By Jim Keller
With the conclusion of last month’s Telluride Film Festival, it’s time to kick off our three-part “Ones to Watch” series. This year, I’m shaking things up a bit by beginning with the Best Actor race—primarily because there are about 44 men vying for five slots, currently more than in any other acting category. Who will have what it takes to take home gold come Oscar night? It’s too early to tell, but we can make some reasonable, educated guesses. But first, let’s look at last year’s names and see how they fared with Oscar.
Three of the leading men discussed in last year’s column went on to earn Best Actor nominations: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). Matthew McConaugheywon the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club. Only one actor was snubbed—Robert Redford (All Is Lost),who was unseated by Christian Bale (American Hustle)—but the race was crowded and this possibility was always on the table. As for George Clooney in Monuments Men and Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, both films werepushed back by the studios until 2014—the latter is discussed again in this column. Finally, Tom Hanks’s role in Saving Mr. Banks was later determined to be supporting, not lead.
THE CHANGELING: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):
FYC: This drama, based on Mark Schultz’s autobiography, tells the true story behind the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont. Carell (du Pont) won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 2006 for his role on The Office—a role that earned him subsequent consecutive nominations from 2007–2011. Not only does Carell play against type in Foxcatcher, but donning a prosthetic nose, he has the heavy make-up card to play (see Nicole Kidman’s and Charlize Theron’s Best Actress wins for The Hours and Monster in 2003 and 2004). Further, Carell won rave reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Miller picked up the Best Director prize and the film competed for the Palme d’Or. There is every reason to believe that Carell will land a nomination, but in which category is the question. While he will campaign as lead actor, both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo (who play Mark and David Schultz), are considered co-leads. But at the end of the day, the Oscar voters alone will decide Carell’s category (see Kate Winslet’s Best Actress win for The Reader in 2009 for a huge example of category fraud—Winslet’s role was by all accounts supporting). Given Carell’s star power, expect to see Tatum and Ruffalo go head-to-head in the supporting race.
THE HAS-BEEN: Michael Keaton – Birdman (director: Alejandro González Iñárritu):
FYC: In this tale of redemption and self-reinvention, Keaton plays an also-ran who once portrayed an iconic superhero, and battles his ego as he mounts a Broadway play and works to recover his family and career. To be sure, the irony that Keaton played Batman twice is not lost. But after inhabiting more than 71 roles, the 63 year-old has only a single Golden Globe nomination for his lead performance in a mini-series made for television, Live from Baghdad in 2003. Why then, am I writing about Keaton? Because it’s a plum role that looks fantastic in the trailer and Hollywood loves on and off-screen success stories such as this one. If Keaton is as good as early buzz portends, one could call it imitation of life.
THE DRUGGIE: Joaquin Phoenix – Inherent Vice (director: Paul Thomas Anderson):
FYC: This adaptation, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, follows drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) through 1970s Los Angeles as he investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
Phoenix was first nominated in 2001 for Gladiator (supporting) and again in 2005 for Walk the Line (lead). He earned his last nomination for Anderson’s previous film, The Master in 2013—even after declaring that he didn’t want any part of the Oscars. This shows the high regard the Academy has for Phoenix. So the only question here is if Anderson’s first adaptation will be up to snuff for Academy members.
THE STRAIGHT GAY MAN: Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game (director: Morton Tyldem):
FYC: In this drama Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing— the English mathematician and logician who helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II and invented the modern computer before being prosecuted for homosexuality by the British government. Cumberbatch has been making a name for himself across television (Sherlock, Parade’s End) and film (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County). This could be the vehicle for him to snag the Academy’s attention.
THE MONEYMAKER: Brad Pitt – Fury (director: David Ayer):
FYC: The film is a WWII drama set in April, 1945, about army sergeant “Wardaddy,” (Pitt) who commands the Sherman tank “Fury” and its five-man crew. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the men face overwhelming odds in their attempts to strike at Nazi Germany from behind enemy lines. With three acting nominations under his belt, Pitt has proven to the Academy that he’s more than a pretty face. In 1996 he was nominated in a supporting role for Twelve Monkeys,and Pitt went on to earn two lead actor nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Moneyball, in 2009 and 2012, respectively. The trailer looks great and this could be the right vehicle (har har!) to get him that elusive Best Actor statuette.
