For most of the years I wrote about the Oscars (going on a ghastly 23 or so by now — maybe longer), Best Picture drove the Best Actor race. Or vice-versa. The golden triad used to be Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor. That had been a strong element in the Oscar race, especially when there were only five Best Picture nominees (which there should only be now, probably – maybe six):
1934 — It Happened One Night: Clark Gable + Frank Capra
1944 — Going My Way: Bing Crosby + Leo McCarey
1945 — The Lost Weekend: Ray Milland + Billy Wilder
1946 — The Best Years of Our Lives: Frederic March + William Wyler
1948 — Hamlet: Lawrence Olivier
1954 — On the Waterfront: Marlon Brando + Elia Kazan
1955 — Marty: Ernest Borgnine + Delbert Mann
1957 — The Bridge on the River Kwai: Alec Guinness + David Lean
1959 — Ben-Hur: Charlton Heston + William Wyler
1964 — My Fair Lady: Rex Harrison + George Cukor
1966 — A Man for All Seasons: Paul Scofield + Fred Zinnemann
1967 — In the Heat of the Night: Rod Steiger
1970 — Patton: George C. Scott + Franklin J. Schaffner
1971 — The French Connection: Gene Hackman + William Friedkin
1972 — The Godfather: Marlon Brando
1975 — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Jack Nicholson + Milos Forman
1979 — Kramer vs. Kramer: Dustin Hoffman + Robert Benton
1982 — Gandhi: Ben Kingsley + Richard Attenborough
1984 — Amadeus: F. Murray Abraham + Milos Forman
1988 — Rain Man: Dustin Hoffman + Barry Levinson
1991 — Silence of the Lambs: Anthony Hopkins + Jonathan Demme
1994 — Forrest Gump: Tom Hanks + Robert Zemeckis
1999 — American Beauty: Kevin Spacey + Sam Mendes
2000 — Gladiator: Russell Crowe
2010 — The King’s Speech: Colin Firth + Tom Hooper
2011 — The Artist: Jean DuJardin + Michel Hazanivicius
And that was all she wrote. It’s easy to see the pendulum swing from collectivism to individualism through World War II, the 60s and the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, and then the era I have been covering the Oscars, starting in 2000. We’re most definitely in an era of collectivism now, but it’s perhaps the last gasp before the pendulum swings again. If the Academy shrinks Best Picture down (which they should), we will know we’ve departed this moment.
So what drives Best Picture now in an era of emasculation and patriarchy-shaming? Well, I guess we can track it fairly easily, no? Look at the Best Actor winner in 2000: Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Are you not entertained?
But since then, how has Best Actor fared? Let’s look:
2001 — Denzel Washington, Training Day
2002 — Adrien Brody, The Pianist
2003 — Sean Penn, Mystic River
2004 — Jamie Foxx, Ray
2005 — Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
2006 — Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
2007 — Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
2008 — Sean Penn, Milk
2009 — Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
2010 — Colin Firth The King’s Speech
2011 — Jean DuJardin, The Artist
2012 — Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
2013 — Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
2014 — Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
2015 — Leo DiCaprio, The Revenant
2016 — Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2017 — Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
2018 — Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
2019 — Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
2020 — Anthony Hopkins, The Father
2021 — Will Smith, King Richard
2022 — Brendan Fraser, The Whale
Last year, there were three strong contenders for the win: Austin Butler in Elvis, Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin, and Brendan Fraser in The Whale. At first, it seemed like the Best Picture stat might prevail, but Fraser became only the second actor to win without being anchored by a Best Picture contender in the era of the expanded ballot (since 2009). The other actor was Jeff Bridges, who won for Crazy Heart.
My take on this is that the pendulum has swung from the strong capable muscular hero to men weakened physically/emotionally but sympathetic somehow, all the way to the farthest end of the pendulum’s arc with Brendan Fraser’s win as an obese, miserable man looking for redemption — if there’s a best depiction of the perception of men in 2023, it’s the win for The Whale.
Both Colin Farrell and Austin Butler would have fit the pattern too: broken down or somehow disabled men who are more or less sympathetic, but they were not only handsome men, they were heterosexual. As you can see, many recent winning performances involved actors playing gay men, with Fraser being the latest example, but there’s also Sean Penn in Milk, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody.
