Just like the lead singer in a band, a solid leading performance establishes a bar for a film. Whether it is soldier leading his brothers-in-arms into battle or a teacher inspiring a class full of under-served students, a leading performance gives the audience someone to root for. Someone to cheer on, or to look to for hope and inspiration. Or someone to rally against.
This year’s nominees for Leading Actor are no exception. From a boy on the verge of becoming a man, to a world leader holding tight to the last vestiges of hope for his country, these actors offer a wide range of roles. But the thing they have in common is a level of skill that makes you stand up and take notice. To care about what happens to them, and to those around them.
The nominees for Best Actor in a Leading Role are:
- Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”
- Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
- Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
- Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
- Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
At just 22, Timothée Chalamet could become the youngest man ever to win Best Actor. The record is currently held by Adrian Brody, who won for “The Pianist” just three weeks before his 30th birthday. Chalamet is the third youngest actor ever nominated, and is the first under age 25 since 1977. Chalamet’s work in “Call Me By Your Name” is memorable, and has gathered the young star quite a passionate fanbase. He appeared in three films this year, including fellow Best Picture nominee “Lady Bird,” and the overlooked “Hostiles.” His performance as a teenager on the brink of adulthood is at times entertaining, and at other times exasperating. Just as a 17-year-old tends to be in life. His interactions with established co-stars Michael Stuhlbarg and Armie Hammer are engaging. If he feels out of his depth, he never shows it.
All eyes were on Daniel Day-Lewis after he announced that “Phantom Thread” would be his final film. Considering he appears in about one movie every five years, he has plenty of time to get bored and change his mind. However, for now, this stands as the final performance of a career that has garnered three Academy Awards and two other nominations. Here, he makes his second collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. The first earned Day-Lewis an Oscar 10 years ago. As renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, this performance is, in some ways, less showy than other roles he has taken on. But it still shows the talent and the skill that are always just beneath the surface.
Everyone knows horror films rarely find recognition from the Academy. In fact, depending on how you choose to define it, many agree that only six horror films have ever been nominated, with “Get Out” being the sixth. But this film stood out for a lot of reasons, and one of those reasons is breakout star Daniel Kaluuya. In this film, he is our ticket into this strange world. We experience it through him, and feel his feelings. There are a lot of fun horror films, but what Kaluuya does here is more than just your standard scary movie fare. His is compelling, and believable, and you really, really just want him to get out and save himself.
Winston Churchill has been portrayed in film and on television a number of times. He is most often portrayed as the brash, cantankerous prime minister for which he was known. But in “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman gives an entirely new look at the man who saved his country and, in many ways, the world. Oldman’s work here showcases Churchill’s notorious harshness, and his oratory skill. But it is in the quieter scenes, often when he is alone, that Oldman’s Churchill becomes something more than what we’re used to seeing. In those quiet moments of reflection and desperation, he gives us a man who is lonely and afraid. And thanks to great makeup artistry and total commitment to the role, Oldman disappears into the film. It is his best performance in a career of great performances.
Denzel Washington is a consistently great actor. Even when his films aren’t great, he is often the best thing about them. Some would say that’s the case with “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Just a year after narrowly losing the category, Washington returns as a brilliant underdog attorney in this legal drama. The two-time Oscar winner shows us, once again, that he is one of the best in the business. But the film does not rise up to his abilities or his work, and he is the only nominee in this category not to star in a Best Picture nominated film.
All season long, Gary Oldman has been considered the presumed winner. He leads in the precursors, including wins at the Golden Globes and SAG. In the history of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, only three who won Outstanding Leading Actor did not go on to win the Oscar. The first was Benecio del Toro, who actually did win the Oscar, but for Supporting Actor instead of lead. The next was Johnny Depp, who beat eventual Oscar winner Sean Penn. And the third was last year, when Denzel Washington won the SAG for “Fences” before losing the Oscar to Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea.”
This award really is Oldman’s to lose. It can still happen. The Academy loves to throw some curve balls. But it seems unlikely this is the category where they’ll do that.
Will Win: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Should Win: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Could Win: Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Should have been nominated: James McAvoy, “Split”; Hugh Jackman, “Logan”