Every year there are a few categories at the Oscars where the result basically goes without saying. A lot of those times, we’re talking about the Acting categories. Over the last decade, a minimum of two of the four winners were decided well in advance of Oscar Night, and even among the ones that weren’t locks, it was usually down to two candidates in each field. It has become exceedingly rare for these major categories to be competitive, and as a result the bulk of the last hour of the broadcast has become exceedingly boring. I don’t know if there’s a remedy for this issue, but it is an issue nonetheless.
However, this year is a very welcome exception to the recent rule. Fully three of the categories are up in the air at the moment, and that is refreshing as all hell. And if 2020 didn’t suck cancerous balls, we’d very likely have a solid race in all four.
The one acting result that is completely sewn up is Best Actor, where due to his premature death, the winner will almost certainly be Chadwick Boseman. Ever since his untimely passing, it’s been clear as day that he was going to be honored somehow. The Screen Actors Guild even nominated him for Best Supporting Actor for his penultimate role in Da 5 Bloods (over Delroy Lindo), to send the message that we as an industry are making sure this wonderful man goes out on top.
Had he not died, I have every confidence that he would have been nominated in this category anyway, and it would have made for one of the most exciting Best Actor races in history. This field has rarely been as stacked as it is now, and while the intentions are noble, I think this is another area where we’ll always wonder what might have been.
So the question here isn’t who’s going to win. We already know that. The question is, did Boseman give the best performance to warrant the gesture? That’s what we’re here to break down.
This year’s nominees for Best Actor are:
Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
In just about any other year, Riz Ahmed would be the odds-on favorite to win, which is surprising, as he’s the first Muslim man nominated in this category. But that’s how great his performance in Sound of Metal was. Not only did he break through for the first time with a prestige role, he was so powerful that he would have jumped the proverbial line over several veterans to gain front-runner position.
As heavy metal drummer Ruben, Ahmed begins the film just oozing passion. He gets way into his music, but not in a gratuitous or stereotypical way. He’s intense, locked in, and his eyes convey his love for singer/girlfriend Lou with every sideways glance in her direction. But when he’s not on stage, his focus is just as key, cooking, cleaning, and managing the equipment. The cliché about metalheads is that they’re slackers, but Ruben is a creature of habit who thrives on routine and cleanliness.
When he becomes suddenly deaf, Ahmed’s performance transforms into a second form of addiction recovery after he’s already beaten drugs offscreen before the events of the film. It’s something of a tired trope to nominate actors for portraying affliction. It’s one of the weirdest, most pandering box checks. But Ahmed isn’t playing someone with an illness or a disability living their life with their condition like in most of those other films (Forrest Gump, My Left Foot, Nell, etc.). Instead, you see Ahmed adjusting his life, assessing his needs, and taking action for his personal benefit, even though there is debate on the ethics of his actions. The deafness is something that happens to Ruben, rather than it being the defining aspect of his character. And because of that, he’s able to properly develop through Ahmed’s performance.
Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The main way that Boseman’s death can factor into the analysis here is in wondering how much his cancer contributed to his work. Throughout Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Levee Green is a tragic character, a hallmark of August Wilson’s “Century/Pittsburgh Cycle.” He’s a wonderfully talented black man doomed to failure due to a combination of a system rigged against him and his own lack of emotional intelligence.
Because of his hot-headed nature and his obsessive ambitions, Boseman gives a jarring, pained performance throughout the entire movie. He’s equal parts protagonist and antagonist the whole way through. You’re rooting for him every single minute, even when you know intellectually he’s in the wrong, and when you know that this poor man has no chance to make it in the world. You can see that pain on his face constantly.
But here’s the rub. Was that pained look part of a passionate performance, or was Boseman letting on just a little bit the excruciating illness he was fighting? The answer is found not here, but in the rest of his work. Chadwick Boseman fought cancer for four years basically in secret. No one but his closest confidantes knew about his condition until he was gone. That means he was battling this disease during his entire time in the MCU. He was going through it while filming Marshall, Gods of Egypt, 21 Bridges, and Da 5 Bloods in addition to this film. He never showed it. It never affected his performances. Regardless of the quality of the film, Boseman was a dedicated professional through and through. Whatever pain he was feeling, we never saw it, unless we were supposed to see it THROUGH HIS CHARACTER.
And that’s what makes his final turn all the more compelling. That torment we see on his face was Levee Green, not Chadwick Boseman. I’m sure he felt physical pain to a degree beyond comprehension while he did it, and maybe in private he was thinking that the strained, sweaty look on his face was easier to pull off because it was in tune with what he was really feeling. But when the camera started rolling, all we saw was Levee, a talented musician with fire in his veins and no sense in his brains, a man worth every trick who constantly thinks with his dick. It’s all character. I followed the man’s career pretty much from beginning to end. Out of his 15 movie roles, I’ve seen 11. He was a masterful actor, and while we may want to emotionally link his illness to the strength of this performance, objectively, we really can’t. He really was just that great at what he did, and if he had never died, if he had never even gotten sick, I 100% believe he would have given the same powerful, pantheon-level performance he gave us as his finale.
Anthony Hopkins – The Father
This man fucking broke me for every frame of The Father, because I saw his character’s plight in my mother. I’ve been over this a bunch, so I won’t dwell on it too much, but watching Anthony Hopkins portray dementia was like having someone rip my still-beating heart out of my chest and taunt me with it for 90 minutes.
That’s a credit to the story, the script, and very much to Hopkins himself. Again, affliction typically gets an automatic bid in the acting categories, but Hopkins distinguishes himself because he doesn’t oversell it. It’s so easy for a role like this to get bogged down in melodrama, and in lesser hands, I feel like the performance would have been so over the top that it would have devolved into parody. Hopkins made sure not to let this heavy material become something to mock.
