91st Academy Award Predictions: Best Actor

We’re at about the halfway point for the year, so I thought now would be a good time to return to the Oscar predictions. So far, we really don’t know that much about the Oscar race. There’s some early buzz around quite a few films, a few fantastic trailers have dropped, and I’m wholly onboard with some of the indie films out there, but overall, it’s been a pretty dry first half of the year. Still, all this means is there’s promise in the air, and that anyone and anything can be nominated. So without further ado, let’s start exploring the Best Actor race!

Hey, girl. I’m gonna lasso this here moon for you.

As with every Best Actor race, things are pretty much business as usual. With most Hollywood films telling the story of some Great Man in History, or some fictional man who Overcame, there’s a pretty big swath to choose from. In terms of the Oscar race, I’ve only really seen two lead performances that stand out: Ethan Hawke in First Reformed and Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here. Both performances are highly acclaimed, and I would love to see both of them nominated, but at the moment, I just can’t see that happening. No, if we’re going to predict the upcoming Oscar race, we’re going to have to look ahead to the future and determine the Elephant In The Room. The nominee like Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Denzel Washington in Fences, or Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, who is so destined for a nomination that nothing can stand in their way. This is the nominee that is taking on a beloved historic figure under the tutelage of a great director, and has the added bonus of being overdue. In short, we’re talking about Ryan Gosling in First Man. Ryan Gosling has been in the Oscar race twice before for Half Nelson and La La Land, and deserved at least two other nominations. In the upcoming film, he will be playing American hero Neil Armstrong, and will be directed by Damien Chazelle, the man who previously coached him to a nomination. He looked strong in the first trailer, and Chazelle hasn’t dropped the ball yet, so I’d call Gosling a pretty safe bet for a nomination. Sure, it’s not a done deal like Oldman was last year, but let’s not kid ourselves: someone as popular as Gosling playing a figure as prominent as Armstrong with the direction of a man who has never not gotten acting nominations for his films will not be missing out on an Oscar nomination.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, showing literally no regard for his physical well-being

Now that we’ve established the Elephant, let’s look at a more obvious category: the Biopic. There’s nothing the Academy loves more than a story about a historical figure triumphing and changing the world (unless, of course, that person is Martin Luther King as played by David Oyelowo and no, I’m not still bitter, shut up). This year, there’s a whole slew of biopics in the works, each of which could sneak into the race. Last year’s Best Supporting Actor runner-up Willem Dafoe is still unrewarded by the Academy, and should be appearing later this year in the Vincent Van Gogh film At Eternity’s Gate. Phoenix is once again in the race for both Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot and The Sisters Brothers. Hugh Jackman is likely to make a splash as disgraced presidential candidate Gary Hart in Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, and could earn his second nomination in a stellar run (thanks to Logan and The Greatest Showman). And then there’s Rami Malek, who looks truly magnificent in the massively troubled Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. However, if there’s anyone who seems like a lock for a nomination, it’s Christian Bale in Backseat, Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney story. Cheney is one of the most infamous figures in recent American politics, and McKay has a real knack for getting down deep into these kinds of stories. When Bale last worked with McKay, it was for The Big Short, and he managed to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his efforts. Between his normal energy, the extensive weight gain and head shaving he has undergone, the usual sense of skillful irony McKay brings to his films, and a friend who has seen an early cut of the film and called it “a masterpiece,” I predict that Bale will earn his fourth Oscar nomination for his portrayal as the most powerful Vice President in U.S. history.

Steve Carell with Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy

Up next, we have an actor having “A Year.” I always like to predict one actor who is having such an incredible year, the Academy gives him a nomination for one film as compensation for all his films. While this backfired on me last year (apparently nobody liked Matt Damon’s two films), it worked in 2016 for Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield, and it worked in 2013 for Matthew McConaughey. This year, that actor is beloved icon Steve Carell. Carell has been on a roll in recent years after leaving The Office, earning an Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher before taking on terrific roles in The Big Short, Battle of the Sexes, and Last Flag Flying. This year, he has three major films coming out, each equally deserving of a nomination. The first is a Supporting role in Backseat as Donald Rumsfeld, a performance we’ll talk more about when we get to the supporting categories. The second is Welcome to Marwen, a true story about a man who creates fantastical World War II dioramas to deal with the trauma of being beaten by Nazis. Its topical nature and his touching performance could earn him a nomination. However, if the trailer and early buzz are any indication, it’s that we should be looking at Beautiful Boy as his most likely nomination. As journalist David Sheff, Carell will portray a stressed father trying to both help his son deal with a methamphetamine addiction as well as cope with his own emotions over the ordeal. Whenever a film’s trailer chooses to just put an entire scene on display for the audience to revel in the acting, you know something special is going on. And that’s exactly what Beautiful Boy chose to do. I predict Carell will earn a nomination for this film not only because he’s earned it, but because he will have earned it three times over.

