The Road to Oscar: Best Actor

     February 20, 2013


As Sunday’s 85th Annual Academy Awards loom closer, we’ve using this week as an opportunity to take a look back at how the past year’s Oscar race has played out in a number of categories.  We first took a look at the ebbs and flows in the Best Supporting Actor category, and then we chronicled the road that lead us to the Best Supporting Actress nominees.  Today we’re examining the Best Actor race, which actually seemed to be all wrapped up months before the nominees were even announced.  Hit the jump to read on.

the-sessions-john-hawkes2012’s Best Actor race kicked off incredibly early with the Sundance debut of The Sessions.  Star and veteran character actor John Hawkes pleasantly surprised audiences in 2010 with a very deserving Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in Winter’s Bone, and he looked poised for Oscar recognition once again with his transformative performance in The Sessions.  In fact, many members of the press at Sundance were ready to declare him a frontrunner for Best Actor—all the way back in January.

Hawkes remained a top contender for the trophy throughout the summer, as no viable candidates materialized until the fall films started popping up.  However, competition started getting stiff around September.  Whenever Daniel Day-Lewis decides to grace us mere mortals with an onscreen performance we’re always blown away, so months before anyone had even seen so much as an image from Lincoln, Day-Lewis was considered a serious candidate for the Best Actor trophy.  That being said, the Toronto Film Festival turned up a couple of other actors who would be challenging Hawkes and Day-Lewis at the top.

joaquin-phoenix-the-masterJoaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master could only be described as, well, masterful.  The actor is a force of nature, and despite the film’s mixed response overall, audiences and critics alike were over the moon for Phoenix’s work in the film when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and he rocketed to the shortlist of Best Actor candidates.

The fest also turned up another viable contender, however unlikely.  Bradley Cooper—who had been rising fast following the success of The Hangover—did excellent dramatic and comedic work in David O. Russell’s crowdpleaser Silver Linings Playbook, and as the pic became a Best Picture frontrunner following its TIFF debut, so too did Cooper become a possible contender for the Best Actor trophy.  Though his prospects of winning were decidedly less than those of Phoenix, Hawkes, or even Day-Lewis at the time (since Lincoln hadn’t come out yet), Cooper turned heads with arguably the best work of his career, and pundits began penciling him as a safe bet for a nomination.

daniel-day-lewis-lincolnAs we moved into November, though, a couple of acting veterans made quite the splash.  Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was met with widespread acclaim from both critics and audiences, and just as most had predicted, Daniel Day-Lewis turned in an absolutely incredible performance as our nation’s 16th president.  Day-Lewis’ work seemed to surpass even the highest of expectations, and the actor solidified himself as the far-and-away frontrunner and likely winner of the Best Actor trophy three months before the ceremony.

With Day-Lewis firmly in place as “the one to beat,” any other further candidates that surfaced seemed destined to lose out on the win to Day-Lewis.  Nevertheless, Denzel Washington took a break from thrillers and actioners to tackle some serious dramatic work in Robert ZemeckisFlight, and Academy members took notice of his skilled turn as an alcoholic and drug-addled pilot coping with addiction.  Though the film didn’t receive universal praise, the R-rated drama was a surprise hit with audiences, and older members of the Academy seemed to spark to Washington’s performance.  Coupled with his history as a previous Best Actor winner, Washington became a favorite to land a Best Actor nomination.

As Day-Lewis and Washington entered the race as serious candidates, Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar prospects took a hit.  The actor had been considered the only one who stood a chance (however miniscule) of pulling an upset win over Day-Lewis, but during a candid interview Phoenix spoke out against the entire awards season process. Needless to say, his negative comments about the Oscars didn’t exactly curry favor with Academy members.

hugh-jackman-les-miserables-imageAnticipation for the musical adaptation Les Miserables was high in November, with many believing it to be a possible Oscar juggernaut.  While the reaction to the film as a whole wasn’t exactly at the level that many were expecting/hoping for, few could deny the impressiveness of Hugh Jackman’s work in the lead role.  The actor garnered positive reviews for his raw and powerful performance as Jean Valjean, and with Phoenix’s prospects slipping, Jackman became a viable candidate to land a Best Actor nomination.

