Perhaps the most important race to monitor when it comes to Best Picture is the Best Actor race. The Academy loves stories about men who bucked the system and stood up for good in the world, and it shows in recent Oscar races – of the last five Best Picture winners, only The Shape of Water did not possess a leading man. Green Book, Moonlight, Spotlight, and Birdman are all about men struggling to become great. And every Best Actor winner for a decade has been in a Best Picture-nominated film. The Academy loves their leading men, and that’s the mindset I’ll be approaching the Best Actor race from.
Now, just like Best Director, there is a sense of formula when it comes to predicting Best Actor. The Academy likes actors who have put in the work, and they like actors who play real people. In terms of actors who have put in the work, we’ll be looking for men between the ages of 35 and 60 who have one or two nominations under their belt, have had five or six great hits in a row, and are genuinely well-liked in the industry. The only times younger actors really make leeway in this category (Rami Malek, Eddie Redmayne, etc.), it’s because they greased every palm in the business with quirky kindness. We won’t be able to predict that for another six months. So for now, we’re looking only at the statesmen of the biz. As for the “real people” side of things, look at the past few years. 2018 saw four nominees based on real people, 2015 saw three, and 2014 saw four – and while 2017 and 2016 only had one, that one was the presumed frontrunner and/or winner throughout the season. So I’m going to play the odds and predict four real-life performances and three legends to this year’s field, and break things down like I did my Best Director race – with archetypes. So let’s start with the one I consider the true frontrunner, The Rising Star. When it comes to a rising star, there are a lot of determining factors. Did last year’s Oscar nomination propel them to superstardom, did they just burst off the screen with impeccable energy, or are they just such a magnetic force that you cannot deny them? Think Rami Malek bursting onto the scene after an Emmy win for Bohemian Rhapsody, or Daniel Kaluuya making himself a commanding presence in Get Out, or Timothée Chalamet conquering the world in Call Me By Your Name. Essentially, they are the stars of tomorrow, today. There are a few contenders this year that could potentially meet those criteria. Taron Egerton is pure dynamite in Rocketman, and easily deserves a nomination. August Diehl has a major role in a Terrence Malick faith film, A Hidden Life, and Daniel Kaluuya still qualifies for the electrifying, emotional Queen & Slim. Hell, while his Oscar prospects fell tremendously after last week’s screenings, Himesh Patel could always hold on and weasel his way into an Oscar nomination. However, if there’s any actor that should absolutely be considered a frontrunner, it’s Adam Driver in The Report. Driver is a weird hybrid that makes it impossible for anyone to dislike him. He’s a humble actor who got his start in the Marines, got into Julliard on a whim, starred in a bunch of off-Broadway plays and earned bit parts in major movies, and then made himself a star with HBO’s Girls and Star Wars solely as a means of making enough money to return to art films. Mainstream audiences love him, the arthouse can love him, all sides of the political spectrum can love him, manly men can love him, and women can love him. He’s the real deal. And in his supposedly terrific turn in The Report, he will have every opportunity to earn himself his second Oscar nomination (after last year’s BlacKkKlansman) and his first win. As Daniel , Driver has to be the film’s moral conscience, a driving force for change and the idealistic hero that audiences will aspire to be. It’s a role prefaced by Russell Crowe’s nomination in The Insider, and I think it should put him squarely in the race as his career reaches a new peak between this and Star Wars.
Up next, we have The Constant. The Constant is that actor you know and love who consistently brings his A-game to the craft, and loves to alternate between showy leads and quieter supporting roles. In recent years, this would be Christian Bale in Vice, The Big Short, and The Fighter, Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea, and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo. To figure out The Constant, it helps to look at previous years, just to see who is consistently nominated or in lauded films. Examples this year include Benedict Cumberbatch in 1917 (assuming he’s the lead) on a previous-nominee front, or Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler in Jojo Rabbit, in terms of critical support. However, there is no actor I’m more confident in getting this nomination than Mark Ruffalo in Todd Haynes’ Dry Run. Similar to Driver, Ruffalo will be playing lawyer Robert Billot, who famously sued DuPont Chemicals in regards to the way they were destroying our planet. There’s a lot to unpack here that makes Ruffalo enticing, not least of which is Haynes’ success with actors (nominations for Cate Blanchett (twice!), Julianne Moore, and Rooney Mara come to mind). There’s the fact that Ruffalo is beloved by most due to his humbleness surrounding his craft. There’s the fact that he’s got three nominations and no wins, and the Academy has been looking to change that. And there’s the fact that he’s an undeniable hero, battling for the sake of the world and standing up for what is right – something that the real Ruffalo loves to back up in the real world. Say what you will about his politics, he at least believes what he says and supports those beliefs with actions and funding. He will be a formidable contender for the top spot. As has been the case in both Best Picture and Best Director, this all depends on if Dry Run even comes out in 2019, and it doesn’t get pushed to 2020. However, so long as Haynes keeps the ball rolling, this film should come out to incite audiences before the year is over. And then we shall see the ultimate battle between Ruffalo and Driver.
