Oscars 2014/2015: Best Actor

24 Jan
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In addition to the Academy’s snub of Selma director Ava DuVernay, I’m also calling foul on the omission of English actor David Oyelowo, simply mesmerizing as the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So larger than life, so steeped in legend, is King that portraying him presents a hefty challenge for anyone, the equivalent of playing Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, per Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day Lewis, both of whom won Oscars, btw. Oyelowo perfectly matches King’s cultivated, mellifluous Southern tones, but this great actor truly triumphs as he shows a man who only gradually grows into –and realizes–his tremendous power. (PHOTO: Paramount Pictures vis NPR)

Before I review the Best Actor contenders, as I indicated I would in the last post, I want to revisit the Selma controversy and the fact that its director Ava DuVernay was overlooked, thereby missing out on the chance to make history as the Academy’s first ever female African-American Best Director contender. Of course, even during all those decades when the slate of Best Picture nominees was limited to five, it was just as common as not for the director(s) of one of those five finalists to be ignored in the Best Director race, as was the case with Steven Spielberg (both Jaws and The Color Purple), Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), Barbra Streisand (The Prince of Tides), and Joe Wright (Atonement); moreover, Streisand’s snub is comparable to those of Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), Penny Marshall (Awakenings), and Valerie Faris (one half of the team behind Little Miss Sunshine). Furthermore, two years ago the Academy nominated Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture and more, but Bigelow, who smashed the glass ceiling when she won the Best Director statuette for 2009’s The Hurt Locker, was ignored. Too much of a good thing? Okay, here’s my point: we know these things happen, but an open ended number of Best Picture slots–no less than five, no more than ten–only invites further discrepancies. I still think the Academy needs to stop chasing demographics by ensuring that there is room for a big “popcorn” extravaganza, the kind that excites 14 year old boys (or, okay, frat boys), just to boost ratings. By the way, how many escapist blockbusters are among the Academy’s final 8 this time? None, really, though for awhile it looked like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar had a chance. Instead, Interstellar finds itself competing in a smattering of technical categories. I actually find that encouraging since I also pretty much hated Interstellar. Meanwhile, going back to DuVernay, consider the following statistic reported by Entertainment Weekly, citing Los Angeles Times research from 2012: “the directors branch is 91 percent male and 90 percent white” (Sperling 82). Uh, doesn’t this represent a credibility problem on some level since these numbers in no way represent real life in the 21st century?

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So far, Michael Keaton has won a Golden Globe, the Online Film Critics Society award, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association award, and a Broadcast Critics’ Choice award. He shares honors with Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) from the National Board of Review. He’s also in line for a Screen Actors Guild award.

Now, on to Best Actor. What we have right now appears to be a two way race that could easily turn into a three way race. On one hand, we have Michael Keaton (Birdman), a veteran enjoying his first nomination in a career that spans more than thirty years, everything from early comedy hits such as Night Shift (1982) and Mr. Mom (1983) to the ghoulish Beetlejuice and the hard hitting recovery drama Clean and Sober, both in 1988, followed by two installments in the blockbuster Batman franchise (1989, 1992). Keaton hasn’t had a strong leading role in years though he stole a few scenes in 2010’s The Other Guys. He’s ripe for a comeback, that’s for sure, and his role as a former movie super-hero trying to reinvent himself as a Broadway thesp, seems right on time. That Birdman has snagged 9 nominations only helps.

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Eddie Redmayne’s only major award at this point is a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. Mostly, he’s been trailing Keaton. As of this writing, he is currently in the running for a SAG award and a British Academy Award.

On the other hand, relative newcomer Eddie Redmayne benefits from a role requiring complete transformation: British physicist Stephen Hawking, famous not only for the best selling A Brief History of Time but also a heroic, death defying battle against neurodegenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Audiences, and that includes people who vote for awards, definitely respond to Redmayne’s strenuous effort, and his vehicle works on two familiar levels: a true story, AND, again, a role that requires physical transformation, thereby drawing attention to the most obvious aspects of an actor’s craft. He’s young, and now that he’s proven his acting mettle, he’s likely to receive more choice offers.

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Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) is on a roll. This is his third Oscar nomination in three years: Best Actor, 2012 (Silver Linings Playbook), Best Supporting Actor, 2013 (American Hustle), and now in the fact-based film based on the life of Texas native Chris Kyle, who was killed just as the film was still in pre-production. (PHOTO: Warner Bros./Very Aware)

I think American Sniper‘s Bradley Cooper is the potential upset in the bunch. I’m not predicting an upset, but I won’t be the least bit surprised if Cooper is called to the podium come awards night. Cooper was overlooked by both the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press (the Golden Globes) and the Screen Actors Guild. Furthermore, he was relegated to the “Action Movie” category at the Critics Choice awards; therefore, his presence among the final five here is, yes, a surprise, but it also means strong support for the movie as a whole–as further evidenced by its inclusion in the Best Picture category. Plus, American Sniper director Clint Eastwood is definitely known for his winning ways among actors:  Gene Hackman (Unforgiven, 1992), Tim Robbins (Mystic River, 2003), Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman (both in Million Dollar Baby, 2004).

