Oscar Beat: The Best Actor Race – Acting Veterans Square Off Against McConaughey, Ejiofor, and More

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In the last few months of covering this year’s awards race, it’s become very clear that the 2014 Oscars are going to be one of the most competitive in recent memory.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the Best Actor category, which already seems to have congealed into a solid list of five extremely likely candidates with a number of others waiting in the wings to play the spoiler.  As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and the race starts to firm up, now seems like a good time to start taking a closer look at the individual categories in the 2014 Oscar race.

In today’s edition of Oscar Beat, we begin with the Best Actor category, which will see a couple of acting legends challenging the rise of McConaughey, powerful performances depicting historically important characters, Leo, and more.  Read on after the jump.

There are plenty of contenders vying for the Best Actor trophy this year, and while it’s important to keep in mind that we’re still over three months away from the ceremony, the landscape of the Best Actor race has very much started to take shape.

Frontrunners

12-years-a-slave-chiwetel-ejiofor-2Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave

Quite possibly the one to beat at the moment, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a performance in 12 Years a Slave that is nothing short of astounding.  This is not a slavery film told through the eyes of a white audience surrogate, this is Solomon Northup’s story through and through, and Ejiofor brings the character to life in devastatingly powerful fashion.  Though the whisper campaigns are hard at work trying to convince voters that the film itself is too “hard to watch,” there will be no denying Ejiofor’s talent, and right now I consider him the early frontrunner to take the trophy home.

Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey could very well be capping off a career resurgence with a Best Actor Oscar.  McConaughey has shined over the past two years with wonderfully varied roles in films like Magic Mike, Bernie, and Mud, but it’s his passion project Dallas Buyers Club that will very likely provide him with his first Oscar nomination and possibly a win.  It’s no secret that the Academy takes notice of physical transformations (not to mention true life stories), and while McConaughey’s gaunt state as a homophobic AIDS patient is indeed striking, his performance has the goods to back up a difficult and heartbreaking role.

all-is-lost-robert-redfordRobert Redford – All Is Lost 

The last time Redford was nominated for an acting Oscar was in 1974 for The Sting, but with All Is Lost the veteran carries an entire film on his shoulders to great success.  The largely dialogue-less role demanded much from Redford, and it’s the kind of performance that the Academy has taken a shine to many times in the past.  It’s showy without being showy, and in all likelihood Redford will land his first acting Oscar nomination in 39 years.  Can he take it all the way to a win?  It’s quite possible.

Bruce Dern – Nebraska

Here’s another acting legend who hasn’t received Oscar love in decades.  Dern’s last nomination was in 1979 for Coming Home, but Nebraska is a wonderful showcase of the actor’s talent that doesn’t shy away from the more prickly aspects of his persona.  Again, history plays in Dern and Redford’s favors, and it helps that both have turned in fantastic work in their respective films.  A lot will ride on how the race plays out over the next few months, but right now Dern and Redford feel like serious contenders.

Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips

Though a bit younger than Dern and Redford, Tom Hanks could also be considered an acting (and Oscar) veteran.  A five-time nominee and two-time winner, Hanks is both beloved and respected by the Academy.  His work in Captain Phillips is incredibly strong, but it’s what he does in the final ten minutes of the film that makes his performance truly profound.  It remains to be seen if Captain Phillips can maintain its momentum over the next few months given that it opened in theaters all the way back in October, but it’s one of the stronger contenders to emerge in the competitive landscape.  Hanks is also a contender in the Best Supporting Actor category for his portrayal of Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, so that’s worth taking into consideration here as well.

Major Threats

wolf-of-wall-street-leonardo-dicaprioLeonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street 

Leo has become a staple of the Best Actor category in an “always the Bridesmaid, never the Bride” fashion, and that could be true this year as well.  Reuniting with Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio tackles dark comedy territory in the vein of Goodfellas it seems, and the trailers point to an absolutely insane story brought to life by yet another strong performance by DiCaprio.  Will it be enough to catapult him into the frontrunners circle or possibly the lead?  We’ll know more once Wolf of Wall Street has actually screened for critics, but it’s best never to count DiCaprio out.

Christian Bale – American Hustle/Out of the Furnace

Bale has two very different performances on the horizon this year, but both have the potential to drum up some Oscar buzz.  The last time Bale worked with director David O. Russell he won his first Oscar, so his lead role in Russell’s upcoming American Hustle has very strong potential.  The film hasn’t yet screened for critics so it’s still a tad too early to make an official call, but expectations are very high for the film and Bale’s performance based on the trailers alone.

american-hustle-bradley-cooper-christian-baleOn the flipside, Scott Cooper’s drama Out of the Furnace just recently screened for critics and the response has been positive if not wholly “buzzworthy.”  Many are noting that the pic is incredibly dark and may be too rough for the Academy, but HitFix’s Kristopher Tapley called Bale’s work in the film his best performance yet.  It’s worth keeping an eye on, but we know how heavily the Academy favors physical transformations and more showy performances, so Bale’s best shot at a nomination seems to be American Hustle.

Forest Whitaker – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

This film was heralded as our first major Oscar contender, but as the weeks have gone by, Lee Daniels’ historical drama has faded a bit from memory.  Nevertheless, there’s no discounting Forest Whitaker’s strong portrayal of a White House butler through the various presidencies, and he remains a viable candidate for a Best Actor nomination.

Potential Dark Horses

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaacOscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis

The latest from Joel and Ethan Coen premiered all the way back at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but reviews have continued to be strong with each subsequent screening.  The full critics screenings will begin in earnest in the next few weeks ahead of the film’s early December release, but while the pic has been singled out as one of the darker films in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, Oscar Isaac has received very strong notice for his lead role.  It may be too understated a performance to nab Isaac his first Oscar nod, but if the Academy takes a strong liking to Llewyn Davis, don’t be surprised to see his name move up in the field of Best Actor candidates.

Joaquin Phoenix – Her 

Here’s another film that may end up being too “weird” for the Academy’s tastes, but despite his open disdain for awards phoniness, Joaquin Phoneix has been nominated thrice before.  Many are pegging Spike Jonze’s Her as the “critical darling” candidate in this year’s awards race, and reviews out of the New York Film Festival praised Phoenix for his performance as a man who falls in love with his operating system.  It’s a very crowded Best Actor field, but Phoenix definitely has a shot.

michael b jordan fruitvale stationMichael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan first caught our attention—and broke our hearts—on HBO’s The Wire, and the talented young actor has been thrust into the spotlight this year for his portrayal of Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was shot and killed by BART police in San Francisco.  It’s a fantastic performance and most definitely worthy of awards consideration, but the question is whether a newcomer like Jordan can make the cut in the tough race.  Fruitvale has lost some of its steam since its summer release date, but I expect The Weinstein Company to move forward with another push as the voting period moves closer, so hopefully Jordan can regain some momentum then.

Obviously we still have a ways to go and we could potentially see a couple of other outside candidates move into the race, but right now the Best Actor category seems plenty crowded.  What do you think, Oscar Beat readers?  Can anyone knock the top five out of the frontrunners category?  Is there anyone I’m underestimating?  Can Chiwetel be beat?  Sound off in the comments below.

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