By John H. Foote
Historically, this is always crowded category, and this year is no exception but the days of the seventies, when four of the five nominees could be the winner are gone. In past years we have pretty much known which actor was going to win by Oscar night, the Casey Affleck award being the only exception. This year the field is wide open, with previous nominees, winners and newcomers likely among the nominees. We even have a bonafide sentimental choice, an actor who has never won before, though he has won an Oscar for Directing.
It is going to be, as it always is, a wild ride. And this is the calm category.
With the rave reviews coming out of the Venice Film Festival, it seems likely that Ryan Gosling is the immediate frontrunner for Best Actor for his performance as Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon in First Man. The film is said to be a breathtaking masterpiece, that captures more than any film before it, man’s fragility in vast space, with Gosling doing perhaps the finest work of his career. Gosling might remain at the top of the list for a week or so, but there will be lots of jockeying over the next few months for those coveted five positions.
Inside word on Green Book, has Viggo Mortenson getting some of the best reviews of his career, and he is a much-loved artist many believe should have that Oscar by now. Superb in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (01-02-03), A History of Violence (2006), stunning in Eastern Promises (2007) for which he was nominated for Best Actor, and again in Captain Fantastic (2016), his second nomination, he is among the finest yet pickiest actors working today. It seems likely Mortenson will be back for his third nomination this year for Green Book as a New York tough guy hired to drive a gifted black concert pianist through the sixties American south. The film co-stars Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and could be the first in years to have two actors from the same film.
Christian Bale should have been nominated last year for his powerful performance in Hostiles, but the picture was released too late to attract a lot of attention. He should be back this year for his work as Dick Cheney, a role that required weight gain (which the Academy loves) and complete immersion into the character. Bale completely altered his performance for the part, changing himself in every way. Adam McKay directed and wrote the film that should be a major player come Oscar time.
As rock icon Freddie Mercury, the trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody looks terrific and more, actor Rami Malek seems to be channelling the spirit of the late Mercury in his performance. Best known for his work on TV in The Pacific and Mr. Robot, Malek was seen earlier this year in Papillon, but this could be his breakthrough. If he does justice to Mercury, one of the most exciting and flamboyant rockers of his time, he will be deserving. The Academy does love a biopic.
Hugh Jackman finds himself in a biographical film as well, his best role since Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (2012). As US Presidential candidate Gary Hart, he watches helplessly as his career goes down in flames due to a sexual scandal. Based on real-life events in 1988. Jason Reitman directs and wrote the film, but has made it clear he anchored the film with Jackman. I have never found him to be a great actor, but the Academy clearly likes him.
The sentimental choice this year is without question Robert Redford in what is going to be his last film role before he retires. In The Old Man and the Gun, Redford is a gentle senior citizen who robs banks. Casey Affleck is on his trail, with Sissy Spacek as the woman who loves him but knows nothing about his exploits. Having never won an Oscar for his acting, Redford could take home the golden man.
Ethan Hawke is widely respected as an actor and did the best work of his career in First Reformed, a powerful Paul Schrader film in which he portrays a priest trying to hold on to his faith. The fact the film was released early in the year and people are still talking about it is exciting for Hawke. Twice nominated for supporting actor, Hawke could make the cut for the Best Actor category with this one. Actors and critics revered the work.
For his directing debut, Bradley Cooper chose to remake A Star is Born, the fourth incarnation of the story, having been made previously in 1937, 1954 and 1976. This new version, like the 1976 version is set in the music world and has Lady Gaga as an unknown found by Copper’s rock legend. Inside word on the film is huge, with Sean Penn stating it might be the best film of the year. Cooper is said to be brilliant as the alcoholic rocker on the way down, and could also land a Best Director nod to go with Best Actor.
Matt Dillon is another actor who has deserved much more attention from the Academy than he has received throughout his career. Nominated just once, for supporting actor in Crash (2005) he should have been there in 1989 for his work in Drugstore Cowboy. He might turn up for his work as a dangerous, violent serial killer in The House That Jack Built, the latest from controversial director Lars Von Trier. Those who have seen the film claim Dillon is sensational, but the film is brutally violent and rather bleak.
Steve Carell has become one of the most reliable actors in the business and manages both comedy and drama with ease. His performance in Foxcatcher (2014) earned him a Best Actor nomination, and he could be back this year as the distraught father trying to reach his drug-addicted son in Beautiful Boy. Now, rumours out of Venice have stated the film is not as good as we had hoped it might be, but so far nothing negative about his performance.
Let me be clear. I never believed that Matthew McConaughey deserved his Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club (2013), not in a year where we have Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. But he won, the Academy likes him, and he does have charisma. He might find himself in the race again as the father of a young drug runner in White Boy Rick.
Finally, Joaquin Phoenix has had a great year. He gave a dark, troubling performance earlier this year in You Were Never Really Here, which was critically acclaimed. He portrayed Christ in the little-seen Mary Magdalene which suffered when Harvey Weinstein was the top name in the news for all the wrong reasons. He was tremendous in the Gus Van Sant film Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and is about to be seen as one half of The Sisters Brothers, portraying a hitman in the old west.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.