Next, we have The Superstar. Once a year, a major celebrity makes a film where they give a performance that ranges from “Good Enough” to “Holy Sh*t, why were you hiding that talent in CGI blockbusters?” And when a major celebrity gives a worthwhile performance in a film that needs attention, the Academy takes notice. Think Bradley Cooper in last year’s A Star Is Born, Matt Damon in The Martian, or Denzel Washington’s nominations in Fences and especially Roman J. Israel, Esq. (remember that film?). This year, we have several superstars battling it out for the slot, including Will Smith in Gemini Man (a previous contender for Ali and Pursuit of Happyness) and Matt Damon for Ford v Ferrari. Hell, if it turns out to be a weak year, don’t be surprised if Robert Downey, Jr. gets in for his cathartic, great work in Avengers: Endgame (doubtful, but still a contender). However, the only Superstar that makes sense – and the only one who is a known lock at this point – is Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It’s easy for me to predict DiCaprio at the moment because we already know that he’s great in the film. Cannes reviews were all aglow for DiCaprio’s funny, cathartic, pathetic, heroic performance. As struggling Western actor Rick Dalton, DiCaprio portrays a man at a crossroads in his personal life and in history. Doused in booze and delivering quippy Quentin Tarantino one-liners, it’s too good a role for the Academy to pass up. Furthermore, DiCaprio is playing a struggling actor, looking for his big break in Hollywood after years on TV. The Academy loves films that reflect their struggles. It’s why The Artist won Best Picture. It’s why Argo won Best Picture. It’s why Birdman won Best Picture, and Michael Keaton got nominated. And it’s why Emma Stone won Best Actress in 2016. DiCaprio’s struggles, boozing, and coming of age will resonate with members of the Academy, and should put him in the conversation. And finally, DiCaprio is just that popular. He’s gotten five acting nominations, winning in 2015 for The Revenant. That’s a sign that they really like him. And between Tarantino’s dialogue, his own talent, and the resonant story, there’s a zero percent chance he’s not a contender for Best Actor come January.
Next up is The Legend. There’s always one actor nominated not for his work, but for the legacy they have left behind over a massive body of work. Willem Dafoe’s At Eternity’s Gate was unwatchable, but he got in last year because he’s Willem F*cking Dafoe. Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for Phantom Thread because he was amazing in it, but he would have been nominated if the film sucked just because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis. And Michael Keaton was nominated for Birdman because he was one of the most beloved actors of the 80s, and had yet to be nominated. Several legends find themselves in contention this year. Should Wes Anderson finish in time, Bill Murray could be in contention for The French Dispatch. Anthony McCarten is 3/3 in his leading men winning Best Actor, so maybe the never-nominated Jonathan Pryce will win for playing Pope Francis in The Pope. And the never-won Ian McKellen has a real shot for his portrayal of an aging con man in the upcoming Bill Condon (the director who earned him a previous Best Actor nomination). However, now that I know for a fact it is coming out this year, I think it would be foolish to look any further than Robert De Niro in The Irishman. It’s been several years since De Niro last earned an Oscar nomination – 2012, to be exact. And the majority of his Oscar nominations came from his team-ups with Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Cape Fear. In The Irishman, Scorsese and De Niro revisit the genre that created them one final time, as a tribute to their legacies – the gangster film. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, an aging hitman who reflects on the crimes of his life, which may or may not include the deaths of John F. Kennedy and his former best friend, Jimmy Hoffa. This is a meaty role for the aging actor, made more fascinating by the news that De Niro will be digitally de-aged to play Sheeran in his early days, as well. Between the artistic appeal of the de-aging and the juiciness of seeing De Niro menace and reflect one more time, I’d say there’s a good chance that De Niro earns himself one final nod as he reaches retirement age.
Which brings us to one final slot, one that I’m referring to as The Biopic. Now, technically, this is a misleading claim, as four of my five picks were based on real people. However, I’m referring to those larger-than-life figures, the ones whom actors relish the opportunity to chew on and emulate, especially because it will most certainly earn you an Oscar nomination. Look at Dafoe as Van Gogh, Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Day-Lewis as Lincoln…the list goes on. After Rami Malek pulled off the unexpected sweep for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury last year, everyone and their mother will be trying to weasel their way into the Oscar race. Christian Bale has a choice between lead and supporting for his upcoming work in Ford v Ferrari. Tom Hardy is looking for his second Oscar nomination for portraying Al Capone in Fonzo. And even Zac Efron, the former Disney Channel star, is looking for his big break for a startling turn as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. But, that being said, come on. What are we doing here? It’s going to be five-time nominee, two-time winner Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. I could lay out an articulate, intelligent case for you on why Hanks will get this nominations. There’s the fact he hasn’t been nominated since 2000, despite deserving it several times over. There’s the fact that Marielle Heller is an actors’ director, having earned two nominations last year for her sophomore effort, Can You Ever Forgive Me? But at the end of the day, we are simple people of simple tastes. It’s Tom Hanks playing Mister Rogers. The modern day epitome of good playing the Baby Boomers’ epitome of good. Those are the two biggest voting branches in the Academy, all dead set on giving a nomination to a man we all love playing a figure we all love. Unless the Academy has just straight up turned on Tom Hanks, he will be nominated at the end of the year.
So that’s where we’re at just past the halfway point of 2019. There’s still a lot that could go wrong for me between now and January. At this point last year, I only had 2 of the 5 listed, had hunches on Dafoe and Malek, and hadn’t even heard of Green Book (a simpler time). There’s still a chance that Lucas Hedges gets in for Honey Boy, Ansel Elgort for The Goldfinch, Hugh Bonneville for Downton Abbey, or Jimmie Fails for The Last Black Man In San Francisco manage to earn nominations. Michael B. Jordan could have Just Mercy moved up to December to earn an Oscar berth. And let’s not count out Antonio Banderas, who sits as a strong sixth for his Cannes-winning work in Pain and Glory. Or who knows? Maybe there’s a film and an actor I haven’t even heard of yet who manages to sneak into the fray. We’ll find out soon enough, but until then, you can see the full list of Best Actor contenders right here, or you can see my current Oscar predictions in full here. Once again, here are the Top Five:
- Adam Driver – The Report
- Mark Ruffalo – Dry Run
- Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
- Robert De Niro – The Irishman
- Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood