by Jim Keller
In this final installment of the series, we take a look at the leading men. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit easier to gauge those that might fall within the Oscar wheelhouse—given that it’s later in the year and approaching crunch time. But who of these will have the gusto and the endurance to make it in a top five slot? After all, I need not remind you, it’s a long road to the Academy Awards.
THE DONE DEAL: Joaquin Phoenix—The Master (director: Paul Thomas Anderson):
FYC: Phoenix should have no problem securing a nomination for his role as Freddie Quell—an unsettled naval drifter lost on the currents of life, who discovers The Cause in 1950s America, and is swept up by its charismatic leader and his wife. For one, the film was directed by Anderson, who helmed 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which earned ten nominations and won Best Cinematography and Best Actor. But Phoenix is the star after all, and after having been nominated twice in 2001 for Gladiator (Supporting) and in 2005 for Walk the Line (Lead)—the latter, which he lost to his Master fellow cast member, Philip Seymour Hoffman—it’s not rocket science that we should see his name appear once again. What’s more, this role seems hand-cut for Phoenix and could be just the ticket to clinch him the gold. Perhaps the only thing that can keep him from it is Daniel Day-Lewis or if he were unable to walk the campaign trail without infamous antics. Update: Shortly after the writing of this section, Phoenix made a statement about not wanting any part of the Oscars.
THE SQUARE JAW: Daniel Day-Lewis—Lincoln (director: Steven Spielberg):
FYC: By now, with the election season coming to a close, you’ve all heard of this film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Likewise, you’re familiar with Day-Lewis—the Irish actor who has inhabited such roles as an oil tycoon, a gay man, and who has won two Best Actor Oscars in 1990 for My Left Foot and in 2008 for There Will Be Blood. Now Day-Lewis tackles the role of the 16th President of the United States as he clashes with the men of his cabinet en route to abolition and the Civil War’s end. When the trailer for the film hit, many critics were groaning about the most meticulous of details, Lincoln’s voice. Many were nonplussed to hear Day-Lewis affect Lincoln’s somewhat high register voice instead of his own. This negative, and frankly, annoying chatter, has now been quashed after a surprise screening of the film at this year’s New York Film Festival—which announced the film’s arrival as a major awards player and laid any speculations from the naysayers to rest. I don’t like to say anything is a sure bet, but the only way Day-Lewis won’t be nominated is if the other performances discussed here blow what is being heralded by some as his best performance to date out of the water. He could very well take it home this year.
THE KEN DOLL: Bradley Cooper—Silver Linings Playbook (director: David O. Russell):
FYC: Yes, you read that right. Our fun-loving, smoldering American icon best known for his role in the Hangover film franchise is currently in the hunt for Oscar. The vehicle that may get him there is not a sports car, but the protagonist in Matthew Quick’s novel, The Silver Linings Playbook (note the film chopped “the” from the title). In the novel—which this writer highly recommends—Pat Peoples (Solitano in the film) is a bipolar man released from a mental institution into his parents home, where he resumes his place as Philadelphia Eagles fan extraordinaire and attempts to rebuild a lost life. Through his journey, he meets Tiffany, a young woman with troubles of her own. Cooper has no Oscar priors and should he earn the nomination, likely will not win due to the sheer star power and pedigree that he will face. Nevertheless, he is said to be outstanding in this role and what’s more, the film is on a Best Picture trajectory with multiple nominations expected—including Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Tiffany.
THE INDIE HERO: John Hawkes—The Sessions (director: Ben Lewin):
FYC: When this film based on the true story of Mark O’Brien—a man in an iron lung who hired a sex surrogate to lose his virginity—premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the raving began and hasn’t stopped. People fell for its combination of comedy and drama finely wrought by Hawkes’ indelible performance as they followed O’Brien’s plight, made possible by his therapist and priest. He was previously nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2010’s Winter’s Bone and some say narrowly missed a second nomination for his work in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Given the film’s ability to sustain awards chatter throughout the year, it’s looking very positive for Hawkes. The one thing that could derail his nomination is if audiences don’t see the film and it doesn’t generate enough revenue—two factors in Oscar that shouldn’t be overlooked.
