Oscar’s Best Actor – Tightest Race Outside of Best Picture

DBC-02427We are talking a lot of the Oscars on a daily basis with some very interesting perspectives on how the race will shape up over the next five weeks or so.  Many are anticipating for the second year in a row, a split between Best Picture and Best Director, and some have a foregone conclusion on the acting categories with very little room for surprises.  The Oscars have proven to be less predictable than that, especially in a year as competitive as this one.

One of my many comparisons on the podcasts have been to the year 2000 where Ridley Scott’s Gladiator trumped Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.  All three films were evenly matched going into the night.  The March 25th ceremony in 2001 had many question marks going in outside of Best Picture.  The Best Actor race had some stiff competition inside.  Tom Hanks had won the Golden Globe for his turn in Cast Away, putting him on track to win his third Academy Award.  When SAG weighed in, Benicio del Toro, who had been placed in Lead Actor, won the SAG award, putting everything in flux.  As history showed us, Russell Crowe edged out everyone to win his first Oscar as fallen hero in Scott’s epic.  This year, it seems like everything is in favor for Matthew McConaughey to win for Dallas Buyers Club.  He’s won BFCA, Globe, and SAG, delivering powerful speeches at each ceremony.  Do you know the last person to win all those three but lose out on Oscar was?  Coincidentally it was Russell Crowe.  The year after he nabbed his first gold man, Crowe went on a hot streak to win the Golden Globe, SAG, BFCA, and even BAFTA for his work in Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind.  Now, McConaughey doesn’t quite fit in that box because he doesn’t have a BAFTA nomination, despite being eligible for their awards, Dallas Buyers Club was completely shut out.  If anything, all that shows is a lack of love from the British voting bloc of the Academy.  Is that enough to unseat him?

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Denzel Washington snatched Russell Crowe’s second Oscar in 2002 for his work in “Training Day”

When Crowe lost the Oscar in 2002 to Denzel Washington for Training Day, a narrative had been written all year that Washington, then only a one-time winner for Supporting Actor for Glory, had never won a Leading Oscar.  His two big losses for Malcolm X and The Hurricane had stung the Oscar-following community hard.  It also helped that Halle Berry was on track to win her Oscar for Monster’s Ball, making for the first time that two African-American actors would win Lead trophies on the same night.    It’s interesting how this year seems to have a similar narrative utilizing minority actors and filmmakers getting their due but that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much.  Chiwetel EjioforAlfonso CuaronSteve McQueenLupita Nyong’oBarkhad Abdi, and John Ridley all have a potential milestone to hit if they win an Academy Award.  History will either be made or the Academy may fall into their 86-year tradition, leaving little room for diversity.

Back to Best Actor, who would be our Denzel Washington in our lineup?  None of the five actors have ever won before yet all have the “overdue” title clouding their campaign.  Chiwetel Ejiofor has provided a dynamic and impressive resume thus far with terrific turns in films like Children of Men and Kinky Boots, which he received a Golden Globe nomination.  Speaking on this week’s episode of Power Hour, it seemed to be agreed upon that Ejiofor is the one who benefits the most from a preferential ballot system.  If 12 Years a Slave is making a huge play in the top category for Picture, Ejiofor feels the most like a “Russell Crowe-Gladiator-esque” performer to be carried in with the film.

Bruce Dern has played the game exceedingly well this season.  Kicking things off with his choice to be campaigned as a Lead Actor for his work in Nebraska, instead of the recommended Supporting route, which has yielded terrific results for actors like Alan Arkin and Christopher Plummer in the past, Dern has shown integrity.  He has remained gracious and Paramount Pictures has created a fantastic narrative of the actor that never got his proper due as a leading man.  The fact that he was able to edge out players like Robert Redford and Tom Hanks for a spot shows tremendous support for his picture.  The film nabbed Best Director over Paul Greengrass and Best Cinematography over 12 Years a Slave.  Will the Academy want the 77-year-old actor to go home empty handed?

Enough has been said about Matthew McConaughey, who has had the year of a lifetime.  The man simply delivered on all fronts with an outstanding performance in Mud from earlier in the year and then closing it off with a hilarious and scene-stealing turn in The Wolf of Wall Street.  I came out the film saying he was one scene shy of an Oscar win in Scorsese’s black comedy.  Dallas Buyers Club showed tremendous force and support nabbing nominations in Original Screenplay (over Inside Llewyn Davis) and Film Editing (over any of the other 4 Best Picture nominees).  With Jared Leto looking like a foregone conclusion to win Supporting Actor, I don’t think too many Academy members credit one over the other.  The two are looking like a packaged deal.  If there is a fault in his plan, how many AMPAS voters are ready to forgive and forget a career that has included Failure to Launch and Sahara?  In 2002, Will Smith blew many of us back with his stellar work in Michael Mann’s Ali, a biopic that managed to bring in a less than impressive turn by Jon Voight in for the ride.  Granted, Mann’s film didn’t have a Best Picture nomination or any of the reviews that DBC has garnered along the way.  BUT…McConaughey doesn’t have BAFTA.  I have to keep coming back to that miss because it remains quite a mystery surrounding its omission.  We can only wonder.

LeonardoDiCaprio-MargotRobbie-WolfofWallStreetAnd finally there’s Leonardo DiCaprio.  A person who seems beloved yet hesitant when it comes to Oscar voters.  The man has garnered three nominations prior to his dual-cited work this year on The Wolf of Wall Street.   He probably had no real traction in 1993 for his turn in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, a performance that still holds up over twenty years later.  His second nomination would come eleven years later in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a film that probably was second to Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winner Million Dollar Baby.  DiCaprio himself may have been second in line to winner Jamie Foxx but we can only speculate.  I’d argue Eastwood rallied a lot of votes as did Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda.

Back in Oscar’s good graces, two years later DiCaprio packed in his best overall year yet.  His nomination came with Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond but all Oscar-fanboys in the world knew his proper citation would have been for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a performance I would have gladly rewarded him for.  Since then, DiCaprio has been passed over for Revolutionary RoadShutter IslandInceptionJ. Edgar, and Django Unchained, all of which had their vocal admirers.  This year, delivering his finest performance of his career, DiCaprio shines like he’s never done.  Winning the Golden Globe award seemed fitting but he matched it with a citation from BAFTA as well.  His SAG nomination is being chalked up to few voters being able to see it before their deadline.  He also took home an award for Best Actor in a Comedy at the Critics Choice Movie Awards earlier this month.  The man is on a roll.  Now with a producing credit on Scorsese’s film, Leo has put himself in a prime position to unseat the seemingly unstoppable McConaughey to the Oscar podium.  What will show the strength of his work would be a BAFTA win, where McConaughey isn’t there to steal the thunder.  Unfortunately, he’ll have to battle Ejiofor, a British favorite that will likely cake walk to a win.  Either way, I’d keep my eye on him.  Five weeks is plenty of time to charm the voters and build a narrative for your first Oscar.

We can talk somewhat of Christian Bale‘s nominated work in American Hustle but it honestly doesn’t factor into a conversation.  While his nomination shows the power of Hustle (nabbing four acting nominations), he’s the least likely to score a win, and better yet, he’s the only one in the category who has won an Oscar before.  Bale is undoubtedly the “#5” in the lineup.

This is just me thinking out loud at the moment.  A more proper analysis will come when we begin our “Oscar Circuit” series by the categories next week.  For now, we can only speculate.

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