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We’re About to See the Most Competitive Best Actor Oscars Race in Years

The field is crowded with stars in their prime, young guns, and old guys who’ve been waiting decades for their moment. The winner could tell us a lot about the rest of the Academy Awards.

Universal Pictures/Warner Bros./A24/Fox Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

I have a theory about the Academy Awards’ Best Actor category: Tom Hanks ruined it. Hanks, of course, is the last actor to win an Oscar in back-to-back years. In 1994 and then 1995, he won statuettes for his roles as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia and then as Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump. At the time, it felt like a foregone conclusion, Hanks’s confirmation as America’s Most Agreed Upon Human. But after that double triumph, Best Actor got weird. The next year, Nicolas Cage—an admired performer best known for taking on strange roles and acting strangely in them—won the award for small addiction drama Leaving Las Vegas. Then, Shine’s little-known Australian star Geoffrey Rush beat Tom Cruise doing Peak Tom Cruise for his performance in the massive crowd-pleaser Jerry Maguire. In 1998, Roberto Goddamn Benigni won the Oscar for his Holocaust comedy (?) Life Is Beautiful. A year later, Kevin Spacey won for American Beauty just four years after he’d won Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects. In doing so, he defeated Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Russell Crowe—all of whom had yet to win the award—and Richard Farnsworth, who at 78 years old, was dying from prostate cancer. Things had gotten out of hand. An overcorrection had set in. Best Actor had gone rogue.

Tom Hanks summarily solved the Best Actor category by 1994, seemingly forcing the Academy to make odd choices. By the time Crowe won for portraying Maximus in Gladiator (not his best role), Denzel won for playing a crooked cop in Training Day (not his best role), and Penn won for operatically screaming “Is that … my … daughter … in there?!!?” in Mystic River (not his best role), the category had lost its way. And after Adrien Brody and Jamie Foxx stepped on stage at the Kodak Theatre to accept their Oscars, it was clear something had to change.

Then things started to even out. Perhaps too much. Celebrated veterans began to collect their career achievement awards for solid work in admirable films. Forest Whitaker. Jeff Bridges. Colin Firth. Two for Daniel Day-Lewis. Another for Penn. McConaughey. Leo, finally. Earlier this year, the least interesting race at the 90th Academy Awards—one that had been all but decided months in advance—was Gary Oldman’s coronation for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Oldman completed a masterfully managed glad-handing tour that resulted in the prize. He went to every luncheon, sat for every roundtable, glazed every fellow nominee with praise. And it was so boring. This is not how Best Actor should play, not the category that gave us Peter Finch in Network over Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Not the category that made Sidney Poitier the first black actor to win the award 54 years ago, three months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed in the U.S. Senate. Not the category that once featured Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin, and Raymond Massey playing Abe Lincoln … all in the same year. Best Actor is a fickle beast, one that has awarded Lee Marvin, Art Carney, and Roberto Goddamn Benigni, but never legends like Warren Beatty (four nominations), Albert Finney (four nominations), Richard Burton (six nominations), or Peter O’Toole (eight nominations). It ought to always be compelling.

So it is with some relief that I report we have a real barnburner this year, as unpredictable as it is intriguing. That is strange in some respects because many of the year’s best and most anticipated awards season films—among them The Favourite, Roma, and Widows—don’t have a lead actor performance to speak of. That’s to say nothing of Mary Queen of Scots, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Suspiria, and Crazy Rich Asians, all of which also lack a potential Best Actor candidate.

And this isn’t a typical year. Not all of the usual types are here. There’s no Daniel Day-Lewis in this race, no undeniable purveyor of Method craft. There’s also no wizened genius finally ready for his due, not exactly. Instead, there are several established early-to-late middle-aged men, all well-regarded but none who have reached the pantheon of all-timers. These are actors with one or two or perhaps even three nominations to their name, but not the body of work that, say, 12-time nominee Jack Nicholson would bring to a race. There are also no virtual unknowns here either, which cannot be said for this year’s Best Actress race, which may be disrupted by the marvelous 24-year-old first-timer Yalitza Aparicio in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

In other words, there are no behemoths here and also no wunderkinds. Which is exciting, in its way, but hell on a prognosticator. By my count, with just two months left before the calendar turns, there are 14 potential nominees (from 15 movies). Many will ultimately seem like ridiculous long shots. But we’re in the waning days of hope. So let’s do some hoping.