THE SELF-STARTER: Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything (director: James Marsh):
FYC: This biopic examines the life of famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his now ex-wife. While he has inhabited smaller roles in a few earlier films, Redmayne’s first major Hollywood coming out was in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn. Determined not to be just another flash in the pan, the Britt revealed himself as a vocal powerhouse in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables the following year, which opened more doors. Now, Redmayne demands to be noticed in his most ambitious role yet, playing Hawking, who suffers from ALS—not an easy undertaking. If he’s successful, and the film gets some traction, Redmayne could find himself face-to-face with the Academy.
THE ARTIST: Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner (director: Mike Leigh):
FYC: In this biopic that explores the last quarter century of the great, eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life, Spall plays the titular character. Perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as Wormtail in the Harry Potter films, this year’s Cannes Film Festival Best Actor winner hasn’t yet attracted the Academy’s eye. Instead, Spall has plotted a quiet course into the Oscar conversation by being a stalwart player in Leigh’s films over the years. Beginning with a role in 1990’s Life is Sweet, followed by Secrets and Lies, which earned him a Best Actor BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination, and Topsy-Turvy, which earned him a second BAFTA nomination for his supporting role, Spall has now appeared in five Leigh films. Given the film’s positive reception thus far, it stands to reason that, by year’s end, Spall’s Best Actor hardware could multiply.
MR. DYNAMITE: Chadwick Boseman – Get on Up (director: Tate Taylor):
This film follows James Brown’s rise from poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Boseman resurrects the icon by stepping into his well-warn shoes, becoming one with Brown’s soul, and eschewing any notion of an artist caricature. While he earned rave reviews for his portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, the Academy has yet to come knocking—this performance could certainly change that. Taylor’s last film, The Help, was released around the same August date as Get on Up in 2011 and it successfully mined an untapped period for Academy recognition. It seems Taylor and the studio behind the film, Universal Pictures, had the same hopes here. But it’s early in the Oscar season and the heavy-hitters are yet to come. So whether or not Boseman can hold on for one of the final five slots is to be determined. Unfortunately, unlike The Help, Get on Up will likely not have the added muscle of multiple film nominations buzz behind it.
THE NEWCOMER: Jack O’Connell – Unbroken (director: Angelina Jolie):
FYC: Jolie’s second feature film, based on the best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, chronicles the life of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who wastaken prisoner by Japanese forces during the war. While O’Connell earned recognition for playing the lead in Starred Up overseas, the film has just received a limited release stateside, so it’s likely that his portrayal of Zamperini will be the first that most Americans see of him. Still, many Oscar prognosticators speculate the film will be a juggernaut in this year’s race. It has a highly-respected woman at the helm, it’s timely (given Zamperini’s recent passing), it features the screenwriting talents of Joel and Ethan Coen, and it’s being released on Christmas Day—prime Oscar picking time. Not to mention that the Academy loves tales of overcoming great odds, biopics, war films, and athlete stories—check, check, check, check! It is for these reasons I chose to discuss the British O’Connell. So for now, he gets to ride the colossal Unbroken wave, and it remains to be seen whether or not both the film’s and the actor’s Oscar chances will be realized or dashed to bits on the rocks.
As I indicated at the top, this is merely a smattering of the leading performances to bow this year. Bradley Cooper just had his name thrown in the ring for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Christian Bale joins the hunt as Moses in Ridley Scott’s epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Michael Fassbender could turn some heads in the title role of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. Each of these men is a past nominee and each of them should be expected to bring it. Who will be left standing at the end of a long line of blows to compete in the title match? Stay tuned as the race has just begun. Next time we’ll review some of the leading ladies’ roles of the season. So until then, I bid you adieu.