February 28, 2014

OSCARLAND: Why and Why Not? – Best Actor


Continuing as we’ve done for Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Actresshere’s a final look at the pros and cons behind each nominee for Best Actor.  All are assumed to deserve the award on the basis of performance, and precursor wins can be counted elsewhere.  Also read about the Best Director and Best Picture races.


CHRISTIAN BALE, American Hustle

WHY:  Exactly the kind of performance that wins Oscars, transformative both physically (the weight, the epic hairpiece) and in terms of perception (Christian Bale–loose, emotional and funny!).  Hustle can’t go home empty-handed.  Back with the director who brought him his last Oscar.  Which, incidentally, was for Supporting even though he’s unquestionably a leading man.  Well-respected for his commitment to his art.

WHY NOT:  Not the most cuddly guy in the room.  Batman aside, hasn’t shown he can sell tickets.  Some think him dominated by the movie’s women–and maybe even by Supporting Actor nominee Bradley Cooper.  His win was Supporting, but it was just 2 years ago.  Plenty of time to move up in class.  Lacks the heartwarming backstory other nominees bring to the table.

BRUCE DERN, Nebraska

WHY:  Thinking of backstories, try a 77-year old actor with the 2d nomination of his half-century career (the first in 35 years).  With Redford out of the running, the only contender for a lifetime achievement prize.  A film many people love, especially older viewers who are disproportionately represented in Academy membership.  Has fought for the nomination and the award like… well, like a 77-year old who probably doesn’t have many more nominations to come.  All that campaigning also showcased how different he is from the role–this isn’t just an old guy playing himself.

WHY NOT:  To be brutally honest, until now he wasn’t on many short lists as someone who needed to win an Oscar.  The film was the least successful of the Best Picture nominees.  Stoicism doesn’t win Academy Awards (we’ll come back to that).

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, The Wolf of Wall Street

WHY:  Due.  No, seriously… due.  One of the last real movie stars who didn’t build his brand through genre movies.  Fearless:  took two hugely ambitious, remarkably daring swings for the fences this year and walked away with two giant hits.  Scorsese’s post-DeNiro muse.  Has campaigned for this like a loved one was being held hostage, to be freed only if he won. 

WHY NOT:  People who don’t love the film don’t like it.  More than that, they don’t like the character.  More than that, they disapprove of the character, and don’t want to endorse him with an Oscar.  Some disdain the performance as one-note… held for 3 hours.  Still under 40, doesn’t need a lifetime achievement win.  Given the trajectory of his career, he’ll have plenty of other chances.


WHY:  The star of the Best Picture favorite.  A patient, charming presence on the campaign circuit.  A recognition of multicultural talent would be a good idea for the Academy.

WHY NOT:  The performance is intense but stoic, not showy at all, and voters may respect intense, but they vote for showy.  Not a movie star in the industry sense of the term–in fact, not necessarily a leading man.  Recessive charm is a British thing, and it doesn’t travel to the Oscar podium.


WHY:  The deluxe give-the-guy-his-Oscar package.  Scary weight loss, a role that just a few years ago would have seemed way out of his league, a generally respected film.  Also, the inspirational story (for Hollywood) of a star seemingly on the fast track to low-rent genre hell utterly remaking himself into an actor on every A list.  Has thrown himself into the campaign without the slightest trace of desperation or impatience.  Oh, and during the voting period, his also-brilliant performance in True Detective has been on every industry DVR.

WHY NOT:  It’s dangerous to be the frontrunner for 6 straight months.  His Golden Globe acceptance speech wasn’t sufficiently charged with social commitment, and the real-life character was distorted into a homophobe for Hollywood fairy tale purposes.  Despite recent accomplishments, he hasn’t earned it the way DiCaprio and Dern have, the one through an enormous body of high-quality work and the other through sheer persistence.  The role already won an Oscar 20 years ago, when the movie was called Philadelphia.


MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY.  Resistance is futile.



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."