If there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s movies about men. Would you like to know the last movie to win Best Picture while being about a woman? 2004. Million Dollar Baby. And even that is just as much about Clint Eastwood’s arc, if not more so. So naturally, the Best Actor race can be a major indicator of the race.
As with most years, we have a plethora of candidates to choose from. As of June 30th, I expect 15 of the 31 names I’ve shortlisted to have a real shot, with maybe five upsets along the way. So let’s get looking, shall we?
There are three people who are having or going to have what I refer to as “A Year.” When someone has “A Year,” it means they have multiple award-worthy performances that end up getting them a nomination and, quite often, the win, just because they are amazed at how good they were in everything. For example, in 2012 a young indie actress started a franchise, stole an indie dramedy, and lit up every interview and red carpet she came across. This little firecracker was Jennifer Lawrence, and don’t think for a second that Oscar wasn’t just them congratulating her on how incredible her 2012 was. The three actors poised to have “A Year” are Andrew Garfield for Silence and Hacksaw Ridge, Alden Ehrenreich for Rules Don’t Apply and The Yellow Birds (and Hail Caesar!, as well as the fact he just got cast as young Han Solo) and Woody Harrelson for Wilson and LBJ.
Of these three, I think Garfield is going to get the nomination. While Ehrenreich is much closer to the Alicia Vikander or Jennifer Lawrence of this year, he faces two uphill climbs. First, his youth. Ehrenreich only just began lighting up our screens. While the up-and-coming starlet is something Academy loves (because there’s nothing septuagenarians love more than to trick young twenty-somethings into wearing tight dresses for their amusement), they rarely ever reward the male greenhorn. Second, the roles. Ehrenreich will certainly improve both films he is in contention for. However, he faces the difficult statistic that neither genre plays to his advantage. The first, Rules Don’t Apply, is a romantic comedy. While it may have the 50s Hollywood period piece aspect the Academy tends to fall for, romantic leads in rom-coms rarely ever get nominated. Female leads, sure. Eccentric supporting actors and actresses? You’ve got it. But unless you’re a beloved star or suffering from some disease or mental illness, don’t expect to hear your name called Thursday morning. The other performance is a war movie. While these types of films usually reap the acting awards, he’d really have to stand out to compete with Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge or Joe Alwyn for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (who faces the same uphill climb as Ehrenreich for being a newcomer). Having read The Yellow Birds in school, I don’t think there’s enough to this role to get him to the table. Maybe in the Supporting category. Or next year.
Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson has been going for that Oscar for some time now. The former Cheers funnyman has two nominations under his belt, and was in contention for Rampage a few years ago. However, there’s a couple things standing in his way. First, Wilson’s “unknown” factor. Flying under the radar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Room last year. But Wilson only appeared on the radar a couple weeks ago. Furthermore, the film is based on a graphic novel. Unless your name is Heath Ledger and the Academy literally only has one last chance to apologize for the Brokeback Mountain loss (even if Phillip Seymour Hoffman deserved that award), comic book movies don’t get nominated for acting. His other film, LBJ, is a slam dunk. Playing a complicated former president who was thrown into the position by an assassin’s bullet, he went on to push some of the most controversial platforms in our country’s history, ranging from the good-the Civil Rights Act-to the bad-Vietnam-and everything in between-his attempted “War on Poverty.” It’s a meaty role, and Rob Reiner has been looking to return to form for some time now. There’s just one problem: the release date. As we stand, there is no indication that LBJ plans on releasing this year. Sure, it could be late breaking, but at present I’m not confident in that happening just yet. We’ll see where the wind takes us.
So that leaves me with Andrew Garfield. The one thing about “A Year,” though, is that only one role can be nominated for each field. So unless his Silence performance goes Supporting (which would be major category fraud), then the Academy will have to pick which performance they prefer. Personally, I think they’re going to go with Silence, because Scorsese’s movies are juicier for actors. And what’s juicier than a priest questioning his faith when confronted with mass martyrdom at the hands of a vicious government? While the arc for his performance in Hacksaw Ridge is just as juicy-the true story of a doctor in World War II who refused to pick up a gun based on his religious convictions and won the Medal of Honor-two things stand in his way. First, no actor has been nominated for a Mel Gibson movie before. Second, Mel Gibson. While Hacksaw Ridge may be a very good movie, many people don’t think Mel’s has completed his mea culpa (I’m not going to rule on if he has or not, but I do plan on writing an article on it for the future). So for the time being, I say that Andrew Garfield will receive his first Oscar nomination (seriously, how was he not nominated for The Social Network?) for Silence.
