For much of Oscar history, Best Actor has been the strongest driver of Best Picture next to Best Director. Most of the films that have won Best Picture have been male driven, and usually have a central male character and/or performance, which few exceptions:
2019-Parasite (ensemble but mostly a central male protagonist)
2018-Green Book (check)
2017-The Shape of Water (no)
2015-Spotlight (ensemble but mostly male protagonists)
2013-12 Years a Slave (Check)
2011-The Artist (Check)
2010-The King’s Speech (Check)
2009-The Hurt Locker (Check)
2008-Slumdog Millionaire (Check)
2007-No Country for Old Men (Check)
2006-The Departed (Check)
This year, however, if Nomadland is the frontrunner it won’t be driven by a central male lead or male characters but by a female, Frances McDormand. That makes the Best Actor race a little bit different.
The Oscar voters, as far as I can tell, have never liked being a forgone conclusion, thus it’s always playing a bit with fire to predict that they will positively absolutely do something without giving them the benefit of the doubt that they might not. But be that as it may, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who watched the performance of Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and not see it as unequivocal. Boseman knew he was dying but no one else did, at least not publicly. The beloved actor was mourned throughout the world after his untimely passing. Then, to see such a bold, brilliant work delivered posthumously has only really added to the majesty of it; how many actors give performances like that, knowing they are at death’s door? He has nothing to do lose and he gives everything to the part. It is unlike any other performance I’ve ever seen at all, let alone this year.
Thus, checking off Boseman’s name for a win would not be a hard call. But the Oscar voters are a different breed and the voting timeline is still ways off. March 5th to March 10th is when voters will have ballots in hand. We still have January and February to go. That makes these next two months like the November and December, or maybe October and November of previous years.
There are still a few films to be seen to get the full spectrum of the year’s offerings, but we do have some clues as to how this might go. Those clues being, which performances, by the standards of bloggers and critics, have stood out besides Boseman’s? Are we just looking the fill up the other four nominees or does anyone else have a chance to beat Boseman?
The way the bloggers do it is they move around chess pieces to make a picture of something that makes sense. So you might see someone saying Delroy Lindo should win for lead for Da 5 Bloods but they’ll want to give Boseman “something” so he’ll win in Supporting for that film. But disregarding the Chess factor for a moment, let’s just look at performances.
The second strongest contender would be Anthony Hopkins who plays a man trying to cope with the onset of dementia in The Father. Because it’s such a good movie, it is probably going to be a contender in other categories, like Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actress, maybe editing. The film takes you right inside his point of view to show you just how confusing it is, how frightening it is, how unpredictable it is. It is a masterful work by Hopkins, topping off a long and distinguished career as one of the greatest actors ever. Hopkins is a previous Oscar winner for The Silence of the Lambs.
Gary Oldman is a chameleon who was last seen playing Winston Churchill and winning Best Actor for it. Now he’s playing Herman Mankiewicz, the notorious co-writer of Citizen Kane. Oldman’s Mank is a smart-mouthed raconteur whose life is a series of compromises until he gets his hands on Citizen Kane. A compulsive gambler, alcoholic and perpetual Don Quixote himself (though he suggests William Randolph Hearst is a Don Quixote), Oldman’s Mank has the sense that he’s barely alive. It isn’t that he’s dying so much as he’s worn out. In a burst of inspiration, he creates something magnificent — not only does it almost end his marriage and his career, but it takes so much out of him there isn’t much left by the end.
Tom Hanks stars in his best performance in a while, although where Tom Hanks is concerned, does he ever give a bad performance? News of the World is one of the best films of the year and a likely Best Picture contender, along with Best Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, and maybe other awards like Sound and Costume. There aren’t many large scale productions on offer this year so the ones that will fill up the categories like this one are worth watching out for.
Riz Ahmed has been gaining buzz as a musician who loses his hearing and must suddenly learn how to live, love, and survive as a newly deaf person. Ahmed approaches the role with a ferociousness makes it a strong standout this year. It’s hard to tell if the movie itself is a Best Picture contender, but it’s possible if it’s anchored to Ahmed’s performance.
Delroy Lindo gives the performance of his career in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Scene after scene, he stands out in a large cast and broad narrative that spans from the US to Vietnam. Da 5 Bloods came out early in the year but has hld its ground with critics so far, which means there is a decent chance Lindo makes it into the top five, even if the film may not be in the Best Picture race.
Steven Yeun is the star of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, about a Korean immigrant who comes to tame the Arkansas farmlands and make a home in the American South. It is the story that has parallels with Chung’s own childhood, with Yuen as his stoic, influential father. This film is one of the strongest contenders of the year and fits the model of your typical Best Picture winner in that it is a feelgood story, good people doing good things and has a male protagonist.
This turns out to be not exactly the best year for Ben Affleck‘s The Way Back, which was delayed due to COVID and never really had the right time frame to make it into the race, as far as it goes. There isn’t exactly a “race.” It is simply a matter of which performances voters will think about when they fill out their ballots. But Affleck is great in the role and a big enough star that people might watch the movie at least.
There are other strong male leads that could be swept along if a film is well liked enough, like Judas and the Black Messiah, for instance, with Lakeith Stanfield in lead and Daniel Kaluuya in supporting. There is also the father/son duo in Viggo Mortenson‘s Falling. One will be lead and the other supporting.
There is also Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X in One Night in Miami – which seems like a strong contender for SAG ensemble. There is also George Clooney in The Midnight Sky. Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round. And what might be a last minute surprise, John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie.
If this was an ordinary year and the Golden Globe nominations were headed down the pike – I think those two categories might go something like this:
Best Actor, Drama
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Tom Hanks, News of the World
Gary Oldman, Mank
George Clooney, The Midnight Sky, or Ben Affleck, The Way Back
Best Actor Musical/Comedy
Leslie Odom, Jr (unless supporting)
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat
Bill Murray, On the Rocks (unless supporting)
Andy Samberg, Palm Springs
Pete Davidson, King of Staten Island
There is potentially James Corden for The Prom who would bump somebody.
Obviously for the Oscars the drama category will likely leave off Clooney or Affleck and add maybe Delroy Lindo or Steven Yeun.