Another possible candidate was considered in December, with Jamie Foxx an early possibility for a nomination given his Oscar history and the fact that he was taking on a rather meaty role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  For whatever reason, though, Foxx’s prospects as a Best Actor candidate were never really taken seriously.  The category had already become a bit crowded and the attention for Django Unchained was mostly paid to the film’s stellar supporting roles, with Christoph Waltz shining in what was essentially a co-lead turn.  Alas, the possibility of Foxx having a shot at a second Oscar came and went rather quickly.

django-unchained-jamie-foxxAs we approached the beginning of January and with the nominations announcement looming, it seemed clear that Day-Lewis was a lock with Washington and Jackman standing as the category’s “safe bets.”  Fighting it out for the last two spots were Phoenix, Cooper, and Hawkes.  Pundits argued over whether Phoenix’s negative comments about the awards race would really have that much of an impact on his prospects at landing a nomination, and it was unclear whether Hawkes would be lost in the shuffle given that his performance had debuted all the way back in January. The question also remained whether Cooper had the goods to make the leap from “good-looking comedic leading man” to “serious dramatic actor.”

In the end, it was Hawkes who was left out in the cold, as our five Best Actor nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Denzel Washington, Hugh Jackman, and Bradley Cooper.  Day-Lewis seems to have this one all sewn up as he’s won literally every single precursor award, so the other four actors will have to settle for being happy with just a nomination.

Check back tomorrow when we take a look back at the Best Actress category, and if you’ve missed any of our previous Road to Oscar articles, catch up below:


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  • jackjack

    Joaquin Phoenix gave easily the most outstanding male performance of 2012, but on Sunday that cheap mob will give the honour to Day-Lewis.

    • Bob

      I agree. I didn’t even like the overall result of The Master. In fact I think its a pretty mediocre film, but Phoenix gave an amazing performance. Almost unrecognizable. Don’t get me wrong, Day-Lewis was fantastic, but not the single best of the year imho. Maybe because Im just so accustomed to seeing great performances by Lewis and that’s why I wasn’t blown away.

      • randommale7

        I agree Joaquin Phoenix gave the best performance of 2012, Daniel Day-Lewis was great as usual but Phoenix’s performance was just so raw, it reminded me of Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood

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  • Jesus

    This article is entirely pointless. As much as you could speculate on how more deserving some of the other candidates might be, Day-Lewis has it in the bag. It’s the most obvious and easiest prediction since perhaps The Titanic (which had nothing else of note in its year). Day-Lewis gave a performance that made it seem like they’d resurrected Lincoln and then filled out the rest of the cast with actors, it was that good even if the film itself was basic biopic stuff.

  • Nerdgasm

    I think JackJack is completely off base here. Saying that denounces Lincoln and Day Lewis for their achievements. Lincoln was a large undertaking and they did an amazing job and Day Lewis did a remarkable job which also heightened the movie. Pheonixe’s performance in The Master was amazing but the movie lacked over all and his performance didn’t transcend anything as Day Lewis did with Lincoln. On the other hand..You saying “That Cheap Mob” Also discredits Day Lewis’ win with There Will Be Blood….

  • Keegan

    01. Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
    02. Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
    03. Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
    04. Denzel Washington – Flight
    05. Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour
    06. John Hawkes – The Sessions
    07. Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
    08. Richard Gere – Arbitrage
    09. Hugh Jackman – Les Misérables
    10. Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust and Bone

  • jackjack

    By saying that AMPAS is a “cheap mob” I implied only that it’s choices are marketing-driven decisions (artistry or craftsmanship doesn’t contradict publicity, it’s only a matter of chance which nominee is better wrapped). Daniel Day-Lewis is a great actor, he’s faultless and “Lincoln” stands on his shoulders. But It’s just like Bob suggested: predictable, and for some of us not so fascinating as Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell.

  • scrotiemcboogerballs

    its disgusting that spielberg is nominated for anything after he r*ped indiana jones.

  • Trick

    Day-Lewis will probably win, but the award should go to Phoenix
    Totally knew it would come to this at the beginning of the year
    As soon as I heard PT was working with Phoenix, and Spielberg was working with DDL, I figured it was going to be a brawl

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