A very palpable two-horse Oscar race emerged mid-season this year in one of the strongest categories offered at this year’s Academy Awards. Best Actor in early September looked like the Michael Keaton show with a potential spoiler in the wings that looked like Benedict Cumberbatch. As the season progressed, the National Board of Review kicked things off for Keaton with a Best Actor win, which he tied with Oscar Isaac from “A Most Violent Year.” He continued to win award after award including the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award. It seemed like smooth sailing. At the Globes, Keaton won in the Comedy category, bringing to light the winner of the Drama category, Eddie Redmayne from the hugely successful “The Theory of Everything.” With no real worries, many of us chalked Redmayne up to a young and respectable #2. When the SAG and BAFTA awards were bestowed upon him, a new frontrunner emerged, and its been looking that way for a while.
However, there are more question marks and contenders on the table with Bradley Cooper for “American Sniper” and Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” to still consider. Let’s take a look at one of the most competitive Best Actor races on record.
Steve Carell – “Foxcatcher”
(Sony Pictures Classics)
OSCAR SCENE: Talking to the wrestling team as mother watches.
It’s so endearing and heartwarming to see Steve Carell land himself an Oscar nomination this year. After delivering in terrific comedic gems like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” it’s refreshing to see a comedic actor turned serious get his due. We’ve anticipated this performance and nomination for over two years. Bennett Miller’s film was first slated for release in 2013 before being moved to the 2014 season. Carell broke through at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving stellar notices, and “Foxcatcher” played successfully at all the top-tier festivals that included Telluride, New York, and AFI. Unfortunately for Carell, a win is nowhere within an ear shot at the moment. Many fans of the film, including myself, felt Carell landed more on the Supporting Actor side of things, and if Oscar had listened to BAFTA as a cue, then Carell would be a stronger spoiler to someone like J.K. Simmons. Hopefully this opens the door for more dynamic and challenging performances for Carell in his career.
Bradley Cooper – “American Sniper”
Third (and Fourth) Nomination
OSCAR SCENE: “I just needed a minute.”
Bradley Cooper has been on a hot streak. Two years ago he blew us away with his surprising and captivating turn in “Silver Linings Playbook” by David O. Russell. He teamed up with Russell again the next year and stole the show in “American Hustle.” Both of which he received deserved Oscar nominations. This year, he achieved his finest performance yet in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” for which Cooper also received a nomination as a producer. The awards run for “American Sniper” was very unsure throughout most of the season after it was virtually ignored by the critics awards. When the major guilds started announcing, the film really took off, and Cooper became a considerable spoiler. This has been a very public race between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton however, neither of them have taken on Cooper at a ceremony yet. With “Sniper’s” massive box office, and two almost assured wins in the sound categories, a Cooper upset may be waiting in the wings for us all. He’s also the ninth male actor to achieve three consecutive acting nominations. Three out of those nine, won an Oscar during those runs.
Benedict Cumberbatch – “The Imitation Game”
(The Weinstein Company)
OSCAR SCENE: “I don’t like sandwiches.”
This has been a long road coming for the talented Benedict Cumberbatch. After starring in virtually a dozen films over the past two years, all of which he makes a memorable impression, his turn as Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” was the perfect vehicle for him to finally get his due. Cumberbatch’s work was hailed since Telluride and Toronto, and became an instant contender. For weeks, the Best Actor race looked like his to lose until the Keaton and Redmayne trains pulled in. With Harvey Weinstein and the power of his Oscar wand waving behind him, there’s no telling what he may be able to pull off on the night. Cumberbatch also proven his worth in the industry and this could be his first major step into a future Oscar win à la Colin Firth in “A Single Man.” Next time perhaps?
Michael Keaton – “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)
OSCAR SCENE: “I should have been there.”
Telluride and Venice started the great Michael Keaton off on the highest of notes. From the first screening of “Birdman,” we knew that Keaton was going to be someone to contend for this year’s race. When the precursors started, it looked like a done deal for the 63-year-old actor as he walked away with the National Board of Review, and a slew of other awards including the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award. His speeches sure helped the cause by talking about his career, and thanking his son and calling him his best friend. Of the five nominees in the category, Keaton probably has the least likely shot to return. In fact, if he wins, he’ll be the second oldest winner in this category ever. And lastly, “Birdman” is on an upwards trajectory. It’s hard to see the film possibly winning Picture and Director, without its main man taking home the Oscar too. Interesting stat, 8 of the last 14 Best Picture winners, also had an acting win for their film. Of the six that did not, two of them did not have an acting nomination from their film (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Slumdog Millionaire”). Could that just bode well for “Boyhood” in Picture when everything’s said and done?
Eddie Redmayne – “The Theory of Everything”
OSCAR SCENE: “Thank you.”
Eddie Redmayne blazed onto the good graces of many as Marius in Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables,” a performance that should have brought him his first nomination. As Stephen Hawking, Redmayne hits a new career high, burying himself in the body, eyes, mind, and soul of a brilliant man. Eddie’s transformation has been the talk surrounding the film all season long, bringing constant comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning turn in “My Left Foot” over 25 years ago. Kicking off a precise and stellar campaign with a win at the Golden Globes in Best Actor (Drama), his reign didn’t end there. Redmayne went on to surprisingly win the SAG Award against frontrunner Keaton, and virtually cake walked to the stage at the BAFTA awards, all happening when ballots were firmly in AMPAS voters hands. He would be the eighth youngest winner in the history of Best Actor. Bananas.
This is a death match between a man who’s career should have brought him multiple nominations but was virtually ignored and a man who takes on the role of his career and hits it out of the park. Then there’s the man who also delivers his career best in a film that has made more money than anyone would have thought. It’s hard to see Michael Keaton losing if “Birdman” is winning Picture, which also brings me to the question to how many Oscars is “Birdman” actually going to win if not Keaton? Is it possibly a two or three statue winner? If Eddie is winning, does he become the representation for “The Theory of Everything” or is the wide open race for Original Score opened now for Golden Globe winning composer Johann Johansson? And if Cooper wins, does that “Sniper” is taking both sounds and perhaps Film Editing? All this is related to one another.
When in doubt, go with your SAG winner. That’s the safe answer for you. I’m choosing to go with the career narrative for Keaton on this one, especially if “Birdman” is winning.
PREDICTED WINNER: Michael Keaton
ALTERNATE: Eddie Redmayne
SPOILER: Bradley Cooper
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Oscar Isaac (“A Most Violent Year”), David Oyelowo (“Selma”), Channing Tatum (“Foxcatcher”)
Discuss in the comments below.