Now let’s move on to look at actors who are directing themselves. This is always a risky move. Only two actors have successfully won an Oscar for starring in a movie they directed-Laurence Olivier for Hamlet and Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful. I believe the only other actors to receive a nomination for the task are Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and Warren Beatty (who may do so again-stay tuned for Best Supporting Actor). And yet, four actors remain standing, contending for that title: Ben Affleck for Live By Night, Ewan McGregor for American Pastoral, Nate Parker for The Birth of a Nation, and Denzel Washington for Fences. Of that list, the easiest to cut is Ewan McGregor. American Pastoral is receiving early raves, especially after an explosive first trailer. However, his role-as an All-American hero faced with a crumbling marriage and a daughter who joins a terrorist organization-is a more subtler role, and the Academy hates subtle. They nominated Eddie Redmayne for God’s sake. Twice! So let’s look at the other three. I think Affleck also falls. He is a talented director, certainly, but his acting leaves something to be desired, even if he was highly underrated for Good Will Hunting. Which leaves the two I am certain will receive nominations: Nate Parker, playing slave revolutionary Nat Turner, and Denzel Washington, playing a washed-up baseball player living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Both will be African American nominees, a factor the Academy will certainly take into account, and both have certain advantages as well. Parker is currently the Academy’s golden boy, and even if his directing is stronger than his acting, the strength of the film should carry him through. Washington, meanwhile, could just stare at a paper bag for two hours and get nominated. Parker and Washington better rent their tuxes now.
Finally, we have the battle of the indie actor and the movie star. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. The indie actors have had the blessing of an early festival run, and they’ve launched themselves onto the map. They are Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea and Joel Edgerton for Loving. Both received raves for their performances, and both have juicy roles-Affleck plays a young man who must return to his hometown to take care of his late brother’s child, while Edgerton portrays Jim Loving, a white man in the South who ends up going to court to sue for the right to marry his African American fiancée. Affleck was nominated before, for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, while Edgerton has been pushing hard for a nomination for four years now, always being right on the verge of breaking through. However, Affleck doesn’t have the support he needs to make the push (he’s still broke and/or hated for the whole “I’m Still Here” stunt he pulled with his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix) while Edgerton’s film opened strong, but opened quietly. His performance could get swept under the rug. So I’m going to pick the two movie stars for the final two slots: Ryan Gosling for La La Land and Chris Pratt for Passengers. Both are more out-there guesses, but I have my reasons for both. Gosling has been one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood ever since The Notebook, and despite several fantastic performances, he only has one nomination, in 2006 for Half Nelson. Between this and The Nice Guys (remember: other roles can make or break a nomination), he is on fire and as long as he can sing, he should receive a nomination, and I think even a win. His biggest threat is the fact that early buzz, while praising the film, has been more focused on his co-star, Emma Stone (more on her tomorrow). However, I feel strongly about this one, and can see it going the distance and winning the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), a task that hasn’t been done since Silence of the Lambs in 1991. As for Pratt, he has been a major star the past few years, stealing television and film alike. It’s quite possible that Jurassic World was as big as it was because of him. He has his chance now to star in a real smash by going old-school: an original science-fiction romantic dramedy, starring almost exclusively Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. This seems very much like the niche genre flicks that filled the early 90s, like Ghost. I can see this film being huge, and considering Pratt has to carry much of the film single-handedly, as well as the fact that no one seems to dislike him, he should end up walking away with a nomination. His biggest threat is the movie’s Oscar chances-is it prestige-friendly, or is it purely commercial? I’m not sure what the answer is, and for this reason I put him at #5. However, for those doubting him, I say this: remember the purely commercial sci-fi film that came out last year starring Matt Damon? Remember when it received nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor? The odds are on my side.
So there you have it: a tough year, boiled down to just a handful of contenders. I’m looking forward to seeing each and every one of these movies when they come out. Until then, you can check out the Best Actor contenders here, and see the Top Five below:
- Ryan Gosling-La La Land
- Andrew Garfield-Silence
- Denzel Washington-Fences
- Nate Parker-The Birth of a Nation
- Chris Pratt-Passengers