The Leaders

Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born (Three Acting Nominations, No Wins)
Ryan Gosling, First Man (Two Nominations, No Wins)
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (No Previous Nominations)

The past 30 days have given this race a focus that I must admit Ethan Hawke could not harness all by his lonesome. For months and months, Hawke carried the category with his work in First Reformed. But the dam has burst, and now there are three heavy favorites. They are toplined by Bradley Cooper, who has conjured all the narrative forces—write-direct-produce, live singing, Hollywood classic remake, weird accent, fraternal anxiety, high-pitched love story—for his work in A Star Is Born. Cooper is, right now, the favorite. Not a lock. But certainly out front. As is his movie, which slowly rounds into a juggernaut with each passing weekend at the box office, and each stream of “Shallow” on Spotify. Cooper’s press tour has been a fascinating experiment in telling the same three stories as many times as possible to as many people as possible for as long as possible. It’s going to be a long four months.

Joining Cooper’s Jackson Maine are two diametrically opposed performances of real-life figures: Ryan Gosling’s tense, unblinking role as Neil Armstrong in the technically magnificent, but emotionally inert First Man and Rami Malek in a vamping, vainglorious turn as Queen’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. They are dueling examples of Good Work in an Iffy Movie. First Man has been well-regarded with little to be ashamed of, but it has been a modest performer at the box office, and the momentum many expected it would ride all the way to February has already begun to falter. Gosling is unshowy though not uninteresting in the role—but he’s often uninterested in doing the baby-kissing work that sustains the race. That could be a problem.

By contrast, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was directed by controversy-racked filmmaker Bryan Singer until he was fired for failing to show up to set for three days, is a messily arranged and historically inaccurate standard operating biopic—ordinary type rises to greatness, foibles exposed to the world, before extraordinarily burning out on the biggest stage. We’ve seen it before. It’s weak tea. It’s also hackneyed to say that an actor transforms into a real-life person, but Malek does just that as Mercury, perfectly emulating his propulsive performance style, his luxurious speaking voice—all those purred daaaahlings—and disappearing behind those profound teeth. It’s a truly astonishing accomplishment in a pretty lousy movie. Will that be held against him? History often says yes.

The Shape of What’s to Come

Hugh Jackman, The Front Runner (One Nomination, No Wins)
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate (Three Nominations, No Wins)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book (Two Nominations, No Wins)

Real men are all the rage this season, whether a flamed-out presidential candidate, a historically celebrated painter who died by suicide, or a chauffeur you’ve never heard of. Fun fact: 11 of the past 16 winners in the category were actors portraying real men. It’s a crutch and a carrot for voters, with evidence against which to be judged and rewarded.

And while Malek’s work makes us remember what we loved about Freddie Mercury, Hugh Jackman makes us wince over the memory of Gary Hart, the idealistic but flawed Colorado senator whose presidential dreams—and, it’s argued in Jason Reitman’s film The Front Runner, the future of a nation—are derailed by a scandal-hungry press. Hart is an incidental victim of a radically changing political media, the movie insists, and Jackman plays him like a sighing contradiction of terms—a civil civil servant who also demands a measure of privacy in personal (extramarital) matters that seems virtually unimaginable in 2018. Jackman doesn’t quite look like Hart, but he feels like him, an avatar of lost innocence and male arrogance.

Not every essence is so rare. Willem Dafoe is 63 years old. And Vincent van Gogh killed himself at 37. So there are aspects of Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate that feel like a bit of a stretch. And yet, it was 62 years ago that Kirk Douglas was nominated for playing van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life. And Dafoe, well-liked and passed over just last year for his wonderful work in The Florida Project, is the kind of actor who can slowly tilt a race in his favor. Our memories—not of van Gogh, but the more than 100 Dafoe roles over the years—tend to help in cases like this. From Platoon to Shadow of the Vampire to, um, John Wick, there’s a deep well of Dafoe to pull from.