Once upon a time, Cumberbatch played no less than Stephen Hawking in a BBC telefilm, earning a BAFTA nod in the process. Now, he’s for an Oscar and a BAFTA award in a race with another actor playing Hawking. Full circle.

If I were voting, I’d be inclined at this point–knowing that I’ve yet to see American Sniper though I plan to soon–to go with Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), my personal pick in the tortured British gents sweepstakes; the other being Redmayne as Hawking. Yes, Cumberbatch gives a commendable performance as Alan Turing, mathematician turned WWII code breaker, later vilified–criminalized–for being homosexual, but that’s not the only reason why Cumberbatch holds such appeal for me. What I really like about Cumberbatch is how he manages to be both serious actor AND full blown movie star. This six foot hunk of masculine gladness is incredibly easy on the eyes, sure, but he’s also an adventurous actor, from his work as Sherlock Holmes to a key supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and his standout villain, Khan, in Star Trek Into Darkness. He’s also appeared in The Hobbit movies and has even played Julian Assange. Plus, he made quite an impression as a relatively benevolent plantation owner in last year’s Oscar champ 12 Years a Slave. True movie stars are becoming rarer and rarer, but Cumberbatch wears the ideal well.

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Besides Oyelowo and Cumberbatch, my favorite male performance of the year–also un-nominated–is that of Brit Jack O’Connell, mind bogglingly good, in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the incredible story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympic athlete who survived one harrowing turn after another as a WWII soldier. Generally kindly reviewed and a bona fide box office smash, Unbroken was largely ignored by the Academy, which only fuels discussion that the directors’ branch is just a well heeled boys club. Unbroken’s only nod is for Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography, but with 10 prior nods, including 2012’s Skyfall and 2010’s True Grit, and no wins thus far. I am not too optimistic about his chances this year. I don’t know if sentimentality counts anymore. In the meantime, O’Connell has claimed “newcomer” laurels from the likes of the National Board of Review and is up for “Rising Star” from the British Academy. (PHOTO:  Universal/Derby Telegraph)

I generally like Steve Carrell, and I know he’s treaded near Oscar territory in the past, such as an attention getting star turn in Dan at 40, and colorful supporting performances in oh so many vehicles, such as Little Miss Sunshine, but I think his nomination for playing dangerously delusional John Du Pont in Foxcatcher is a sham, a waste. Overall, the movie is incredibly tense, maybe the most relentless movie I’ve seen in that regard since 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, and while Carrell benefits from an effective makeup job, especially a proboscis that seems to enter a given space before the rest of his body, almost making it seem as though he really MUST look down his nose at everyone,  and while he sounds a lot like the real Du Pont in his halting monotone, the effect is still very much a stunt, a one-note wonder, and, again, I’m allowing that Carrell succeeds as a fairly accurate impersonation, and that he gives exactly the kind of single minded performance director Bennett Miller wants–as though Du Pont were somehow empty on the inside–but I just don’t think it’s worthy of highest honors. Again, while I’m generally a fan of both Carrell and Mark Ruffalo (a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Foxcatcher), I was most impressed by the same film’s Channing Tatum, who played the most difficult role, a down on his luck wrestler–and Olympic gold medalist–sucked into Du Pont’s lavish lifestyle but with unforeseen conditions and consequences. His character is the one who experiences the most emotional changes, and that’s what held my attention.

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Two years ago, the Academy nominated 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) for Best Actress. Barely a decade prior to that 13 year old Keisha Castle-Hughes snagged a nod for Whale Rider. Who knows why, but the Academy seems more inclined to recognize child actresses rather than child actors. Now 20, Ellar Coltrane, seen in this collage, was recently named the year’s Best Young Actor by the Broadcast Film Critics. PHOTO: Matt Lankes via The Guardian.

One more: with all the hoopla regarding the 12 years it took director Richard Linklater to complete Boyhood, and the lavish praise for supporting nominees, Patricia Arquette (the anointed frontrunner) and Ethan Hawke, it seems a little puzzling that Ellar Coltrane has not likewise been recognized since  his assignment, aging from 7 to 18 in front of Linklater’s probing camera, required the greatest risk, a willingness to be open and vulnerable while enduring his own adolescence. If Linklater had not cast just the right actor in the leading role, the whole project would have likely failed; after all, dozens upon dozens of child actors have fared delightfully well as half-pints only to lose their most adorable qualities during those trying teen years, often appearing embarrassingly stiff, amateurish, and out of place whereas they were once considered “naturals.” Now, of course, we know that Linklater must have chosen well since his film is such a strong contender.

Check here later for a SAG update and/or a rundown on the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress.

Thanks for your consideration…

Sperling, Nicole. “The Woman Who Made History.” Entertainment Weekly. 30 January 2015. Print. 6 February 2015.

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