Oscar Beat: The Best Actor Race at a Glance

     November 1, 2014

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Every year in the awards race, it seems like the Best Actor field is the most crowded category.  That is certainly the case with this current crop of contenders, as there is no shortage of formidable talents vying for one of the five Best Actor Oscar slots.  While it’s still a tad early to start talking about possible winners, there’s plenty to discuss with regards to chances of being nominated.  The contenders range from well-respected underdogs to recent winners, and yes, spoiler alert, many of them are playing real people.  After the jump, I take a look at the Best Actor race at a glance in this edition of Oscar Beat.

foxcatcher-channing-tatum-steve-carellTo say that this year’s Best Actor race is tough is an understatement.  We’ve already seen some incredible performances from a variety of talents, and there are still a few highly anticipated films to be seen.  Quite possibly the first contender of this year’s race was Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, as the first trailer for director Bennett Miller’s phenomenal drama debuted around this time last year when the film was initially slated to open late last year.  Sony Pictures Classics subsequently changed tactics and opted for a 2014 debut instead, but the cat was out of the bag: Carell was completely unrecognizable in the role of eccentric millionaire John du Pont.

Carell is astoundingly good in Foxcatcher, turning in a quietly intense performance that’s as terrifying as it is transfixing.  When people talk about an actor “disappearing” into a role, this is exactly the kind of performance they’re describing.  Reaction to Carell’s performance has been stellar across the board, and he is certainly an early frontrunner to nab a nomination, but the film itself is rather dark and challenging.  It remains to be seen how Academy voters will react to the movie as a whole, but regardless I’d be quite surprised if Carell was left off the ballot.

Sony Pictures Classics is also submitting Channing Tatum for Best Actor contention for Foxcatcher, and in some ways his performance is even more impressive than Carell’s.  It’s a very internalized and difficult turn from the actor, but it marks his best work to date by a mile.  Carell is the one who’s been generating the most attention, possibly because of the dramatic physical transformation, but I’d argue Tatum should be right up there with him.  He doesn’t seem to be getting the same kind of heat and it’s rare for two actors from the same film to be nominated, but it’s possible he could pick up some steam as the film’s release date approaches.

birdman-michael-keatonAnother performance that’s enjoying heafty amounts of buzz is Michael Keaton in Birdman.  While the film itself has proved to be divisive among some critics, it is no doubt an “actor’s movie”, so I imagine it will be a hit among the Academy’s largest branch of voters: the actors.  Keaton has the likeability factor going for him, and while this isn’t necessarily a comeback given that he never really disappeared, Birdman is certainly the best showcase of his talents in some time.  A Best Actor nomination seems very, very likely.

If you know anything about the Oscars, you know the Academy is very fond of biopics.  They will have no shortage of true-life stories to dig into this year, but two British-centric biopics look to be major players in a number of categories—especially Best Actor.  Eddie Redmayne turns in a tremendous performance as genius physicist Stephen Hawking in the tear-jerker The Theory of Everything, which charts Hawking’s life from his early days at college up through his groundbreaking work in the field of theoretical physics, as he is simultaneously battling a debilitating motor neuron disease that slowly limits his physical abilities.  Redmayne is seriously great in the film, and he’s given a really wonderful dramatic arc that he absolutely nails in concert with a fantastic performance by Felicity Jones as his wife Jane.  Movies that tug at the heartstrings can be big hits with the Academy, so Redmayne will like be a very strong presence in the Best Actor field.

And then we also have Benedict Cumberbatch playing British mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.  Both this and Theory of Everything are movies about British geniuses overcoming obstacles to change the world for the better, but the tone of each film is very different.  Imitation Game plays much more like a spy thriller than a standard biopic, but it’s a wonderful showcase for Cumberbatch’s performance nonetheless.  It’s another excellent turn in this year’s embarrassment of riches, and it’s also quite topical as Turing struggles to hide his homosexuality while trying to crack the Nazi code that will win World War II.  Just like Theory of Everything, I expect Imitation Game to be a serious contender in a number of categories, and Cumberbatch seems destined to go head-to-head with Redmayne in the Best Actor category.

mr-turner-timothy-spallThere’s also another British biopic with a standout lead performance in the mix, and that’s Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.  Beloved character actor Timothy Spall plays controversial painter J.M.W. Turner with guttural gusto, and while some may find the film prickly or tough, it’s hard to deny the impressiveness of Spall’s performance.  The picture was a big hit at Cannes but received a more muted response at TIFF and Telluride, though I think some are underestimating the sheer quantity of British Academy voters when figuring in Spall’s chances.  It may not be as easy a pick as some of the others, but I wouldn’t count the guy out.

