Since I made the decision to break down the major categories on my YouTube channel (I Actually Paid to See This, subscribe please!), I’ve been struggling to figure out how to give you all, my beloved readers, something unique to go along with the video content. I mean, you can just watch the clip to get my basic thoughts as well as my rankings of the nominees, so what reason do you honestly have to keep scrolling down this page and read?
Well, my indecision is ultimately its own solution. The first time, I provided a transcript because I didn’t realize how copyright claims worked on YouTube. Last time, I expanded on the bottom line opinion and offered what I think is the most important scene of the performance. Neither one seems like a permanent solution, so why bother with permanence? Let’s just do something different every week!
As we look at Best Actor, I’ll let the video speak for itself as far as my personal opinions, but for our purposes here, let’s do a bit of handicapping. For each nominee in tonight’s set, I will provide a case for, and a case against, a win for the respective performances. Some of these thoughts will echo what I’ve said in the video, but hopefully it’ll be a bit more in-depth. And if you watch the video, you know who I want to win, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make an argument for any of these fine men.
So let’s get to it! First things first, here is the video, which only has copyright claims against monetization (which I can’t do until I have at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of views), so it’s already live with no viewing restrictions!
And now for something completely different.
This year’s nominees for Best Actor are…
Javier Bardem – Being the Ricardos
The Case to Win: As I mention in the video, Javier Bardem does better than any other member of this cast of appropriately impersonating their real-world character. I believe him as Desi Arnaz, far more than I believe Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball or J.K. Simmons as William Frawley (though I still got enjoyment out of the latter’s performance). The famous showmanship of Arnaz is on full display throughout most of the proceedings, and he even accomplished the nigh-impossible by doing a rendition of “Cuban Pete” that can make me forget about Jim Carrey’s perfect version in The Mask. He also seems to be having the most fun out of the cast, absolutely living for scenes like “Don’t fuck with the Cuban.” When he wants to be funny, he’s funny. When he wants to be dramatic, he’s dramatic. And never once does it look like a job, where you can easily see that in everyone else’s performances.
The Case to Lose: In addition to what I mention in the video about him having the thankless job of being the “loser” of all the arguments with Lucy, there’s a glaring key issue that almost disqualifies Bardem here. Not only is this not the best performance of this set, it’s not even his best performance from last year. That would be his egomaniacal, hubris-laden, micromanaging turn in Spain’s International Feature submission, The Good Boss, which got shortlisted by the Academy but not nominated. With every scene he oozes the calculating sliminess of a capitalist who thinks he’s too big to fail. And just like with Desi Arnaz, Julio Blanco gets a karmic comeuppance due to sexual indiscretion. But crucially, in this film, you don’t automatically see it coming because the focus isn’t on the person who’s determined to prove him to be a sleaze. He simply acts, and then faces consequences he couldn’t foresee, and because of that, the reactions are much more realistic and believable, unlike in Being the Ricardos, where anyone who knows the history of Lucy and Desi knows how it ended, and for those who don’t, Aaron Sorkin telegraphs it so blatantly in an attempt to try to look clever without actually being clever. That lacking script does a disservice to Bardem’s talents.
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog
The Case to Win: It’s very difficult to make a convincing villain, especially one that carries the proceedings. As I say in the video, only six true bad guy performances have won Best Actor in the last 30 years, as more often than not, the best baddies are relegated to supporting roles. But Cumberbatch not only commands every scene he’s in, he’s absolutely masterful in his manipulations, wounding his victims with words and subtle actions without ever having to resort to simple physical violence. Like Hannibal Lecter before him, succumbing to base instincts seems beneath Phil Burbank. Plus, if you kill someone, you only get to do it once. With his brilliant, persistent cruelty, Phil can destroy his victims over and over. He takes a knowing joy in turning the tables on anyone who would look down on him by forcing them to be uncomfortable with his very existence, knowing they can’t touch him. That confidence and intellect serves him quite well, until it blinds him to the machinations of his would-be acolyte.
The Case to Lose: There’s not much off about anything in his performance, except for the occasional moment where his American accent dips into Grinch territory, and the less we remember about that, the better. Really, the biggest argument against him is the fact that Will Smith seems to have the inside track, having won the Golden Globe (which doesn’t matter to me or any right-thinking person, but still holds weight with studios, advertisers, and by extension, awards voters) and the SAG Award over Cumberbatch. Most likely this is a two-horse race, and we’ll see if the BAFTAs can up Benedict’s odds, but as of right now, the winds are blowing away from him, leaving the villain behind for an anti-hero.
