Thurgood Marshall – definitely has a shot.
James Franco in the Disaster Artist
Matt Damon – Downsizing and Suburbicon
Adam Sandler – The Meyerwitz Stories
Woody Harrelson, LBJ
Liam Neeson, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House