2016 Oscar Circuit: Lead Actor

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Welcome to our annual Oscar Circuit series, our deep down look into each and every category that will be presented at the upcoming Academy Awards.  Each writer of AwardsCircuit.com will tackle a different category, offering up their own perspectives on those specific races.  If you miss a piece, click on the tag titled Oscar Circuit 2016. You can also see the official Oscar Predictions for that particular race by clicking on the link here or at the bottom of each article.  Make sure to include your predicted winners in the comment section too!

The nominees are:

  • Bryan Cranston for “Trumbo”
  • Matt Damon for “The Martian”
  • Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Revenant”
  • Michael Fassbender for “Steve Jobs”
  • Eddie Redmayne for “The Danish Girl”

While an impressive lineup of performances, this year’s longlist for “Best Actor” consideration wasn’t as competitive as previous years and therefore makes it even more confusing as to why people of color weren’t slam-dunk options. Samuel L. Jackon, Michael B. Jordan, and the trio of lead actors from Straight Outta Compton arguably gave superior acting turns than at least seventy-five percent of this prestige crop (Matt Damon…for essentially playing up his own star persona…really?), but since they weren’t playing “people of historical significance” I suppose it’s shameful character-based voting that won in the end…or worse. Don’t even get me started on blatant category fraud, which destroyed the chances of Jacob Tremblay landing a “Best Actor” nomination after being misrepresented as a “Best Supporting Actor” contender. Hopefully the frustration of exclusivity will establish a new precedent that will honor the work and not continue as a revolving door of popular white male actors. None of us following this year’s race are idiots – the other four contenders might as well be broom handles sitting in the cleaning closet since the category this year should be renamed to “The Leo Show.” And with that said, let’s begin breaking down this predictable race…

Just Happy to be Nominated:

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Matt Damon for The Martian: Oscar History (4 nominations, 1 win) – It’s not surprising that people find Matt Damon to be a polarizing movie star considering how opinionated of a person he himself is. His passion and intensity carry over to his onscreen work, often making it difficult to wonder just how much real acting is being done. My favorite performance of Damon’s is Colin Sullivan in The Departed since his character is such a destructive, uncaring and calculated villain but hides it by creating this wholesome, heroic image that dodges suspicion until it’s too late. Damon’s work in The Martian, however, sticks comfortably close to the movie star acting formula attached to most blockbusters – Mark Watney is charming, personable, effectively over-the-top, slightly arrogant and a tad prickly but for good reason given the dire circumstances he finds himself in. What’s funny to me is that Matt Damon’s goodwill as a star will always override any controversy he finds himself in, including last year after his cringe-worthy debate with producer Effie Brown during an episode of Project Greenlight. In the episode, Damon is basically implying that diversity in casting is progress enough and that it needn’t necessarily extend to other fields in film such as writing, directing or behind-the-scenes work. Boy did the internet have a field day with that opinion! Yet, did that hinder or in any way impact Damon’s road to an Oscar nomination? Not one iota, nor should it have, but it’s interesting to me that the backlash was very minimal for Damon because of his stature. The Martian’s box office success and general awards love only assisted Damon’s odds, but I do wonder if someone less popular who also happened to be non-white would receive as much forgiveness if they too had pointed out something negative about the film industry. Regardless, Damon’s character is the only fictitious one of the nominated bunch, which means he’s of least concern to passionately support. Moreover, The Martian’s recent loss in momentum following a SAG snub, a DGA loss, a missing director nod from the Academy and two effects-driven films in competition that have better odds at securing victory in the categories they share with said film, conclude that Damon’s chances are slim at best. The upside to being the least likely winner in this category? Damon’s movie star status shows zero sign of combustibility.

Potential Spoilers:

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Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl: Oscar history (2 nominations, 1 win) — I promise, this dissection won’t be nearly as long as the one above. While Redmayne’s recent Oscar win for 2014′s The Theory of Everything automatically puts him at a disadvantage when compared to his rivals, I actually think he’s in a much stronger position than most pundits give him credit for. Clearly, this is the Academy’s way of rewarding someone they collectively supported the previous year for not being a one-hit wonder. This might be odd and possibly nonsensical to say, but Redmayne is one of the few actors in Hollywood who actually sophisticates the pretentious biopic/prestige genre. Maybe it’s because I can see the amount of dedication and research put into each respective role that I not only tolerate but genuinely look forward to whatever film Redmayne headlines or associates himself with. With regards to The Danish Girl, I have drowned out the naysayers who have tried to cut down or discredit Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe, the first transgender individual to agree to a sex-change operation. Condemning his performance because he happens to be a cis male is totally unfair. His transformation in the film is believable because he goes through the introspection process of figuring out whether his identity is due to a mental issue, a personality disorder or, as he finally realizes, a biological anomaly that he eventually feels blessed by and accepts. Perspective needs to be taken into account — nobody knew what the transgender experience was back in this time period, nor how to respond to it other than see it as a perversion or something so subconsciously deep that the conversation wouldn’t dare be vocalized. Redmayne takes all this into account and never neglects the humanity of Lili nor the conflicted feelings of loyalty towards his wife versus identity normalcy. Redmayne doesn’t paint Lili as a saint or as someone who should be constantly seen as a societal victim worth rooting for. Lili sees womanhood as one-dimensional, without any form of agency other than “dressing and behaving the role.” Thankfully Gerda chides Lili and reminds her that being a woman doesn’t mean adhering to the submissive and materialistic character traits long associated with gender. Redmayne’s performance is transformative but also a critique of premature transition without total acceptance. Such attitude allows for ignorance and sexist traditionalism to seep into the journey of gender self-discovery (we’ve seen flashes of this from Caitlyn Jenner’s story). To play up transgender stereotypes or even behave liberal-minded from the get-go is to complete ignore the reality of those times, so bravo to Redmayne for not going down that revisionist history path. He may be deserving of his nomination, but both subject matter and Redmayne’s status of recent Oscar recipient keeps him well outside the frontrunners’ inner circle.