The only antihero we’ve seen win since Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood is Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. None of this should be all that surprising considering the influence of Barack Obama on American culture (which has been significant in many ways), but one way it has affected the Oscar race is most definitely the desire to reward “good” characters, or outright heroes, usually those battling something difficult.
Does the pattern play out in the Best Actress race? More or less. Suppose you think of superstar Julia Roberts winning for Erin Brockovich. In that case, you reach last year with Michelle Yeah winning for Everything Everywhere All at Once. There is less of the pronounced shift from strong to less strong — Yeoh won portraying a strong character. What was unusual was to see a film win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay AND Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor. That never happened before in all of Oscar history, which tells you what a zeitgeist hit Everything Everywhere was — not for the country, not even for the world, but for the insular bubble the film awards industry has become, especially as we hit the peak of the collectivism cycle.
What actors this year will turn on voters? At the moment, it’s hard to say. We don’t have any kind of Oscar race yet, though we do have some great performances in the can already. At the top of that list has to be the incomparable Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Murphy fits nicely into the paradigm of the modern-day hero who has been weakened in some way, either by the system or by some physical ailment. He is heterosexual but that might not matter, depending on how it goes.
The way things have been going lately, Best Actor and Best Picture do not align, especially with a “white guy movie,” which gives voters no cause to get behind. They aren’t just going to be voting for the success and prominence of a, say, David Lean or Frank Capra, at least not at the moment. But really, in a parallel universe that wasn’t the insular bubble the industry has become, Christopher Nolan would be ready for his closeup.
That doesn’t mean Cillian Murphy can’t win, however, and at the moment has the momentum. Right behind him is Leonardo DiCaprio playing an anti-hero in Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s an uphill sell at the moment to award a bad guy, but you never know. If that’s the movie that will win Best Picture, that makes his chances less so. DiCaprio has already won and Murphy has not, which gives the edge to Murphy, all things being equal.
Next, we move on to Bradley Cooper in Maestro, which begins to look a little more like the kind of part that has often won recently: heavy makeup and playing a gay character. Cooper also directs the movie, however, which can sometimes mean the actor does not or cannot win. But again, stats were meant to be broken, especially with the “new Academy,” where anything goes.
The two actors who have won in films they directed are Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful and Lawrence Olivier in Hamlet (which also won Best Picture). Anything is possible: I think the fact that Cooper is playing a gay character makes up for any points he might have lost for acting in his own movie:
It also looks to be quite masterful in how he moves and walks:
But speaking of gay characters, Colman Domingo is also playing a prominent and openly gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin:
He’s an interesting man in all ways, especially (at least to me) his Quaker upbringing. He went to jail after being caught having sex with a man, and was punished even on the Left for being openly gay. I am not sure about you but I think his story might give Bradley Cooper some competition. What will likely make SOME difference, though (last year’s winners notwithstanding) is which movie is going to be better overall.
Tee Yoo has been all the rage in Past Lives, and given the strength of the film, it (at least right now) seems like a good bet that he would be included, and is included in many of the predictions over at Gold Derby. Celine Song describes his work in one scene:
And, of course, Paul Giamatti seems like a strong bet, or at least under major consideration, for his work in the upcoming film The Holdovers by Alexander Payne. Readers of this site know that I am a big fan of the film Sideways, the last time Payne and Giamatti collaborated. Giamatti’s work in that film remains in the pantheon for me, though he was not nominated that year. Hopefully, he’ll get some recognition for his always brilliant body of work.
There are plenty of other potential contenders, like Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon, Adam Driver in Ferarri, Barry Koeghan in Saltburn, Michael Fassbender in The Killer, Kingsley Ben-Adir in Marley, etc. We’re not really going to know what themes will drive this race until we have seen all of the films, for starters, but we also won’t know anything until we know the current mood of voters. What will they feel is most important to them by next year?
At the moment, we could conclude that Cillian Murphy and Leonardo DiCaprio are probably the top two, but that doesn’t mean either will win. I will say this about Murphy after having read the book American Prometheus — I didn’t think an actor alive could capture Oppenheimer. Like Elvis last year (and yes, I know Butler did not win, but should have), there are a specific set of traits that had to be mastered, and Murphy nailed all of them. He had the look, the voice, even the electric blue eyes — the mournful spirit, the poetic soul, if that’s even possible in a performance. I think that combination of traits is going to be tough to beat.