By Jim Keller
Last year around this time, I covered the Supporting Actor and Actress races in this column in order to save the Best Actor race for last, since it’s generally much more exciting. The trouble is the Supporting races really don’t begin to take shape until later in the season, making them difficult to discuss—even with a lot of research. With that said, this installment of the four part series will cover the leading men. As was done in the first installment of the year, let’s take a look at last year’s names and see how they fared with Oscar.
Unlike the ladies, the leading men discussed last year for the Best Actor race were almost a foregone conclusion. For one, the men were assessed with the race in high gear, whereas the ladies were featured here months before. Outside of that, only five slots exist, making it inevitable that two of the seven men discussed would drop off: John Hawkes (The Sessions) and Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) earned that less than stellar distinction—the latter proving that Academy favor cannot always be garnered by name alone. Meanwhile, despite wanting nothing to do with the Oscars, Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for The Master—snugly next to winner Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln). Denzel Washington landed a nod for Flight and a pair of first timers, Bradley Cooper and Hugh Jackman, secured nominations for Silver Linings Playbook and Les Misérables.
The decorated soldier: George Clooney – The Monuments Men (director: George Clooney):
FYC: Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History tells the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program—an Allied group, comprised of art historians and museum curators, who united to recover art pieces and other items from Hitler’s destructive hands during World War II. This film adaptation sees Clooney front and center as George Stout—an integral member of the group. All told, Clooney has been nominated for eight Oscars, of which he won two: Supporting Actor for Syriana in 2006 and as producer of last year’s Best Picture winner, Argo. Following his first acting win, he went on to earn lead actor nominations for Michael Clayton in 2008, Up in the Air in 2010 and The Descendants in 2012, which he lost by a narrow margin. In the same year as his acting win, he was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck. Not to be outdone, Clooney shared screenplay duties for this film with Grant Heslov—a fellow Argo producer and is also in the Best Adapted Screenplay mix this year after his screenplay nomination for The Ides of March in 2012. From sheer pedigree, Clooney enters the race as a frontrunner in three categories, but will any of them yield a third win?
The industry veteran: Robert Redford – All Is Lost (director: J.C. Chandor):
FYC: Chandor’s latest follows the travails of one man shipwrecked at sea, miles away from land, left to his own devices as he fights for his life. For the amount of films he has acted in (66), produced (33), and directed (11), it seems strange that Redford has only received one acting nomination, for his leading role in The Sting in 1974, but there it is. It seems almost inevitable then, that he would secure a nomination this year—almost as if winning an acting Oscar was the man’s birthright. He may have just the vehicle to get him there, as Chandor’s last film, Margin Call, snagged a Best Original Screenplay nod last year and earned high critical acclaim for the first-time director—critics will be watching. What’s more, All Is Lost and Redford’s performance, in particular, generated quite a buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the audience gave Redford a standing ovation. This could be the shape of things to come or the film might be too small to gain any traction, leaving Redford locked-out of a crowded race to the finish.
The look alike: Tom Hanks – Saving Mr. Banks (director: John Lee Hancock):
FYC: This biographical drama centers on the production of the 1964 Walt Disney Studios film Mary Poppins and, in particular, hones in on author P. L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) two-week briefing in Los Angeles as she is persuaded by filmmaker, Walt Disney (Hanks), as he works to obtain the screen rights to her eponymous novel. Disney seems to have been a man larger than life, what with his legacy living on with no signs of ever stopping. Given the circumstances, it would take an actor of not only the right temperament, but large enough to fill his shoes (and to some degree, those of a mouse). Enter Hanks. He first caught Oscar attention with Big in 1989 earning him a Best Actor nomination, which this writer was surprised to learn. Five years later, Hanks accepted his first Best Actor win for Philadelphia and the next year, another for Forrest Gump. He was then nominated again for Best Actor for Saving Private Ryan in 1999 and finally for his leading role in Cast Away in 2001—a role somewhat similar to that Redford portrays this year. It’s important to look at the diversity of Hanks’ roles and portraying such a grand, American icon as Disney, could be just the ticket to a third golden statuette. Update: If so, it won’t be for lead as the studio announced, after this writer completed this segment, that Hanks’s role is supporting.
The lone wolf: Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street (director: Martin Scorsese):
FYC: Jordan Belfort’s memoir hits the silver screen in this adaptation, which depicts his refusal to cooperate in a large securities fraud case involving Wall Street corruption, the corporate banking world, and mob infiltration. DiCaprio is Belfort—a man with a hard-partying lifestyle and a tumultuous personal life, which included drug and alcohol addiction. Usually when I speak of the actor in this column, I speak with high hopes, but I have to admit, I’m about to throw in the towel. DiCaprio has his nominations, to be sure, and I’ve talked about them at length in this column previously (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, and Blood Diamond), so I won’t repeat myself, but when one looks at what he could have been nominated for, it’s quite daunting. Beginning in 1997 with Titanic, followed by Gangs of New York in 2002, The Departed in 2006, Revolutionary Road in 2008, which, to me, is completely absurd, J. Edgar in 2011, and last year for his supporting turn in Django Unchained, he fell short for a sixth time. He has been overlooked for nominations and wins by the Academy so frequently, it’s almost a joke. Of course, the last time I threw in the towel, I had lost faith in Meryl Streep winning her third Oscar for The Iron Lady in 2011, and instead, put my money on Viola Davis for The Help. So maybe this will be his year after all?
