Though the Best Actress will be, by far, the most competitive, intense category come Oscar time, loaded with great performances, the Best Actor category has slowly caught up as the men make their presence known.
Replete with previous winners, previous nominees, and three never before nominated for Best Actor, it could prove to be a much more interesting race than initially thought. For so long Gary Oldman has been considered the frontrunner and likely winner for his performance as Churchill in Darkest Hour, a performance I thought, personally was merely ok.
Under heavy prosthetics, his body padded to capture the girth of Churchill, the actor gives a fine performance but it is always a performance, he is always acting. Never once did I think I was watching Churchill onscreen, and I certainly felt differently about some of the other performances. Like Olivier before him, I watched Oldman “act” and act all over the place. Never did he inhabit the role, never did he convince me he was Churchill. Instead we have a fussy, hammy, affected actor creating a character we know from history, but never does he capture the honesty, the truth of Churchill. Other actors have portrayed Winston Churchill, and better, but because he has never won, Oldman, many feel is owed, whatever that means. Does being owed mean you get an Oscar for weaker work? History has shown us that yes, it happens, far too often.
Why is anyone owed an Oscar? Makes no sense to me.
At this writing Oldman is still the frontrunner, and a shoo in for a nomination, but I think now there are some performances that could knock him off his pedestal.
Denzel Washington was clearly deeply hurt when he lost last year for his self directed performance in Fences (2016) a superb film adaptation of the great play. Washington filled the film with a big, broad performance that many felt was the best of his career, but was not quite enough to win him that third Oscar. His work as legal savant Roman J. Israel Esq. is remarkable, as daring as anything he has ever done, far better than the film he is in, easily getting him into the race. The Academy has in the past made up for previous slights by giving an award the year after a startling loss, so let’s not count Washington out just yet. Nominated seven times as an actor, with two wins, one for Best Actor, the other for supporting there is no question he is a giant among actors.
James Franco gives one of the best performances I have seen this year as filmmaker Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. With no talent, but loads of ambition and a fat bank account, Wiseau acted in, directed, produced and wrote The Room (2002). Widely considered the worst film of this generation, the making of the movie provides great fodder for a major film. Both wildly funny and surprisingly accurate, the Franco film, he directed as well, is a wonderful work with James Franco astonishing as Wiseau, nailing that strange accent and more capturing the self absorbed man child. Nominated for 127 Hours (2010) the actor might give the very best performance of the year. I feel this performance is vastly superior to Oldmans in Darkest Hour.
Three time Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis must always be considered a contender, and no doubt will be for what he is saying is his final film performance in Phantom Thread. The actor won his second Oscar working with that film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson which bodes well for the new film. But Day-Lewis does not appear interested in campaigning this year and like it or not that is a huge part of the game.
Two time Best Actor winner Tom Hanks should be in the mix for his work as Ben Bradlee in The Post, Steven Spielbergs’ lacerating study of the importance of the news media reporting the truth. The film feels urgent, because it is topical, because though set in the seventies it is also about the Trump presidency and its war with the media. Hanks is a much loved actor, but has not been nominated since Cast Away (2000). He deserved nominations for Road to Perdition (2002), Captain Phillips (2013),Bridge of Spies (2015) and Sully (2016) but was snubbed, something not unnoticed by the Hollywood community. Chances are strong if his performance is up to snuff, he is back in the race.
Jake Gyllenhaal, nominated for supporting actor in Brokeback Mountain (2005) has not ever been a Best Actor nominee but could slip into the race this year for his soaring performance as Boston Marathon survivor Jeff Bauman. The young man lost both legs while waiting for his girlfriend near the finish line where the bombs went off. Despite terrible trauma, Bauman was still able to help identify the terrorists and have them arrested. The actor has been close before with Zodiac (2007) and Nightcrawler (2013) but this should get him into the final five.
In the western, Hostiles, actor Christian Bale is both terrifying and haunted as a soldier who has seen too much and done too much in his life and now carries this ghosts with him wherever he goes. Tasked with returning a Native American family to the burial ground, so the old man may die, he takes the mission. On the way he encounters a woman, whose entire family has been slaughtered leaving her on the cusp of madness. Bale is superb as a warrior trying to hold a small group of people together as a murderous tribe of natives seeks to kill them. The actor is beloved within the Academy and could easily be one of the final five.
If there is justice, James McAvoy should be in the race for his astounding performance as a man with multiple personalities in Split. Portraying everything from a nine-year old boy, to a stern matron, to a germ obsessed janitor, to a terrible killer, the actor is superb, entirely believable as each and able to switch from one personality to another in the blink of an eye. The film was released last January, a long time ago for an Oscar nominee, but the actor was extraordinary in the film.
The other never before nominated is young Timothy Chalamet, having a breakthrough year, his best work in Call Me By Your Name. Will the Academy be willing to honor another gay themed film the second year in a row? Maybe. And Chalamet is very young, which should not matter but often does.
Finally, Andrew Garfield, who received his first nomination last year in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) could be back as a polio victim in the fine film Breathe. The film challenges the actor unlike anything he has done before, and could spell nomination number two. Of the aforementioned actors, three give superior performances to Oldman. Three. Yet the British actor remains the frontrunner. In a perfect world, Franco, McAvoy and Bale would be leading the pack. But alas, as the last five months have shown, our world is far from perfect.