Sure he has a few loud mood swings and he raises his voice a good deal when those moments happen. But the real meat of the performance is in the quieter moments where we see his confusion, when he repeats his personal truths to himself even when objective fact or information from others contradicts it. There’s a genuine look of surprise whenever he sees someone he wasn’t expecting, or when he forgets they were there. He becomes accusatory towards Anne when she finds his watch, because he can’t believe he ever told her where he keeps it hidden. It’s truly shocking to him.
This is probably the most brutally honest depiction of dementia ever put to film, and it works because Hopkins sells it properly, as few but him ever could.
Gary Oldman – Mank
This is another performance that in almost any other year would be a front-runner in the competition. Gary Oldman plays Herman Mankiewicz with charm, wit, and expert comic timing. He’s always the smartest person in the room, often to his own detriment. He can talk circles around anyone, at least until they tire of his antics. And for the purposes of the Citizen Kane homage, he represents Charles Foster Kane’s lost innocence through his wistful nostalgia for the old Hollywood system, where a combination of skills and networking ability could get you any work you wanted.
However, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, most of the time all I saw was Gary Oldman. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an incredible actor, and I’ve been an admirer of his since the 90s. He’s that rare breed that can shine as a leading man or a character actor depending on the situation. He’s just that versatile. But I also have a personal rule where I want to see the character more than I see the actor. For some people, especially leads, this can be difficult. For example, I will never see Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt as anyone but themselves. Now, thankfully, they’re talented enough that on occasion I can get past this and really enjoy their performance as a great character who just happens to look like them. Gary Oldman is also capable of this. When he won for Darkest Hour a few years ago, I saw the character of Winston Churchill, and it had nothing to do with the makeup and the fat suit. Had Oldman been delivering it without any of the cosmetics, I still would have seen the character.
Here though, I just saw Oldman. I saw a charismatic, perfectly on point Oldman, but it was still just Oldman. His performance is tons of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I have to admit that I mostly saw Gary Oldman convincingly delivering lines rather than the fully-realized character of Herman Mankiewicz. It didn’t detract from the film at all, because there’s just so much great stuff going on, and Oldman certainly contributes a lot to the proceedings. But I know what my eyes saw. Still pretty great for what it was, though.
Steven Yeun – Minari
Dude has come a long way since Negan crushed his skull with a baseball bat, huh? A couple years ago he was the standout of the South Korean film, Burning, which many believe got snubbed for International Feature, and now he’s the lead in one of the best films of the year. I make a lot of comparisons between Minari and the truly awful Hillbilly Elegy, and Yeun’s character of Jacob Yi is one of those bullet points. Whereas J.D. Vance focused so much on how bad of a mother he had while establishing himself as the family hero going to Yale and getting a high-paying internship, Jacob is shown as a man with a vision and a drive to succeed, occasionally losing sight of what it means for his family to take the risks he does. Essentially, one film starts with the lead already successful and works backwards to justify it, while the other shows the vision of the American Dream, and a man willing to do what it takes to chase it.
There’s an endless enthusiasm to Jacob’s character, as Yeun imbues him with the true belief in America as the “Land of Opportunity.” He senses a chance to provide a service no one else is in an area where no one else is plying the trade (growing/selling Korean vegetables in the rural South) and risks everything to seize his chance. But the vigor belies the truth behind his motivations, that being the oldest son of his family, he feels obligated to make something of himself and become the most successful of his siblings. Most born-and-bred Americans don’t experience that exact anxiety due to cultural differences, but almost everyone can relate to the idea of ambition fueled by something more abstract than just financial gain. I know I felt it growing up. Sometimes I still do. So while my circumstances and frames of reference are vastly different from Jacob’s, I could still engage with his struggle because I found something universally recognizable in it.
But more than his drive as a farmer and businessman, Jacob is also something rarely portrayed in film these days – a dedicated, loving father. There’s a central conflict between him and his wife Monica (like several Asian immigrants, they chose Western names for themselves upon moving to this country) about the insecurity of his position and the gamble he’s made with all their lives, but when it comes to David and Anne, he never once takes his frustrations out on them. He’s a strict disciplinarian and resorts to corporal punishment when David pulls pranks, but this is also set in the 80s when such a thing was considered normal and acceptable, and he never does anything to his kids out of malice. Like a lot of other films, it would have been very easy to depict Jacob as an abusive failure who’s in way over his head, but that’s not what Lee Isaac Chung is going for in this story, and that’s not how Yeun plays the character. He has issues, but they’re his issues, or they’re his and Monica’s. They’re not his children’s issues, so he does his best to shield them from the worst. His major turn in the third act happens because of the realization that he might be putting his own goals ahead of his children, and that’s something he can’t allow himself to do. You almost never see that kind of father figure in a movie, and Yeun plays it to the absolute hilt.
Man this is such a great group of actors. This is a Murderer’s Row set here, and again, if Boseman was still alive, it would have been glorious to see how this contest unfolded. But that’s not how it worked out. The world is cruel, as way too many of us had to learn the hard way last year.
I’ll say this though, the question I set at the beginning is well and truly answered. Even if Boseman had lived, I would be voting this exact same way without any doubt in my mind.
1) Chadwick Boseman
2) Riz Ahmed
3) Anthony Hopkins
4) Steven Yeun
5) Gary Oldman
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, the Blitz takes another break for the weekend, but I’ll have two new movie reviews up, and I’ll be wrapping up my Oscar viewing with the Documentary Shorts tomorrow. Then on Monday, we start to hit the home stretch with some fabric I’d almost certainly stretch with my fat ass. It’s Costume Design!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you think Chadwick Boseman would win if he was still alive? What’s the most stacked Best Actor field you’ve ever seen? Is there a sixth actor you would add to this group? Let me know!