Andrew Garfield – tick, tick… BOOM!
The Case to Win: Garfield has been steadily rising through the ranks of the top actors of his generation, to the point where he’s seen as a go-to and a legitimate contender for the top roles. His youthful good looks served him in early franchise fare, but Hollywood quickly discovered that he wasn’t a one-trick pony, and could give fully-committed performances that can stretch the physical limits of his body. That’s what got him nominated for Hacksaw Ridge, and it’s why he’s nominated now, perfectly mimicking the physical mannerisms and mental insecurities of the late Jonathan Larson. And just for good measure, the world learned that the man can really, REALLY sing. There’s not much more he can do to surprise audiences before they finally just acknowledge that he’s one of the best of the best, and his alternately manic, peppy, and solemn performance might just be his moment.
The Case to Lose: History is not on Garfield’s side, as Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady was the last time that Best Actor went to a musical performance. That’s nearly 60 years ago. The closest you’ve had since then are Jamie Foxx, Jeff Bridges, and Rami Malek, who won for playing singers both real and fictional, but they were character studies and biopics rather than actual musicals. Also, as much as I loved the job he did here, I couldn’t help but occasionally see Neil Patrick Harris in some of Garfield’s singing motions and facial movements.
Will Smith – King Richard
The Case to Win: The movie is largely a Best Actor Showcase, and of all the nominees, Smith has the most overall nominations without an Oscar win over the longest period of time (he’s on his third in 20 years, while Garfield and Cumberbatch are both on their second; Bardem and Washington have previously won), so there could be a sentiment that he might be due for the victory. And if he gets it, he’ll have certainly earned it, turning in a masterful performance against type as a hard-nosed, deeply flawed parent nonetheless absolutely committed to ensuring his daughters become successes. He’s multi-faceted, confrontational, physical, and emotional in all the ways you want a leading man to be, but instead of trying to win over a romantic interest or accomplish heroic feats, he’s being an intentional hard-ass to break his family out of the endless cycle of crime, drugs, and poverty in their neighborhood. There’s a dedication to the cause in every moment he’s on screen, and he never once dials down the intensity. He’s far from subtle, but it’s a role that calls for exactly that.
The Case to Lose: Despite the film basically existing to elevate his profile for awards voters, Smith actually gets outperformed by his co-star and fellow nominee Aunjanue Ellis in a few scenes. As commanding of a presence as he is, there are a few bits where a supporting player seizes the moment for herself, and you can kind of tell that the actor is caught off guard ever so briefly when this happens rather than the character. It’s a minor knock, but it could be a costly one.
Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Case to Win: It’s Shakespeare. He’s Denzel. Somehow this combination has never happened on film before, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. He doesn’t care about approximating a Scottish accent or playing up any of the societal dynamics and metaphors along the margins. He’s singularly focused on the mood of the scene and playing it to its maximum potential. We would expect nothing less from the greatest living actor not named Anthony Hopkins. I wish I could say more, but there really isn’t more to go over. Denzel+Shakespeare=PROFIT!
The Case to Lose: Like Garfield, history is not Washington’s friend here, as only Laurence Olivier (Hamlet) and Marlon Brando (Julius Caesar) have won Best Actor for Shakespearean roles, and since their time, only Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) has even been nominated. And while Denzel is amazing in this role, he could easily be graded on a curve, as we’ve come to expect this level of talent and skill from him over the last 35 years. He’s tremendous, but not game-changing, whereas you could argue that Smith, Cumberbatch, and maybe even Garfield are. It’s a double-edged sword. Because his genius goes without saying, it becomes harder and harder to argue for him over newer, more enigmatic performances, even though his version of Macbeth is arguably the most versatile turn of the whole bunch!
1) Benedict Cumberbatch
2) Will Smith
3) Andrew Garfield
4) Denzel Washington
5) Javier Bardem
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, hey, can you hear that? It’s another category the Academy tossed aside because Disney isn’t nominated. It’s Sound!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite of these performances? Do you think someone more deserving was snubbed? What special feature would you like me to add to next week’s Best Actress analysis? Let me know!