The changeling: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):
FYC: Yes, you read that right. The funny man from The Office features prominently (more on this later) in this film based on Mark Schultz’s autobiography, which depicts the murder of his brother, Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), at the hand of longtime friend, John Eleuthère du Pont (Carell). Pictures of Carell as du Pont were recently released, showing him with a prosthetic nose. So not only is Carell portraying a paranoid schizophrenic, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, but he is doing so under heavy make-up—something, I need not remind you, that is catnip to Oscar voters (see Nicole Kidman’s and Charlize Theron’s Best Actress wins for The Hours and Monster in 2003 and 2004, respectively). While Carell will campaign as lead for the film, it is told from the perspective of Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Oscar voters, if he is nominated, will have the final say on whether or not he ends up in the lead or supporting category. Carell won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 2006 for his role on The Office and subsequently earned consecutive nominations from 2007-2011 for the same role. It will certainly be interesting to see if Carell is able to shed his comic skin and land his first Oscar nomination for a drama such as this, regardless of which category he is recognized for.
The minority: Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave (director: Steve McQueen):
FYC: Based on Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography, the film tells of Northrup’s tragic kidnapping in Washington, D.C. in 1841 where, despite being born free, he was forced into slavery in Louisiana until his rescue 12 years later. Of all the performances discussed in this edition, this is the one that I’m most excited about. For one, the Academy has a history of ignoring minorities and even today there are few that have been recognized. This film not only stars a black man, but is also directed by one. What I’m thrilled to share is that this year, there are more minority actors and filmmakers combined in the running than ever before. Take Lee Daniel’s The Butler, which features a subdued performance by Forest Whitaker—among the few black actors to have won an Oscar for his leading role in The Last King of Scotland in 2007. It’s directed by Lee Daniels, who is also black and earned a nomination for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire in 2010. There is also newcomer Ryan Coogler—a black filmmaker who helmed this year’s Fruitvale Station, which features another black actor in a leading role, Michael B. Jordan, and like the former film, is being distributed by The Weinstein Company. Put this all together and it’s clear that this year, there could be not one, but two minorities represented in the line-up. This hasn’t happened since 2007 when Will Smith was nominated alongside Whitaker for his work in The Pursuit of Happyness and has yet to happen in the Best Director category. Ejiofor has yet to gain recognition from the Academy, but has been nominated for three Golden Globes: one for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical (Kinky Boots in 2005) and two for Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture made for Television (Tsunami: The Aftermath in 2006 and Endgame in 2009). He also earned critical acclaim for his work in Dirty Pretty Things in 2002 and in Talk to Me in 2007. So his chances are up in the air, but the Academy recently elected its first black and only third female, president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Perhaps this will shake things up and before long, the line between minorities and non-minorities will be blurred so badly that the distinction wouldn’t need to be made.
The late bloomer: Bruce Dern – Nebraska (director: Alexander Payne):
FYC: This stately film (haha) centers on an aging boozehound and his son who trek from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes prize. It sounds simple, but Payne’s films are anything but. Dern has only been nominated once, way back in 1979 for Best Supporting Actor for Coming Home. Since then, he has kept a relatively low profile and today is probably less familiar to most than his daughter, Laura Dern—though he has maintained a steady acting career. He won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which puts him in a good position heading into the race. The film itself, however, has been met with a divisive reaction from critics and was shot in black and white, so there’s no telling how audiences will react by year’s end when the film is scheduled to be unveiled.
The outlaw: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyer’s Club (director: Jean-Marc Vallée):
FYC: The film, loosely based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a pill-popping, promiscuous, homophobe who was diagnosed as hiv-positive in 1986, tells how he survived for six years in the midst of an epidemic and inadvertently helped pioneer the Dallas Buyer’s Club—the first organization to smuggle and sell illegal, non-toxic, anti-viral medications to paying hiv patients in the u.s.. Images of an emaciated McConaughey have been surfacing for some time, generating a considerable amount of buzz for the actor who is experiencing a career upswing with one critically acclaimed performance after another (see 2011’s Killer Joe, 2012’s Mud and Magic Mike). McConaughey hasn’t enjoyed this sort of acclaim since well, ever, but he does seem to be circling around Oscar with the type of performances he’s been delivering. In fact, this year, like last year, he has not one, but two chances, with a supporting role in the aforementioned The Wolf of Wall Street. Critics will get their first glimpse of Buyer’s this month during the Toronto Film Festival, which will give us an idea of whether McConaughey will be in or out come Oscar voting time, but for now it seems anything is possible.
There are several other leading performances to be seen this year than I can cover in this space. From the It-Brit, Benedict Cumberbatch, in The Fifth Estate and Oscar Isaac’s folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis to Christian Bale’s con man extraordinaire in American Hustle, any one of them could unseat anyone I’ve covered here or one another, for that matter. It all depends on which way the wind blows, or if you prefer, which way the pendulum swings.