THE CONSTANT: Denzel Washington—Flight (director: Robert Zemeckis):
FYC: When other Oscar Prognosticators began penciling in Washington for his role as an airline pilot who successfully thwarts a plane crash in Zemeckis’ first live action film since 2000’s Cast Away, I had my doubts. As the months passed, I cast a discerning eye on my trusty predictions spreadsheet, all but sneering when I spotted his name at the very bottom of a list of about 40 men. To be fair, Washington has quite the pedigree, having won two Oscars for 1989’s Glory (Supporting) and 2001’s Training Day (Lead)—the latter, for which he beat out Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. He also earned three other nominations for 1987’s Cry Freedom (Supporting), 1992’s Malcolm X (Lead), and 1999’s The Hurricane (Lead). For this reason, when I said he appeared at the bottom, he was really at the bottom of my Middle Ground section—unlike The Fray, which consists of those on woebegone Oscar Prognosticators lists that I couldn’t fully discount out of the realm of possibility and films that may be pushed to next year. So, there he sat from July to September, when he skyrocketed to a place in the Contenders section after the trailer’s release. Flight closed out this year’s New York Film Festival and with that, Washington proved to be a major contender. As for my list, he’s currently hovering just outside the top five after he was hedged out in October when the season’s biggest curveball was thrown in the form of Hitchcock being pushed up to this year, thrusting Anthony Hopkins into the race.
THE DARK KNIGHT: Anthony Hopkins—Hitchcock (director: Sacha Gervasi):
FYC: It’s been a long time since Hopkins has been shown any love from Oscar—14 years to be precise, when he was nominated for Amistad (Supporting). Of course, he’s no stranger to Oscar, having won in 1990 for The Silence of the Lambs (Lead) and earning Lead nominations for 1993’s The Remains of the Day and 1995’s Nixon. That’s why Hopkins could enter this race at any time in his role as acclaimed director and eccentric Alfred Hitchcock. The film specifically focuses on the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren), during the filming of Psycho in 1959. If the film hits the right balance as the trailer suggests it might, Hopkins will have no problem securing a nomination and the film itself could find itself in the thick of the Best Picture race. But with a stacked deck this year in the Best Actor race, will he make the cut? There are a couple of things to consider. For one, director Sacha Gervasi isn’t an Oscar alum by any stretch and the majority of the other contenders are culled from films with accomplished directors. On the other hand, the screenplay is based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and was written by John J. McLaughlin, who wrote the screenplay for Black Swan. Having a strong writer on board can work wonders for a film, even in the shadow of a less known or skilled (yes, in that order) director.
THE BOY FROM OZ: Hugh Jackman—Les Misérables (director: Tom Hooper):
FYC: Rounding out our group of award hopefuls is Aussie actor Jackman, who has never been nominated. In this adaptation of the stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel set in nineteenth century France, Jackman plays Jean Valjean—a paroled prisoner turned mayor who watches over Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of Fantine, while avoiding recapture by the police. It’s clear he has a lot to work with here, but what’s more, for the first time Hooper has employed live singing for the film’s duration, which could push the film further as it allows the actors a new freedom in expression and delivery. Jackman is a proven singer, having starred in the 2004 Broadway production of The Boy from Oz, for which he earned a Tony award—a skill that will certainly serve him well in the film. It will be interesting to see how he stacks up against the other contenders in this year’s race—especially since more recent musicals have a history of falling short when it comes to Oscar, i.e. 2006’s Dreamgirls.
At present, I’d say this is the most exciting of the major category races. If you need more proof, note that I haven’t even discussed Clint Eastwood and Jamie Foxx who helm Trouble with the Curve and Django Unchained, respectively, and who should not be underestimated nor counted out of this race. Likewise, I didn’t discuss the pedigree behind the directors of the films discussed here; after all, their names say it all.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the roles examined throughout this series and identify which of those have serious playing power and which have fallen by the wayside. I’ll also give my first predictions in all of the major categories.