Tuesday, February 10, 2015

One Category at a Time: Actor

It seems every year that Best Actor is, if not the most competitive Oscar category, then certainly the cruelest. Every season we see at least a half dozen nomination-worthy performances unable to make the final five. The whole Selma and #OscarsSoWhite controversy may have unwittingly made a thespian martyr of David Oyelowo for his tragic snub, but he's in good company with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ralph Fiennes, Timothy Spall, Channing Tatum, Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Miles Teller, Matthew McConaughey, Andy Serkis, and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman on the sidelines. There just isn't enough room.

It makes it particularly true that it's an honour just to be nominated for these five men, a couple of whom can relax and enjoy the show with the knowledge that they won't be winning. For those of us who follow this awards madness closely, however, it will be the one suspenseful acting award of the night, as we nervously wait to see if a beloved veteran can fend off the late advances of younger A-listers with more typical Oscar roles.

"Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist, Oscar nominee."

Firstly let me make it clear, that beloved veteran I refer to is not Steve Carell. True, he is beloved, and has amassed enormous industry goodwill for his hilarious work on both the big and small screen for more than a decade, culminating in his complexly scary performance as the unstable John du Pont in Foxcatcher.
And true, it is a role that, on paper, looks like a shoe-in to win: Comic actor playing against type, heavy prosthetic transformation, real-life tragic figure,
and on top of all that the movie is simply superb. But no, he is not seriously in the running to win. The nomination is triumph enough in a category otherwise dominated by men leading a Best Picture nominee, which Carell is not. It's swell just to see him recognized, especially after my worries that his comedy background might hinder him in the super tight race for nominations. That myopic belief turned out to be wrong, but my belief that he won't be winning will probably prove more accurate.

Secondly let me make it clear, the young A-listers with more typical Oscar roles to whom I refer do not include Benedict Cumberbatch. True, the much adored British star of BBC's Sherlock and other popular projects is one of the Internet's most worshiped, memed, and listicled celebrity idols; A charming, media savvy actor with talent enough to justify such a fanbase. And true, his performance as computational science pioneer and later shamed homosexual Alan Turing in
The Imitation Game -- itself a serious threat to steal Best Picture when everyone least suspects it -- checks off every stereotypical criterion for Oscar-winning performances with computer-like efficiency: True story, check. Misunderstood outsider, check. Unappreciated genius, check. Weepy Oscar clip, check. But for Cumberbatch, this feels like a warmup to greater award success later in his career. In a weaker year he could have stood a chance, but there happens to be a star in another British biopic role that ticks off even more of those Oscar criteria.

How can any typical Academy member who goes nuts for famous person mimicry not vote for Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything? It has everything pundits look for in an on-paper winner: Genius, disability, historical importance... not to mention that Redmayne does a pretty amazing job with the part, much of which his performed solely with his eyes after the revered physicist loses his voice and his ability to move any part of his body besides his thumb. The 33-year-old Brit is one of the industry's fastest rising stars, and if he wins, it will make him the eighth youngest Best Actor victor in Oscar history (and the first under-40 leading man to win since Adrien Brody). Male actors typically have to put in a bit more time 'proving themselves' before Oscar anoints them,
but with a role this baity, and with the Drama Globe, SAG, and BAFTA in hand, Redmayne is poised to be one of the exceptions.

His chief competition, however, already has a lengthy career's worth of industry love and respect, not to mention a performance that may go down as the one people will remember him by. That's saying something too, given that this guy played Batman. Twice! Michael Keaton is clearly the media's preference to come out on top when Cate Blanchett opens the envelope on Oscar night, him having won the lion's share of regional critics prizes plus the Comedy Globe and the Critics Choice Award. It certainly doesn't hurt his chances that Birdman is in a good position to win Best Picture. The thought of this movie taking the big gong without Keaton joining it in the winners circle seems bizarre, no? Alas, his brilliantly internallized/externallized/abstract/concrete/serious/hilarious depiction of artistic crisis, while certainly appealing to the sizable actors branch, may not seem like an "important" enough piece of work to convince the membership at large to bestow upon him this prestigious honour. I've already written a bit about the pesky biopic streak that Oscar has going (15 straight years of at least one actor or actress winning for a real-life role), and the only way the Academy can maintain that is by handing this category to any of Keaton's fellow nominees.

But could it be that the real threat to keep the biopic streak going isn't Redmayne? Bradley Cooper is riding a career high right now, having just received his fourth Oscar nomination in three years (he also produced this one). His lived-in portrayal of "legendary" Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in American Sniper is easily the best thing about the film, doing leagues more than either Clint Eastwood or the script to evoke a person of dimension. Many wondered if the lack of precursor attention for the late-breaking picture would keep him on the outside of this brutally stacked category, but the momentum has crested at just the right time. No one could have foreseen American Sniper becoming the third highest grossing movie of the year (holy shitballs, you guys!!!), currently behind Guradians of the Galaxy, which, by the way, also starred Bradley Cooper. Could a surprise win be the Academy's way crowning Cooper the king of Hollywood, while also handing a major category to the most successful Best Picture nominee? If the race is as tight as we think it is between Keaton and Redmayne, then the trophy could be ripe for the plucking. Not gonna predict it, but stranger upsets have happened.

Will win: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Runner-up: Michael Keaton in Birdman

Should win: Michael Keaton in Birdman
Should have been nominated: Jake Gyllenhall in Nightcrawler


  1. I'm still predicting that Keaton will make it in over Redmayne and Cooper. Both the latter will probably have more chances in the future to win, but Keaton probably won't. This is his year and I hope that no one takes it away from him.

  2. "stranger upsets have happened". Please tell

    1. Adrien Brody, Denzel Washington (Training Day), and Marisa Tomei come to mind. I'm sure if we dug past the 90s we could find a bunch more.