Though this category does not have the sheer volume of the Best Actress category, there were some very impressive performances this year from leading men, at least one for the ages, one career best, a reminder of what a fine actor one man is, some breakthrough work from some younger actors, and a welcome back from a two time Oscar winner.
Since last January at Sundance, they have been singing their praises for Casey Affleck in ‘Manchester By the Sea’. “They” are the critics, and I am proud to include myself in the numbers that sang for Affleck. I saw the film at TIFF, it was the first film I saw this year, and I did not see another that moved me or touched me in such a manner. The young lady beside me gently slipped me a tissue upon seeing the tears silently cascading down my face (and her own) as we watched the scene between Affleck and his ex-wife portrayed by Michelle Williams, their encounter on a street corner in which their broken hearts are on display to one another. Casey Affleck gives a performance for the ages; this is among the greatest performances ever given, Brando good, Nicholson good, it will stand alongside the giants for all of time. Affleck has been very good for a very long time, building to this, waiting for the right role, and in Lee he found it. This broken man, trying to live out each day when he would rather be dead is shattering, and the Oscar belongs to Affleck. Performances like this come by once every five or ten years, and when they do they deserve to be celebrated and honored. For this work Affleck will never be forgotten, the least the Academy can do is honor that accomplishment.
‘Fences’ might be one of the best performance of Denzel Washington’s career, certainly his finest since Malcolm X (1992) for which he was nominated and won the New York Film Critics Award. Twice he has won the Oscar, the first for supporting actor in Glory (1989) and the second as Best Actor for his crooked cop in Training Day (2001). He directed ‘Fences’ as well as starred in it, and brought the film to the screen after many years of others trying, including Spike Lee. It is a soaring piece of acting that in any other year would easily be the champion.
Viggo Mortensen was last nominated for Eastern Promises (2007), and deserved nominations before that for The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King (2003) and A History of Violence (2006), and since for The Road (2009), for which he deserved to win, and another supporting nod in A Dangerous Method (2011). He will be nominated this year for his unconventional father-widower in ‘Captain Fantastic’, a lovely film that was released last April and is still drawing praise and much debate. A respected much admired actor giving a fine performance usually spells nomination.
Andrew Garfield is the newcomer this year, for his strong work in the Mel Gibson directed war film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, based on the true story of Dawes, who refused to carry a weapon during WWII, yet would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving seventy-five men at great risk to himself. Garfield is superb in the film, and has another strong performance this year in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’, which could help his cause if enough people have seen it. He was terrific a few years ago in The Social Network (2010), but then became the latest Spiderman before coming back to real acting.
Will the ‘La La Land’ juggernaut — and it is just that — carry Ryan Gosling to his second Academy Award nomination? Likely. I am not sure he should be there over Tom Hanks in ‘Sully’, but I suspect that is how it is going to play out. Gosling is a gifted actor, destined for a fine career, and his work in ‘La La Land’ is exceptional, but it does not seem to me to reach as far as Hanks does with the performance.