If you want to compete in Best Picture, you have to compete in Best Actor. It’s a sad rule, but it’s true. The Academy (and America at large) loves a movie about Great Men doing Great Things, or Trouble Men descending into madness. In the last decade, five of the ten Best Picture winners were nominated for Best Actor (and three of the remaining five ran their ensemble entirely in the Supporting categories, despite clear chances otherwise). Meanwhile, all ten of the Best Actor winners were in Best Picture nominees. The two go hand in hand, and that’s why it’s so important to pay attention when predicting the Best Actor nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards.
As with every category in this crazy, crazy year, it is impossible to know what has been and what will be. I mean, my frontrunner in February 2020 was Anthony Ramos, back when I predicted the In The Heights sweep. But I digress. Now, normally while crafting this list, I break down the specific archetypes of nominees – age, acting style, fame, juiciness of the role, etc. But all season, things have been sort of…locked into place. In fact, I’d dare say there are only nine actual contenders for this year’s Best Actor prize. And my list of five has only slightly shifted from the beginning of the year – two remain exactly the same as February, two changed categories with his co-star, and one of the co-stars in question ended up entering the race in another film. But more on that in a minute. The interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is not that there’s so few true-blue contenders – it’s that anything can happen amongst the pack. Really, any of these five could win Best Actor. And any of these five – sans one – could end up getting snubbed. Who’s to say? Well, that would be me. And here’s how the race breaks down.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, shall we? Chadwick Boseman will be nominated for Best Actor this year. The late actor has seen a groundswell of support in recent months since his passing, with Hollywood realizing he was a great performer they’d taken for granted while he was alive. They passed him up for Oscar role after Oscar role, expecting him to be around forever – the heir apparent to his mentor, Denzel Washington. Sadly, cancer cut that legacy short, and the Academy only has two more chances to nominate him. While I originally believed Boseman would be the lead of Da 5 Bloods, I realize now that he is a Supporting contender for that film (and a strong one at that). So he’s been moved over to the correct category. But Boseman is also in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, where he is competing as lead. And that has all the makings of a winning role. Not only is it Boseman’s best work to date, it’s also got the narrative behind it. It’s a monologue-heavy, emotionally driven role (check) that comes with Broadway prestige (check) that will also be competing in Best Picture (check). Add to that a legacy of unfinished work and an opportunity to honor a fallen comrade, and the chance will be too good to pass up. It’s not a question of if Boseman will be nominated, but can he win?
Speaking of Da 5 Bloods, let’s talk about Spike Lee’s epic. Despite being a terrific ensemble piece unlike any in modern American history, Da 5 Bloods has had one performance – technically sitting as the heart of the film, and thus the closest thing to a “lead” the film has – remain on viewers’ lips since its June debut: Delroy Lindo. Lindo has been a beloved character actor for many years – all the way back to the 80s, in fact, but he has so rarely been given a chance to shine as he does here. Lindo gets to run the full gamut, capturing scenes of emotional heft – including one terrific PTSD episode and one full-on breakdown – as well as manic Quixotic despair – including a powerful invocation of Marvin Gaye-as-Gospel as well as an insane monologue while trudging through the jungle. Now, Lindo has been snubbed thus far on the awards trail, and his Oscar nomination is far from assured. But it’s still an emotionally complex, perfectly acted performance, and when coupled with the Academy’s love of character actors who get their big break (Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce, Willem Dafoe, etc., all of whom had a rough preseason as well), Lindo has a real narrative that should propel him into a very tough and very talented pack.
Far safer than Lindo – and the character actor pick – is the young, rising star with the sexy role. Like Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, this is the young performer who pours their heart and soul into a fairly stereotypical performance and emerges as a bonafide star by elevating the material to greatness. This year, that performer is Riz Ahmed. On the cusp of awards greatness since his breakthrough in Nightcrawler, Ahmed is a true force in the otherwise-fine Sound of Metal. He has a twitchy energy that feels human, real, and relatable. His journey as a former drug addict whose method of channeling his pain (drumming in a heavy metal band) is challenged when he suffers a loss of hearing. His journey of self-discovery and emotional growth is moving and remarkable, and when combined with Ahmed’s youth and talents (he’s become something of a heartthrob in recent months), I’ll go on record and say that if Boseman fails to win that Oscar, it’s because he lost to Riz Ahmed.
Rounding out the clear-cut “locks” (or as close to a lock as you’re going to get) is the perennial Legendary Actor Going Big. Every few years, there’s one aging performer who gives one last hurrah that reminds voters “Oh yeah, that guy can f*cking act.” Whether it’s Peter O’Toole, Daniel Day-Lewis, or Jeff Bridges, these types of performances are always a big deal, whether the film is good or not. Which is why Anthony Hopkins is pretty much golden for his work as a dementia-ridden parent in The Father. Hopkins’ performance is masterful, not only reminding us of his legendary work in the 90s, but shining through as a masterful performance in its own right. Actors will marvel at what Hopkins pulls off here, celebrating the comical, emotional moments of an aging actor giving us his all as he approaches the final act of his legacy. Hopkins will get nominated, and if anyone’s going to hang with Boseman and Ahmed, it’s him.
Which brings us to the final selection, and the hardest one yet. It’s easy to pick the obvious choices – they’ve got the most love, support, and historical precedent. But that fifth slot can go any which way. If News of the World really lands, and the Academy feels the love for a legendary cinematic veteran, then look for Tom Hanks to get in. If the late-breaking Judas and the Black Messiah lands hard, then maybe LaKeith Stanfield can get that overdue first nomination (I originally had costar Daniel Kaluuya winning here back when he was supposedly going lead). Or maybe One Night In Miami… will earn a nod for Kingsley Ben-Adir on the way to a Best Picture win (not likely, but possible). But at the end of the day, I believe it’s one of two performers, with very different acting styles. On one end of the spectrum, there’s Gary Oldman’s monologuing method acting in Mank. And on the other end, there’s Steven Yeun’s quiet, subtle performance as Jacob Yi, the patriarch of an immigrant family in 1980s Arkansas. It’s hard right now to guess what the Academy will go for – after all, both were nominated by SAG. If Minari makes a play for Best Picture (which I suspect it will), then Yeun’s performance may sneak in, right where it belongs. But I can’t shake the feeling that Mank, which will likely lead the nomination total, will help carry Oldman in, especially with his “Don Quixote” monologue late in the film. So I’ll hedge my bets: I’m guessing Oldman, with the hopes that Yeun gets the spot.
So that’s where we are in the Best Actor race. There’s still a lot that could change in the next month. After all, last year I only managed to get 1.5/5 right – although I at least had another right for the wrong film, and one was right in the wrong category (besides, who could have guessed Joaquin Phoenix would win for Joker?). And at this point last year, my first round of predictions also saw Andrew Garfield and Michael Fassbender as frontrunners for films pushed to 2021, along with rival contender Will Smith. Things can change on the dime in the awards race. The Academy could go for an elder statesman like Colin Firth in Supernova or George Clooney in The Midnight Sky. They could go for a beloved character actor, like Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield or James Corden in The Prom, or even a rising star like John David Washington in Malcolm and Marie or Tom Holland in Cherry. Hell, there’s even a chance that Ben Affleck or Tahar Rahim sneak in for The Way Back and The Mauritanian, respectively. Who knows? Until then, you can see my full list of Best Actor predictions listed right here, along with my full list of predictions right here. Once again, here are your Top Five:
- Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
- Anthony Hopkins – The Father
- Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods
- Gary Oldman – Mank