The Road to Oscar: Best Actor

     February 20, 2013

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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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