But something tells me the actor who’s going to pull off that memory maneuver this season is Viggo Mortensen, a classical Oh yeah, I like that guy. After the Toronto International Film Festival, Adam Nayman wrote for The Ringer that Mortensen’s work in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book feels like a likely nominee, “that is, if voters recognize the expertise of his comic turn as a goon-for-hire chauffeuring an African American musician on a concert tour through the 1960s Deep South. Always a brilliant physical actor, especially in his performances in David Cronenberg movies, Mortensen here offers a sly, ethnically distinct variation on his Eastern Promises badass.” The name Tony “Lip” Vallelonga may not ring out like van Gogh or Hart, but it may soon have recognition all its own.

The Big, Bad Known

Christian Bale, Vice (Three Nominations, One Win)

Fear Bale. He might be, barring Day-Lewis, the world’s best living and working actor. There is a Dick Cheney–shaped space earmarked for him on every pundit’s list, and early looks at Adam McKay’s portrait of the former vice president have not waved anyone off that notion. Assuming McKay carries the antic-but-gravely-serious tone of The Big Short into this life-spanning vision of the infamously severe veep, Bale is assured room. Maybe more.

The Old Guy

Robert Redford, The Old Man and the Gun (One Acting Nomination, No Wins)

Did you know Robert Redford, 82, has only one Oscar nomination for acting, and that it came 44 years ago for The Sting? He’s a two-time nominee as a director with one win, but that factoid is nevertheless shocking. Redford is an iconic film star and steward of the movies. He’s also a damned good actor. And he is at a kind of personality-performance apex in David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun, a small but charming fable that might have dominated a different sort of Oscar season once upon a time. Alas, Redford may not even make the cut in what could be his last performance.

The Even Older Guy

Clint Eastwood, The Mule (Two Acting Nominations, No Wins)

Clint Eastwood is 88 years old. He’s older than Rupert Murdoch, Alice Munro, and Willie Mays. And he’s still making movies. The drug-trafficking drama The Mule is his 37th film as a director and his second this year, after The 15:17 to Paris. (Remember that?) No one’s really seen the movie—it arrives on December 14. So no one knows anything. Maybe it will be quietly wonderful, like Sully, a stately sendoff. Or maybe it will be another Gran Torino, grouchy and violent and weird. Either way, Clint can win, in large part, because he’s never won this award. And there isn’t much else we can say he hasn’t done at this stage.

The Sentimental Favorite

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (Two Acting Nominations, No Wins)

I’ve written at length about Hawke, interviewed him, and sung his praises. He’s my favorite actor without an Oscar. (Barring John C. Reilly.) I have yet to hear a decent case for why he shouldn’t get it this year for his wrenching, ecstatic work as Reverend Ernst Toller.

The Young Gun

Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased / Ben Is Back (One Nomination, No Wins)

Three months ago, Hedges felt like a shoo-in. The 21-year-old who emerged in Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, appears in three movies this season, and two lead roles, in Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased and his father Peter Hedges’s Ben Is Back. Perhaps it was a few roles too many. There appears to be a distortion field working against Hedges, with other films with “b” words starring young men clogging ballots and brain space. I feel him receding. Not to worry, Hedges could have a special career ahead of him. Hanksian, even.

The Suspiciously Unmentioned

John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman (No Previous Nominations)
Stephan James, If Beale Street Could Talk (No Previous Nominations)
Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther (No Previous Nominations)

Do you sense a trend here? Washington, James, and Boseman currently rate 11th, 13th, and 16th on Gold Derby’s expert odds lineup this week. And for all of the inroads the Academy has made to be more inclusive and in light of the increasingly diverse returns in some categories, Best Actor remains shockingly white. There have been just four black winners in category history. (Not to mention one Latin American winner, José Ferrer in 1951; and one Asian winner, Ben Kingsley in 1983.) The three films in which these three actors appear are in contention for Best Picture. The same Gold Derby metric lists the films’ chances at 8, 6, and 7, respectively. So why aren’t these three in the mix? It’s a new kind of category fraud: leading man lies.