November 7, 2013

OSCARLAND: The Too Many Best Actors Problem


It’s been a relatively quiet week in Oscarland:  12 YEARS A SLAVE expanded well if not phenomenally, ALL IS LOST continued to struggle at the box office despite superb reviews, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB had a moderately successful debut, while BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR showed little box office range.  Next week will be far more eventful thanks to the start of the AFI Film Festival, which will amp up the campaigns (the studios hope) of SAVING MR. BANKS, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, LONE SURVIVOR, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, AMERICAN HUSTLE, OUT OF THE FURNACE, NEBRASKA, PHILOMENA, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN and HER, among others.

Let’s take advantage of the pause to take a look at the year’s Best Actor race.  It’s a confounding one, because of the embarrassment of Academy-friendly riches it offers.

Here are the last 10 winners of the Oscar for Best Actor:  Sean Penn, MYSTIC RIVER; Jamie Foxx, RAY; Philip Seymour Hoffman, CAPOTE; Forest Whittaker, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND; Daniel Day-Lewis, THERE WILL BE BLOOD; Sean Penn, MILK; Jeff Bridges, CRAZY HEART; Colin Firth, THE KING’S SPEECH; Jean Dujardin, THE ARTIST; and Daniel Day-Lewis, LINCOLN.  Leaving aside questions of who actually deserved to win (well… except for Dujardin, as to whom… really?  We can’t take that one back?), they fall into several clear and sometimes overlapping categories:

Lifetime Achievement Awards:  Penn for Mystic River, Jeff Bridges

Special Challenges:  Foxx (blindness), Dujardin (silent), Firth (stuttering), and sorry for the political incorrectness, but Penn for Milk (gay).

Historical Figures:  Foxx as Ray Charles, Hoffman as Truman Capote, Whittaker as Idi Amin, Penn as Harvey Milk, Firth as King George VI, Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

(The only old role out, technically, was Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood, but really that was a combination of all three, being a continuing expression of the industry’s awe for his gargantuan talent,a performance so stylized that it seemed to carry a handicap, and a fictionalized version of the real-life oilman Edward Doheny.)

And this year?

Lifetime Achievements:  Robert Redford, All Is Lost; Bruce Dern, Nebraska; and if one is willing to stretch “lifetime” to include those younger than 77 years old, there’s Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club; and Leonardo DiCaprio, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, both of them veterans by now.

Special Challenges:  Redford, Dern and McConaughey again (for, respectively:  silence, unglamorized age and severe weight loss), plus Forest Whittaker, The Butler (on-screen aging); Christian Bale, American Hustle (weight gain, aging and the worst combover ever); Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis (singing); and Joaquin Phoenix, Her (acting opposite a disembodied voice).  You can also include Tom Hanks here due to the final scenes of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, where his portrayal of emotional breakdown was so convincing that it shocked even audiences who’ve been watching Hanks for decades.

Historical Figures:  McConaughey, Whittaker (albeit a ficitonalized version of a real White House butler), Bale (also fictionalized), and Hanks, plus Chiwetal Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave; Mark Wahlberg, Lone Survivor; DiCaprio; Ralph Fiennes, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN; and Michael B. Jordan, FRUITVALE STATION.  (There’s also Benedict Cumberbatch for THE FIFTH ESTATE and Idris Elba for MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, but since their underwhelming Toronto debuts, and in Estate‘s case box office failure, those films seem to be on the back burner.)

Two very good performances not in these categories that in other years might have well been likely nominees:  Hugh Jackman in PRISONERS and Ethan Hawke in BEFORE MIDNIGHT.  Neither seems likely to break through in this very tough year.

So how will it all shake out?  Some of these performance haven’t been seen yet, of course, most notably DiCaprio’s in the late-arriving Wolf of Wall Street.  But Redford, Ejiofor, McConaughey and very possibly Dern seem like sure things.  (Dern is in an odd position because Paramount is behind both Nebraska and Wolf, and may put its finger on the scale for the much more expensive Wolf if the two seem to become one-or-the-other, especially if Nebraska hasn’t established a toehold by Christmas, when Wolf opens.)  That leaves one or at the most two slots for the rest, with Whittaker and Hanks seemingly the most likely because both gave performances that blew past what they’ve done before, and DiCaprio a very strong potential contender.

With Wolf as-yet unseen, our money is on (in alphabetical order):

Bruce Dern

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Tom Hanks

Matthew McConaughey

Robert Redford

Inevitably, some extremely accomplished performances won’t make the cut, and not long down the road, we may well find ourselves dumbstruck that Joaquin Phoenix or Mark Wahlberg failed to even be nominated.  The Academy, we’ll say once again, just can’t get anything right.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."