Oscar voting doesn’t start for at least another month. Most of us who cover the race are still trying to adjust to having the date slightly extended from what it used to be. Voting on the nominations ballot used to occur between Christmas and New Year’s. But now, it’s a bit later, mid-January. A lot can happen between now and then that can change how we see these awards.
Like, the Golden Globes nominations and ceremony. From a quick look at the key dates, we can see how the Globes are still in the sweet spot to be the most influential of the award shows, give or take a scandal or two (or three or four). Let’s just set that aside for now but it will be important later.
December 12 — Globes nominations
January 3 — Globes final ballots due
January 10 — Golden Globe Awards
January 11 — DGA nominations announced
January 12 — PGA nominations announced
January 12 — Oscar nomination ballots go out
January 15 — Critics Choice Awards
January 17 — Oscar nomination ballot deadline
January 24 — Oscar nominations announced
The date you always want to pay attention to, obviously, is the Oscar ballot deadline. Everything that happens before that shapes and/or influences the nominations. As you can see, we have a long way to go before we get to that point.
However, the Best Actor race does seem to be down to three at the moment. Each of these frontrunners has a motivating factor that will determine their prospects for a win.
The year started out with an astonishing box office surprise, Top Gun: Maverick, earning $1.5 billion worldwide. For a movie that isn’t a superhero or fantasy film to make that kind of money should send a message to Hollywood about what it takes to drive a hit. Even if that message was sent, it fell on deaf ears. We aren’t there yet. Hollywood has not yet abandoned its desire to change the world. It hasn’t yet decided to prioritize making money over being altruistic. So there is very little chance they’re going to say: Tom Cruise should win Best Actor.
And in fact, in any era that would have been true. That isn’t the kind of performance that wins Oscars. Beautiful men have to “ugly” themselves up to win, typically speaking. We rarely see a “golden boy” win without some sort of physical transformation: they lose or gain 50 pounds, they’re wrestling with a disability, etc.
This year, we have two actors in the race who fit the bill. The year began with Austin Butler playing Elvis Presley and just nailing it. Not an easy task, filling the shoes of The King. But he captured the voice, the body language, the singing — and most importantly, the tragedy of Elvis. Our memory of a faltering hero for whom fame was too much, too soon.
Elvis made around $150 million, which is almost unheard of nowadays. Some Oscar movies are lucky if they even make $10 million at this rate, but Elvis sailed through, becoming that rare universal hit everyone would love but few are able to attain. A lot of that is due to the popularity of Elvis himself, but much of it was due to the viral nature of the film, with Butler’s performance front and center as word of mouth spread.
Another performance became all the buzz: Brendan Fraser in The Whale. As the film played at various festivals, most notably Venice, Fraser received unexpected standing ovations, which moved the actor greatly. His reactions went viral and became part of the story. The role is tragic and Fraser’s own story, a comeback story, is also tragic.
Despite his success in Venice, he didn’t win Best Actor there. Colin Farrell won for his turn in Martin McDonagh’s exceptional film, The Banshees of Inisherin. At first it seems like these two roles can’t compete because Fraser transforms himself to play the main character in The Whale where Farrell doesn’t. Except that Farrell kind of does. He plays a guy who is “dull,” or not very smart. He’s a guy who spends much of his time with his animals and has only two people he cares about: his sister and his best friend.
But getting back to Brendan Fraser, there are a few complications. The first is that he has said he will not attend the Golden Globes even if he is nominated. That means if he is nominated and he does win, he won’t get the important standing ovation that would help drive him toward an Oscar win. Of course, there is no guarantee he would win. But if he did that would be the first stop. So if he wins and he isn’t there to receive the Globe, it might not give him the bounce. Then again, if he doesn’t win he won’t have to take the L either because people will assume the Globes were holding a grudge (though they probably aren’t).
To make matters even more bizarre and confusing, The Whale, which is an A24 movie, did not benefit from the studio’s near-complete dominance at the Spirit Awards. Yes, we had to contend with the sadly performative, truly embarrassing “gender neutral” categories which meant only two men got in, but why was Fraser not one of them?
My own conspiracy theory is that they want to give out their two acting prizes to Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh, and if Fraser was nominated, one of those women had to lose. But that is assuming an extraordinary level of coordination that probably wasn’t possible.
That still means our Best Actor race is a three-way. It surely means that there are three slots that will be filled automatically. It’s just a matter of which of three is the frontrunner or the winner.
Since The King’s Speech, we haven’t had a combo Best Actor/Best Picture winner. We have had a Best Actress/Best Picture winner — Nomadland in 2020. But the trend is definitely away from the Best Actor winner driving the Best Picture winner. However, it is essential (or it has been in the past, especially in the era of the expanded ballot) for the Best Actor winner to be in a Best Picture nominee.
