It’s been a long time since Best Actor was a competitive race of any kind. Last year, Gary Oldman was anointed before Darkest Hour even came out, practically. It was the same the year before with Casey Affleck, even though Denzel Washington’s performance in Fences was beyond belief. The year before, Leonardo DiCaprio was given his “Lifetime Achievement” Oscar. In fact, you have to go back a decade to get the last true upset in the category. Back in 2009, Mickey Rourke gave a career-defining performance in The Wrestler. It seemed like a slam dunk that such a compelling turn from a career character actor who rarely got to be in the spotlight would be rewarded for blowing us all away.
But then Sean Penn put on a gay lisp and they gave him the Oscar. We were used to it. The same ceremonial fraud happened only five years earlier when they gave Penn the win over Bill Murray.
This year, there seems to be an actual competition. And really, it had to be so. There were so many wonderful leading performances that didn’t get a nod here that it’d be a crime to make this one an easy, tossed off win. Daveed Diggs, John David Washington, Joaquin Phoenix (in two separate movies), Ben Foster, Lakeith Stanfield, and Ethan Hawke were all brilliant, and they were all left by the wayside. So this better not be an afterthought of a win.
This year’s nominees for Best Actor are:
Christian Bale – Vice
Bale already has the Comedy Golden Globe and the SAG award under his belt, so conventional wisdom would paint him as the favorite. However, unlike last year, both Globe winners are in the field, and given the momentum for one other film, there could be an upset. Hell, really, only one nominee in this field I’d argue has no chance.
When he won the Globe, Bale famously, and hilariously, thanked Satan for inspiring him to play Dick Cheney. It’s hard to argue with the joke, as anyone who lived through the Bush administration knows that the only reason Cheney has a heart is because we read about the transplant. In the film, Bale plays Cheney with Machiavellian aplomb, his sideways smirk a continual wink to the audience that there’s no logical reason that any of this stuff should be happening, but as Cheney he’ll get away with it for as long as he can. But what really seals it for me is the fact that if I were a blind man, I would still be compelled by the performance. The transformative makeup job is beyond impressive, but Christian Bale is so good of an actor that he could have looked like his normal self and I’d still be convinced.
Bradley Cooper – A Star is Born
The star has faded a bit for this film since it came barreling into Awards Season, which could end up playing into Cooper’s favor. At this point, I think Original Song is the only Oscar the film can count on, and after months of lobbying, the movie has ended up shorter than it began in the prestige department. Cooper himself has suffered directly, as his expected nomination for Best Director never materialized. Because of that, there could be an apology Oscar for him in this category. Don’t believe me? Half the reason Argo won Best Picture was blowback from Academy voters for Ben Affleck being snubbed as Director.
As for his actual performance, Cooper is fine. He’s endearing at points, undeniably funny and charming, and he even has a half decent singing voice. It’s the height of arrogance for Cooper the director to cast himself as the only person who can convince Lady Gaga that she’s beautiful and talented, but that doesn’t really apply here. As Jackson Maine, his path is already laid before him, and piss pants at the Grammys notwithstanding, he follows the track that three others have walked before him admirably. His performance isn’t the strongest in the field, and honestly, it’s a few steps down from some of the great actors left off the list, but given that Cooper split time on this project, he did all right.
Willem Dafoe – At Eternity’s Gate
This was something of a surprise nomination, as the film hasn’t gotten very good reviews (and I honestly hated it – mini review coming this weekend). It’s also weird that Dafoe, who is 63, was cast to play Vincent Van Gogh (pronounced “Van GOFF,” people!), who died at 37.
But even setting that aside, this just isn’t that good of a performance. Dafoe plays Van Gogh as a manic depressive, lashing out at anyone and everyone before collapsing into a blubbering mess. I’m not saying that never happened (I’ve been a lover of Van Gogh’s work all my life), but that’s really the only avenue of his personality that gets explored, save for a mind-boggling scene with a priest where he basically proclaims himself as the second coming of Christ. The beauty of Van Gogh’s art is put to the side in order for Dafoe to basically play a mental patient who just happens to paint. Willem Dafoe is one of the greatest actors of his generation, and he was the only good thing about The Florida Project last year, earning his Supporting Actor nomination. But his performance here is just a misfire, and I’m stunned that so many great performances were left out in favor of it.
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
From the very first trailer I, like many others, was mesmerized by the look of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. The resemblance (after the makeup job of course) was so uncanny that I was willing to buy into whatever was going to happen.
Thankfully, Malek lived up to the hype. Beyond the prosthetics, he truly embodied Mercury, adopting his zest for life and his bombastic stage presence. Even the near-obsessive love of cats was convincing. It was a little disappointing that he didn’t sing the songs himself, but neither did Jamie Foxx in Ray, and that didn’t stop him from winning. I’ve been a fan of Malek’s since he was the awkwardly closeted neighbor boy in The War at Home, and I’m absolutely thrilled at the trajectory his career has taken in recent years. A win here would be the icing on a very successful cake.
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
I stand by my previous opinion that Mortensen should be up for Supporting Actor while Mahershala Ali should be nominated here, but it’s a moot point at this stage. I think it would have made for a Murderer’s Row of nominees (especially if we could have bumped Dafoe for John David Washington), but there can only be so much competition.
As Tony Lip, Mortensen gets the cleanest, almost whitewashed story. He goes from throwing away glasses touched by black men to welcoming Don Shirley to his Christmas table in the span of 90 minutes, after all! Because the film was co-written by Tony’s son, he gets treated with kid gloves throughout. But even so, Mortensen is well up to the task here. He gets most of the funny lines, swaying between stereotypical mook to progressive protector of the vulnerable, and by necessity has the most growth as a character. So far, Green Book has gotten a lot of love from the awards circuit, so it’s possible Mortensen could pick up some gold if there’s an Oscar tidal wave. This is his third nomination so far; he could get into “Lifetime Achievement” territory fairly soon.
* * * * *
1) Christian Bale
2) Rami Malek
3) Viggo Mortensen
4) Bradley Cooper
5) Willem Dafoe
Next up: I literally saw the last film on the list today, and I can’t wait to go over the whole group. On Monday, it’s Animated Feature!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which performance do you think was best? Which actor got the biggest snub? Are you as excited as I am for the next age-accurate performance, where Christopher Plummer plays the Boss Baby? Let me know!