Now that Interstellar has screened, many are saying that Matthew McConaughey could find himself back in the Best Actor race after winning last year for Dallas Buyers Club.  In fact, some go so far as to note that McConaughey’s work in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic is even more impressive than Dallas Buyers Club.  Response to the film overall was mixed-to-positive so it might not be the Oscar juggernaut that some were predicting, but I could see McConaughey being a serious contender for a nomination.  The McConaissance remains strong.

There are a number of other performances that are certainly deserving of praise, but that are a little tougher to pin down with regards to Oscar chances.  Jake Gyllenhaal is completely unhinged in Nightcrawler, and it’s absolutely one of the best performances of the year, but it may not be the kind of movie that many Academy voters spring for.  It’s dark and unflinching, but if the film does well at the box office that might convince voters to move the screener to the top of their pile.  Whiplash has also been picking up steam lately, so there’s the possibility of Miles Teller landing a Best Actor nod for his impressive work in the Sundance indie.  He almost feels like a bit of a Dark Horse in this race.

nightcrawler-jake-gyllenhaalBrendan Gleeson does stellar work in Calvary and the same can be said for Tom Hardy in Locke and Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins, but those indies will need a second wind in order to generate some steam and rise above the buzz surrounding Carell, Keaton, etc.  Ralph Fiennes is also swell in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but as I said in my Best Picture piece, it’s been so long since that film came out that it’s gonna be tough for it to stay in the mix.  I wouldn’t entirely count out Ben Affleck in Gone Girl should that film really take off with the Academy, and Tommy Lee Jones could be in the mix for The Homesman depending on how that film’s release is handled.

Inherent Vice is still a bit of a question mark.  The film proved rather trying for audiences at the New York Film Festival, with Paul Thomas Anderson turning in something lighter than The Master but no less obtuse.  And if Joaquin Phoenix can’t get nominated for his incredible performance in Her, I’m less certain about his chances here.

The Weinstein Company is still trying to position St. Vincent as an Oscar contender, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with enthusiastic things to say about the movie or Bill Murray’s performance.

And then there are the performances that have yet to be seen.  Early buzz is high on Oscar Isaac’s turn in J.C. Chandor’s crime drama A Most Violent Year, and the first trailer certainly teased some intense work from the guy who, for my money, delivered the best performance of 2013 with Inside Llewyn DavisJack O’Connell has been poised to break out in a big way all year, and he could definitely do so with Angelina Jolie’s inspirational WWII film Unbroken, though the film comes so late in the race that it may be tough to crack the Best Actor category.  There’s also Mark Wahlberg’s physically transformative performance in The Gambler, but it’s too early to know if that film will be more of a straightforward thriller or if Wahlberg gets enough dramatic material to raise Academy eyebrows.

unbroken-jack-oconnellThere’s also anticipation for the Civil Rights drama Selma starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we still haven’t seen a trailer so it’s tough to suss out his chances.  We have seen a trailer for Clint Eastwood’s late-addition American Sniper, and it looks like it could launch Bradley Cooper into the race should the film deliver the goods.

At this point, nothing is certain other than the fact that there are only five slots for the Best Actor category and far more than five performances worthy of consideration.  Who’ll make the cut?  Time will tell.

For now, here’s how I see the Best Actor race at the moment, ranked in order of likelihood to be nominated, not to win:

1. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

2. Michael Keaton, Birdman

3. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

4. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

5. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

6. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar

7. Miles Teller, Whiplash

8. Jack O’Connell, Unbroken

9. Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher

10. Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year

the-theory-of-everything-eddie-redmayne-2And here are my updated rankings for the Best Picture race:

1. Boyhood

2. Unbroken

3. The Imitation Game

4. The Theory of Everything

5. Birdman

6. Foxcatcher

7. Interstellar

8. Whiplash

9. Gone Girl

10. Selma

11. American Sniper

12. Mr. Turner

13. Into the Woods

14. Wild

15. A Most Violent Year

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