By Jim Keller
I usually wait until after the Telluride and Toronto International Film festivals to discuss the second of the three-part Ones to Watch series, but I’ll be in Hawaii honeymooning for half of September, so I moved it up. I admit I’m at a bit of a disadvantage without the critics’ feedback from the summer’s end festivals to consider, but it could be fun to navigate this without a flashlight for a change. By my count the Best Actor race currently has about 40 men in contention for the five slots. Who will be the true contenders? We can only speculate at this juncture. But there’s no greater way to seek out the ghost of Oscar future than by looking at the past. Here’s how the men of last year’s Best Actor race stacked up against Oscar.
Four out of nine leading men discussed in last year’s column (including our winner) went on to earn Best Actor nominations: Michael Keaton (Birdman), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game). Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything. By year’s end those names were foregone conclusions and only Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) was snubbed, as he was eclipsed by Bradley Cooper (American Sniper). Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice), Brad Pitt (Fury), Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up), and Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) didn’t make the cut.
THE ARTIST: Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl (director: Tom Hooper):
FYC: This biopic, based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, depicts the true story of Danish artists Lili Elbe (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) whose marriage is tested after Lili becomes one of the first known recipients of sexual reassignment surgery. The road to Redmayne’s Oscar was paved with Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) wins, a Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) nomination, and a slew of critics’ groups nominations, all for his portrayal of famous physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Given that the transgender topic is everywhere in the media, it could be just the timely role to land him a second nod, or even a win.
THE MOGUL: Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs (director: Danny Boyle):
FYC: The biopic of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs (Fassbender) was adapted from Walter Isaacson’s biography of the same name. It explores the modern day genius’s triumphs and tribulations and how they affected his family life and possibly his health. Fassbender has had a bit of a rickety relationship with the Academy as evidenced by his Best Actor snub for 2011’s Shame, a film that netted him Golden Globe, BAFTA, and BFCA nominations. It wasn’t until 2014 that Fassbender earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 12 Years a Slave after requisite nominations from those bodies as well as SAG. One might say that he’s overdue for a win, but Fassbender’s three other films due out this year give him four Oscar opportunities: Macbeth (see below), The Light Between Oceans, and Trespass Against Us. Any of these could lift him into the upper echelon. With 12 Years, the actor sidestepped the Academy’s tendency to not nominate unlikable characters and he did so without campaigning. But it could be his refusal to campaign that ultimately keeps him out of the winner’s circle.
THE MURDERER: Michael Fassbender – Macbeth (director: Justin Kurzel):
FYC: Fassbender plays the titular character in this drama, based on Shakespeare’s play about the ill-fated duke of Scotland who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become King. At once consumed by ambition and goaded by his wife, Macbeth later commits regicide and takes the throne. See Steve Jobs, with four shots on goal, it seems the Oscar is Fassbender’s to lose this season.
THE WILDMAN: Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant (director: Alejandro González Iñárritu):
FYC: This drama, based in part on Michael Punke’s 2003 novel of the same name, follows 1820s fur trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) as he sets out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling. I’ve written at length in this column about DiCaprio’s previous nominations (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond and last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street), as well as his six Academy snubs (The Titanic, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, J. Edgar, and Django Unchained) so I won’t repeat myself. Pretty much the whole of the Oscar-watching world concedes that the actor will someday win an Oscar, it’s just a matter of time, and the right timing. This looks like a meaty role to get ‘er done.
THE MOBSTER: Johnny Depp – Black Mass (director: Scott Cooper):
FYC: This crime drama depicts the true story of Whitey Bulger—the brother of a state senator and the most infamous, violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a turf-invading Mafia family. It’s based on the book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. It’s been a while since Depp’s name has come up in the Oscar conversation. He earned back-to-back Best Actor Oscar, SAG, and BAFTA nominations for 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and 2004’s Finding Neverland, and his third and final nomination three years later for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Depp earned BFCA nominations for all three films. The trailer for Black Mass features a decidedly more down-to-earth Depp, who appears to have disappeared into his character. Can the actor come back from playing fanciful characters and prove himself to the Academy? Time will tell.
THE RETIREE: Michael Caine – Youth (director: Paolo Sorrentino):
FYC: The film sees two old friends on vacation in the Alps discussing their careers and the lives of those around them, when retired orchestra conductor Fred (Caine) receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday. Caine’s history with the Academy is long and fruitful. Beginning in 1967 with Alfie he has earned four Best Actor nominations: 1972’s Sleuth, 1983’s Educating Rita, and 2002’s The Quiet American, and two Supporting Actor wins: 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters and 1999’s The Cider House Rules. At 82, Caine’s repertoire cannot be denied. Will the Academy want to give him that elusive Best Actor statuette? You can bet on it.
THE DRUGGY: Ben Foster – The Program (director: Stephen Frears):
FYC: This biopic of the famed athlete Lance Armstrong (Foster) is told through Irish sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who is convinced the bicyclist’s Tour de France victories were possible via the use of banned substances. With this conviction Walsh hunts for evidence to expose Armstrong. The film is based on Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins. Foster has been on an uphill climb since his work in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. He has yet to earn any nominations from major awards groups for his individual work, but that could change this year. It’s still too early to tell, but there’s a chance that O’Dowd may be the lead, in which case Foster would be supporting.
THE REPORTER: Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight (director: Thomas McCarthy):
FYC: This thriller is based on the true story of how the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team uncovered the massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. The Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigation, and its coverage is among the most celebrated journalism projects of the 21st century. The team is the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the U.S. Ruffalo has two Best Supporting Actor nominations under his belt for 2010’s The Kids Are Alright and last year’s Foxcatcher. He earned BAFTA, BFCA, and SAG nominations for both (he also won the SAG for Best Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries for The Normal Heart), and a Golden Globe nomination for Foxcatcher last year. It seems fair to say that the actor is a club member of those preordained to win an Oscar, but the film’s trailer suggests that the film is more of an ensemble piece, making it difficult for anyone to earn individual recognition.
As I mentioned earlier, several men have irons in the Oscar fire this year. It’s too early to tell what will hit and what will hit hard. If Jodie Foster’s Money Monster lands, George Clooney could find himself in the mix. The same can be said for Warren Beatty and his as-yet-unnamed Howard Hughes project. Meanwhile, could Christian Bale shrug off last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings pitfall and muscle in via Terrence Malick’s long-gestating Knight of Cups?
Each of these men is a past winner and none of them should be discounted. FYC returns in November. So until then, keep your ear to the street and your eyes on the screen.