It's just a freaking strong & frankly exciting year for Best Actor with too many real contenders for the five available slots. But more just the great performances that will inevitably be snubbed, this is also a year with at least four strong front runners to win, which means we have ourselves a real race (for now at least).
1. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis still leads the race for now as honest Abe in Spielberg's much-celebrated, much-watched (good combination) biopic. He walks a touchy line of impersonation with grandiose speeches and a weird voice which could easily add up to hammy scenery chewing. But this is Daniel Day-Lewis and he has now pretty much stepped up to being the greatest actor alive. For now. Like the very best of impersonation performances (think Helen Mirren in The Queen), Day-Lewis inhabits his character, living & breathing but never over-playing him. Audiences and critics have taken to both the skill of his performance and the venerable stature of his character and, in a significant political year for America, his performance already feels a little bit iconic. When you're the frontrunner for your third lead Oscar, and no-one begrudges you, you've done something right. Incidentally, if he wins, he joins the ranks of:
- Ingrid Bergman - 3 wins (2 lead, 1 supporting)
- Meryl Streep - 3 wins (2 lead, 1 supporting)
- Jack Nicholson - 3 wins (2 lead, 1 supporting)
But still stands back for Katherine Hepburn with 4 wins (all lead).
2. Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Critics are divided on Paul Thomas Anderson's latest masterpiece, particularly around what it means and whether it means anything at all, but the one thing everyone seemed to uniformly agree on was that the Oscar already had Joaqion Phoenix's name on it. That was until Lincoln came along, and Phoenix called the Oscars "bullshit" and "the worst carrot I've ever tasted". To be fair, he was referring mostly to the horror of campaigning for an Oscar, which it's easy to agree can get ugly, and he did later try to retract his comments or at least place them in context. Does this negate his Oscar chances? With so many strong contenders, it probably does take his name solidly off the Oscar, but given the strength of his performance as an odd, wild alcoholic destructive finding refuge under the wing of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's titular Master, he shouldn't have much trouble still getting nominated. (as a side note, I see the ugliness and ludicrousness of campaigning people and putting them in competition with each other, and of course being acknowledged by your industry as the "best" is as weird as it must be flattering, but the prestige of the Oscars does keep the industry actors are privileged to work in going and, if nothing else, it means a lot to the bottom line of the movie they signed up for & for the fans who fell in love with it, one of which must surely be the reason they do it all in the first place).
3. Denzel Washington - Flight
Robert Zemeckis' first live action film since 2000's Cast Away slipped in under the radar to become a sleeper hit with audiences and critics on the strength of three things: Denzel Washington's dense, deep character study of a complex man at the center of an enigmatic disaster, John Gatins' sharp script and basically a kick ass crash scene. Washington has his Oscar for Training Day, but honestly he's got so much momentum right now it could easily take him all the way back to the podium. The industry loves him &, historically at least, Oscar loves on-screen drunks. Another threat keeping the Best Actor race edgy. A win would make him the first black actor with three Oscars.
4. Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Who doesn't love Hugh Jackman? The one-&-only embodiment of Wolverine has also effortlessly shown his sensitive (The Fountain) and funny (Kate & Leopold) side, and made a good case for his serious actor credentials in Chris Nolan's The Prestige. He's also in better shape at 44 than most of us will likely ever be. Now he takes the all-singing, much-wretched, ultimately-heroic lead in Tom Hooper's adaptation of the ultimate serious-minded musical, and everyone has been simply waiting to make this his moment, provided he didn't screw it up. And the first semi-reviews from critics and bloggers who have attended early screenings suggest he has done quite the opposite of screw it up. I'm not sure when last a male Actor won for a musical performance, if ever, (if anyone knows, let me know), but if momentum for Les Miserables keeps building, he poses a serious threat for the win. And just imagine what a Jackman win would do for the notoriously uncool award show's ratings.
5. John Hawkes - The Sessions
John Hawkes has become a household name of late (in, you know, indie film and awards-obsessed kinda households) with awesome, celebrated, creepy turns in Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene and this year his and Helen Hunt's central performances, as a real-life quadriplegic poet wanting to lose his virginity and a compassionate sex surrogate, respectively, have been riding (no pun intended) a wave of joint acclaim since Sundance that shows no sign of slowing down. Hawkes' performance has repeatedly, and annoyingly (but probably unavoidably) been compared to Daniel Day-Lewis' (first) Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot, but funnier. It's frustrating to have his performance reduced to an Oscar paint-by-numbers when the strength of his performance is not merely the complexity of his physical limitations, but the great sensitivity and humour he brings to a frankly awkward story. He's got the goods to win, but probably not in a year like this.
That seems like a pretty unshakable top 5 but, if we've learnt anything, it's that nobody knows anything.
The strongest contenders waiting in the wings, are:
6. Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
In a career-shifting performance, that good-looking guy from The Hangover and The A Team, plays an obsessive compulsive man moving back in with his parents after a stint in a mental institution, hoping to patch things up with his estranged wife, but faced with a dilemma when he finds himself drawn to Jennifer Lawrence's depressed nymphomaniac instead. Silver Linings Playbook has proven to be an unshakably popular feelgood dramedy with legitimate Best Picture chances (although it would be a shame in a year with such strong contenders). If the film keeps building momentum, so will the chances of it's leading man. And again, the words "Bradley Cooper" will do wonders for the Oscars' TV ratings.
7. Anthony Hopkins - Hitchcock
What could be more exciting than the great Sir Anthony Hopkins playing the legendary Alfred Hitchcock? Well, at least 6 other actors, apparently. But still this has to remain a strong contender on the strength of Hopkins' star power, Hitchcock's legend and the humour Hopkins and director Sacha Gervasi bring to the part. It's not an attractive portrait of the great director, and reportedly not a very accurate one either. But that doesn't mean it's not entertaining. Most likely, the attention will be on Helen Mirren as Hitch's largely unsung partner in crime, Alma Reville. Hopkins shows no interest in doing the campaigning thing (why should he?) and in the wake of iconic performances in major Best Picture contenders, his movie and performance seem doomed to obscurity very soon after the inevitable Golden Globe nominations (presuming it contends as a comedy). But anything can happen.
8. Richard Gere - Arbitrage
To be fair, the man has had quite a career, and he's never played the Oscar game, danced the AMPAS dance, had his face in the little squares after a beautiful Actress said "and the nominees are...". And that, together with many reviews declaring this the best work of his career, by far, is the basis of the fairly strong campaign for Richard Gere as Best Actor for his performance in Arbitrage. I haven't seen the film, but the reviews are pretty convincing (especially as I found the trailer very tiresome), and if he can build a strong enough campaign.
And lastly, these dudes really have no chance of getting in, but it should be mentioned that they did contend, on the outskirts:
9. Bill Murray - Hyde Park on Hudson
Who wouldn't want to see Bill Murray nominated for playing Teddy Roosevelt? In the same year that Daniel Day-Lewis wins for playing Abraham Lincoln? It seems meant to be, but this has been far too competitive a year and Bill Murray's performance is ultimately too understated, with no wow moments. Also the film kinda tanked. Pity. Still can't wait to see it though.
10. Jean-Louis Trintignant
Don't get me wrong, this could happen, if Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or winning film hits in a big way, but it's highly unlikely. As an elderly, retired music teacher watching his wife succumb to the ravages of old age, Jean-Louis Trintignant really should be an Oscar contender. But that, of course, doesn't mean he will. There are younger, more attractive men turning in more popular performances in movies without subtitles. Again, a pity.