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Bryan Cranston for Trumbo: Oscar History (1 nomination, 0 wins) — Loved by his fellow actors, adored by television fans everywhere who worship the celluloid ground Breaking Bad’s Walter White walks on, it’s pretty clear that the last few years of zeitgeist success paved the way for Cranston’s first Academy Award nomination. Sure, him playing a blacklisted screenwriter is sure to attract Hollywood narcissim, but I don’t believe the “baitiness” of the role nor the quality of the performance got Cranston to this point. He is simply riding off a wave of goodwill and reaped the benefits ever since a prestige role like this landed on his agent’s desk. As the unfairly ostracized Dalton Trumbo, Cranston is as passionate and committed as always, perhaps ostentatiously so but convincing enough to disprove pundits who took him off their predictions following the film’s underwhelming TIFF premiere. If there’s one thing Cranston excels at, it’s getting noticed to the point of unwavering adoration. That said, the drums are beating too loudly for Leo at this juncture, but Cranston will have his day at the podium sooner than later, especially since he’s already reached veteran status.

The Frontrunners:

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Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs: Oscar History (2 nominations, 0 wins) — Had history been kinder to Leo in 2014 (damn you, McConaissance narrative!), Michael Fassbender would be sitting as high and mighty as the visionary he played that earned him his second Academy Award nomination. Never acknowledged by AMPAS for his best work, Steve Jobs is likely the closest Fassy will ever come to being rewarded for top-tier work from his entire filmography. As an actor, having to master Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, tennis match-esque dialogue is enough of a chore for one lifetime. To add the compacted three-act structure into the fold is even more of an impressive achievement. Then to carry the weight of the entire film while playing a supremely complex, morally evolving character whose humanity must always be evident even when his actions state otherwise is pretty much the biggest acting challenge of the century. And what does Fassbender do? He avoids direct comparisons, mimicry or sanitizing the roughest edges of Jobs. He throws himself into the performance with such alacrity and fury that you cannot help but sit up and watch in breathless awe. Fassbender is the most consistently stellar working actor today for a reason — he’s a chameleon who cares more about the integrity of his character than the moneymaking benefits such a role could generate. Steve Jobs may have been a flop that further stalls Fassbender’s path to superstardom, but in terms of casting the best to play the best, the film makes a strong case that you’ll find nobody better in the talent pool. Unfortunately, because Fassy is still not a household name that can sell tickets, he’ll unfairly lose to a far less objectively profound performance that just so happens to come from the biggest movie star on the planet. The reason why I have Fassbender as the runner-up in this category is due to Kate Winslet’s BAFTA and Globe wins from the same film, and if she’s getting a hefty sum of votes then her co-star can’t be too far behind.

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Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant: Oscar history (6 nominations, 0 wins) — I know, I know. Leonardo DiCaprio should have won an Oscar or two by now, and at the very least from a Scorsese film. As soon as Leo met Marty, gone was the heartthrob image and what emerged was one of the most intensely focused actors of all-time. And the box office didn’t even suffer from such a huge transition — quite the contrary in fact! You can largely attest the financial success of The Revenant to Leo since Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s films normally don’t perform gangbusters at the box office. Leonardo DiCaprio has a warranted reputation of finding the most physically and emotionally demanding roles and acing them as if only he could pull off such an enormous feat. Leonardo DiCaprio is the ultimate entertainer who caters to every single age group without prejudice, an incredibly rare ability but all due to his proficiency working in a variety or genres and being directed by the world’s most revered directors. Leo amasses worldwide respect by using his platform for philanthropic means: educating people about water conservation and climate control so that the Earth can maintain its health for centuries to come. Is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant the best of the year? Not even close despite the carnal ferocity and committed physicality. Is it impressive nonetheless, excessive media reports or not? You betcha, but that honestly doesn’t matter. What matters is Leo hasn’t once slowed down since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape — his motivation to strengthen his craft and find new ways to engage audiences is what keeps every single moviegoer coming back in droves. He’s the ultimate movie star who is only missing cinema’s highest honor, and after six times at bat, I think we can just give him this one major accolade as a career reward and move on without reservation. Awards are totally subjective, but one thing that is completely objective is Leonardo DiCaprio’s global impact, where he remains the dominant force in terms of people seeking out movies just to witness the quality — yes, that word still exists, folks! — of a performance. Legacy, reputation, a balanced career that no actor has been as fortunate to have had, and the one thing missing is a little gold statue to top it all off. Leo, you’re about to eat the cherry on top and rightfully so after all these decades of patiently waiting.

Oscar Prediction: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Potential Upset: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Biggest Oscar Snub: Jason Segel, The End of the Tour

It’s now time to report back your thoughts on this race. Head below to the comments section and post away!

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