Bradley Cooper with Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born

In our fourth spot, we have The Auteur. Every so often, an actor will attempt to direct himself in a big blockbuster movie. Normally when this happens, he is only nominated for acting OR for directing, rarely ever both. However, when we are this early in the game, I prefer playing it safe and doubling down. After all, Denzel is certainly going to earn a nomination somewhere, as are Kenneth Branagh, Ed Harris, and Billy Bob Thornton. This year, the big man on the street is Bradley Cooper, who is pulling an Orson Welles and directing, writing, producing, and starring in his remake of A Star Is Born. While it is Lady Gaga who has earned the early buzz surrounding the film, many of the actors and pundits who have seen the film already have commented on Cooper’s portrayal of the washed-up alcoholic country star Jackson Maine. Mix in the fact that Cooper is doing his own singing, as well as the fact that the Academy likes him so much they nominated him three years in a row (including for an average performance in American Sniper), and Cooper could be well on his way to joining the ranks of Welles and Warren Beatty in the Four Noms club.

Robert Redford with Sissy Spacek in The Old Man and the Gun

And finally, we have the Indie contender. This is the actor who appears in a beloved indie film which catches steam and earns its sole nomination above the line, like Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, Bryan Cranston in Trumbo, or Demián Bichir in A Better Life. There are several actors who could earn this spot, including Ben Foster for Leave No Trace, Garrett Hedlund for Burden, or even LaKeith Stanfield for Sorry To Bother You (he’s destined for an Oscar nomination someday soon). However, I can think of no actor more deserving than Robert Redford. Despite his presence in the industry as a beloved figure since the mid-1960s, Redford has only one Oscar nomination. Not a win: just one nomination, for The Sting. This is an insane statistic, and with the actor officially retiring after this year, this will be the Academy’s last chance to reward him. In The Old Man and the Gun, Redford will be playing an aging gentleman outlaw pulling off a series of bank robberies and prison escapes. From this description and a recently released trailer, this seems like the role he was born to play, and if he brings the charm and talent he’s known for to the screen one last time for David Lowery, he should be able to earn one more nomination before hanging up the ole’ Sundance cowboy hat for good.

And what of Robert de Niro in The Irishman, you may be wondering? Well, funny story about that. De Niro has reportedly finished his swan song in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and could be primed for yet another nomination. And with his controversial showing at the Tonys last month, there is no doubt in my mind the producers of the show would stop at nothing to get him to show up and shake things up. Hell, I had him on my list for quite a while before writing this update. It’s just…Netflix has had the film listed as 2019 for quite a while now. And while many pundits have predicted that this will change (and I’m sure it will), we should have heard about it by now if the film is going to get bumped up. I’m afraid that with months of post-production ahead of them and a desire to stick to the previously-established release schedule, I have no choice but to remove The Irishman not only from the Best Actor category, but all other categories as well. That means no more Best Picture, Best Director, or any of the several categories I had it listed for. I hope I’m wrong; I’d love a new Scorsese film this year. But it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

That’s where we’re at this point in the race. However, there are still so many actors who could have a breakthrough that I didn’t see coming. I had Timothée Chalamet as a longshot last year, and I didn’t even think Denzel Washington would even register for Roman J. Israel, Esq. (no, I didn’t make that title up. This means that Hawke and Phoenix are definitely still in the running, and Lucas Hedges could continue his hot streak as preacher’s son sent to conversion therapy in Boy Erased. The Academy could be leaning as lighthearted as Ewan McGregor playing Christopher Robin, or it could be as dark as Jake Gyllenhaal watching his marriage fall apart in Wildlife. British favorite Rory Kinnear could have success playing a revolutionary leader in Peterloo, and Jason Clarke could sneak in from early-year favorite Chappaquiddick. And in terms of African-American representation (which seems weaker than it’s been the past few years), don’t sleep on Stephan James as a wrongly-convicted man in If Beale Street Could Talk, Chadwick Boseman as the titular hero in Black Panther (unlikely but we’ll see), or, in perhaps the best bid of the bunch, John David Washington as an African-American cop taking on the Ku Klux Klan in BlacKkKlansman. Any of these actors could have a big night early next year. We’ll find out soon enough, and until then, you can see the full list of Best Actor contenders here, and you can see the my current Oscar predictions right here. Once again, here are the Top Five:

  1. Ryan Gosling – First Man
  2. Christian Bale – Backseat
  3. Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
  4. Steve Carell-Beautiful Boy
  5. Robert Redford – The Old Man and the Gun

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