The only time that hasn’t happened since 2009 was when Jeff Bridges won for Crazy Heart. So why did he win? Well, there were two actors that year in Best Picture nominees: Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker and George Clooney for Up in the Air. In both cases, they were hot dudes who did not transform themselves or “ugly” themselves up. They were never going to win, despite there being a strong push for Clooney to finally bring in that Oscar win for Best Actor (the only time he won was when he “uglied” himself up for Syriana in a supporting role).
Also, it was a year where the first woman was about to win Best Picture and Best Director, and its only competition was another female-led drama, Precious, and a movie with performance capture, Avatar. The energy was off the Best Actor race, allowing a beloved veteran who had never won to finally collect the prize. And really, he won not for playing Bad Blake (although it was a good and transformative performance) but more or less for being The Dude that everyone loves. He made himself omnipresent, thus helping ensure that his presence became one of the main reasons they were voting, not necessarily for the movie itself. The same went for Bong Joon Ho in 2020 — much of the goodwill around Parasite was his warm and charismatic self being everywhere.
It seems likely that both The Banshees of Inersherin and Elvis will be strong Best Picture players. We don’t yet know how strong, but both are very good films, with Elvis being a box office success and coming in hot here in the final phase of the Oscar race.
The Whale might have a harder time. However, I would caution ruling it out right away based on the reaction of critics. What group matters more in the Oscar race? The actors. The Whale is essentially a stage play that showcases its actors. Come to that, it could even find itself with a SAG ensemble nomination simply because of its hard-core focus on its actors. That’s what they like more than anything else, for the actors to be the film’s main focus.
Actors drive The Whale, but not many of them are that well known, save for Samantha Morton, Hong Chau, and Brendan Fraser. Likewise, The Banshees of Inersherin is written by McDonagh, a playwright very comfortable with actor-driven content. This is why both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell slid easily into their victories with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. That film would probably have won Best Picture without the preferential ballot and the manufactured “scandal” that arose that year.
Elvis is a director-driven film because all of Baz Luhrmann’s films are, but there is no doubt that Austin Butler shines in the role of Elvis. His win will likely depend on how much people love the movie. Best Actor usually means people loved the movie too. If they really love Elvis and it’s featured in every category, that could be a sign he’s about to win.
Brendan Fraser’s win would be based more on the kind of role he plays: supremely tragic and deeply moving, not to mention his own comeback story.
The key factor about these three characters is just how tragic they are. All three of them leave you with a feeling of deep sorrow. Elvis is someone we want to reach into the screen and rescue. He was the victim of celebrity, of a predatory manager. and drug abuse. He was so talented and his talent was sucked dry leaving not much of a human being left.
Colin Farrell’s character is someone whose life is mostly untouched by hatred. He might not be that interesting to talk to because he isn’t very intelligent or insightful or ambitious, but he is a kind person who cares deeply about animals, especially his donkey. He has to be taught how to hate, how to go to war, how to become violent. To do that, he has to be robbed of the thing he loves. He had to be taught how terrible humans can actually be to get to that point of extreme hatred. It is a difficult transformation to watch, and our heart aches not just for him but for all of humanity that this is who we are in the final analysis.
And finally, Brendan Fraser’s character in The Whale is one I can’t even think about without tearing up. This poor man has nothing but disgust for himself and what he has become. A totally wasted life, a selfish person who turned inward and alienated everyone. But it’s how he tries in the last moments of the film to break through to his daughter — the only precious aspect of his life that he ever helped create that had any value — that wrecks the heart. I was wrecked by the end of this movie. And I have to wonder how many voters will feel the same way.
Best Picture can drive a Best Actor into the race. If voters really love Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, there is a good chance for Gabriel LaBelle to land in that fifth slot. His performance as the young Spielberg is pitch perfect. He never overdoes it and seems to connect with an introvert whose best method of communication was making movies and telling stories. He’s particularly good in the high school sequences, navigating being an outsider coming of age. The entire ensemble is strong in The Fabelmans, which means it is a frontrunner for the SAG cast nomination. It’s just a matter of how many acting nominations it ends up with.
What other names are “in the conversation,” as they say? Bill Nighy has been finding traction for Living. There is Jeremy Pope for The Inspection. Last year’s winner Will Smith is back with Emancipation, which some are saying will have Best Picture heat too.
Tom Hanks just dropped in A Man Called Otto, which seems to be generating some buzz. Netflix is pushing Adam Sandler in Hustle and maybe that will land somewhere.
Most of these names, however, are for nominations, not for wins. At least not at the moment.