Talking Oscars: Best Actress and Best Actor

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Following this week's first look at the supporting races, here are some initial thoughts on the very competitive fields of Best Actress and Best Actor. This Oscar season looks to be quite exciting!

Best Actress

Okay, so it might have been premature to leave Sandra Bullock out of the first round of predictions that were made on October 3rd when Gravity was set to open on October 4th. Gravity was the movie of the moment until Jackass Bad Grandpa stole its box office thunder and 12 Years a Slave levelled out the critical buzz. (Both Gravity and Slave are even Steven on Metacritic with a whopping score of 96.). Bullock nevertheless seems poised to ride the enthusiasm for the film into an early foothold on one of the nominations in an increasingly competitive field. Bullock is strong in Gravity, but it’s still surprises me that there can be so much support—let alone such extreme support—for a performance that mostly lets Bullock act as a prop for the VFX crew. Gravity relies quite heavily on the filter of its 3D glasses to provide a breathtaking film experience, so the film likely won't play with as much an impact should voters watch the film on a screener, rather than in the full theatrical experience. One of the lead actresses in one of the year’s performance-driven films could therefore edge Bullock out since indies often translate well to thesmall screen, although the wide release of Gravity probably makes Bullock's performance more accessible than most of the other contenders combined.

A performance of true gravity: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Bullock’s main competition is the early—and arguably, still—frontrunner Cate Blanchett for her wall-to-wall performance in Blue Jasmine. Her dramatic range in the Woody Allen drama is epic. Blanchett’s mesmerizing turn is a performance of true gravity as she incarnates a modern day Blanche Dubois. Blanchett's Jasmine French boasts the most clip-friendly performance of all those listed her: this performance is an exceptional piece of work to which a voter can point at any snippet of the film and make a strong claim for merit. (See, for example, the great scene below.) Her nomination is so ready for Oscar night that it might be the one sure thing among all the actors and actresses listed here.

Also looking like strong contenders are two Weinstein Company actresses, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, for August: Osage County and Philomena, respectively. Stiff competition (both external and internal) and a recent win seem like the only reason to doubt Meryl upping her record of nominations, but her Violet Weston is even better than the Margaret Thatcher that won her a well-deserved Oscar two years ago, so Streep fatigue might not set in yet. (And the Academy gave Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz two Oscars in close proximity.) Had she not just won for The Iron Lady, Streep might have been a shoo-in for August: Osage County.

Dench, on the other hand, has been cited for lesser work and Philomena is her strongest performance since 2006’s Notes on a Scandal. Dench isn’t slowing down, though, as her recent press for Philomena has squashed rumours that she is retiring due to macular degeneration. (She’s also set to shoot a sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in January.) A lack of retirement plans only means that Philomena won’t be a “career Oscar” should Dench trump her Notes on a Scandal co-star Cate Blanchett. Philomena opens in the UK this week, where’s it’s earning solid reviews, like this 5-star rave from Empire that calls it the dark horse of the award season. This review really captures the tone that makes Philomena one in a million and Dench a major threat in the awards race. The Empire review shows that Dench has traction and staying power in the race, as she’s been getting raves since the film premiered at Venice, such as in this great one from Time, which boasts, “Philomena rises to poignancy and profundity as Dench reveals her control of a character stained by the loss of her child ….” Philomena is deceptively sunny, but, as the Time review suggests, Dench gives a performance that raises the film to the highest calibre. (Claims that the film is lightweight are misguided.) The apparent lightness of the film makes Dench's performance especially devastating in the film's final act punch. Dench could be the wild card of the race if the good reviews continue when Philomena opens stateside.
Judi Dench in Philomena: is she the wild card?
Dench might not a complete lock for the BAFTA for the Comedy category at the Globes (Philomena’s in that grey area between comedy and drama, and thus could go either way) since the only significant new development in the Best Actress  comes from a fellow Brit. The presence of Emma Thompson in the race changes little as far as predictions are concerned after Saving Mr. Banks premiered at the London Film Festival last week. Emma Thompson was cited in the top tier of predictions for her performance in Saving Mr. Banks during Round 1  even though nobody had seen the film—see, it’s never too soon to chat Oscars!—and the reports from the film’s LFF screening are supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The screening simply confirmed what some of us assumed. Thompson on Hollywood (no relation to Emma, as far as I know) called her performance “a curmudgeonly delight” while The Hollywood Reporter gives an interesting take, calling Thompson “a fearsome figure of feminine steeliness” and then compares the performance to Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. (Saving Mr. Banks is by Blind Side director John Lee Hancock.) It seems like a compliment whether pr not the author intends it to be one. (I, on the other hand, might invoke The Blind Side for a fumble.) Good word for Thompson’s performance will likely have her sitting pretty, especially once the Golden Globe nominations are announced. Being one of the few major studio films with a Best Actress contender, Thompson will join Bullock as a safe bet given the accessible reach of her film over the crowded field of contenders.

Blanchett, Bullock, Streep, Dench, and Thompson are five solid bets, but it’s only November! There are many actresses in the running from small films that could fair well from critics’ prizes, although Blanchett seems poised to steamroll them all. A dark horse like Julie Delpy in Before Midnight (who, sadly, fell from my predicted five this week) or Kate Winslet in Labor Day, or  a long shot like Greta Gerwig, or even longer shots like Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color, Brie Larsen in Short Term 12, and other worthy underdogs might be in if enough voters see their films. Then of course there’s Julia Roberts, who could swing the lead race just as greatly as she could the supporting one.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor

If Best Actress seems like a crowded race, then Best Actor is a whole other gauntlet. Well over five names seem like formidable contenders not only for a nomination, but also for a win. This race is the toughest to predict of them all and it only looks to become trickier as the weeks to the Oscars approach the nomination day. Any omission could presumably shift the dynamics of this competitive race.

The frontrunner, for now, looks to be 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor has been on top since the film previewed at Telluride before premiering—and winning—at Toronto. Rave reviews, like that of the NPR, convey how much his complex performance makes a film with such a difficult topic so accessible and able to scoop a major audience award: “But it is Ejiofor — bewildered, sorely tested, morally towering — whose staggered dignity anchors the film.” Even the few negative reviews of the film, like this one from The Village Voice, read like a full-on rave for Ejiofor despite misgivings for the film itself, saying, “His subtlety is the earth-moving kind: He could probably shift a mountain just by arching an eyebrow.”
Robert Redford in All is Lost
Earning equal praise for subtlety and sitting close to par with Ejiofor is Robert Redford. More experts at Gold Derby actually have Redford ranked at #1 (he has 9 top votes compared to Ejiofor’s 8), but some of the pundits don’t have Redford on their projected ballot at all, while Ejiofor appears on every one—in most cases in the first or second spot. Rule of thumb puts Ejiofor slightly ahead of Redford since he appears in a Best Picture contender, whereas All is Lost is a dark horse for the top prize. On the other hand, Redford has never won an Oscar for acting. His one competitive win is for directing 1980’s Ordinary People and since All is Lost sees the veteran acting at the top of his game, voters would be hard pressed to find a performance for which Redford is more worthy.

Redford’s fellow vet in the race, Bruce Dern, could also be on the receiving end of some long overdue recognition. Dern won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. (All is Lost screened out of competition at the festival.) Praise and honours have greeted Dern during the fall festival run too, so the support is clearly there for his performance. But it’s also a performance that many writers and festival fans have mentioned in both the lead and the supporting race. Paramount has Dern listed as Nebraska’s sole lead and the actor himself has avidly maintained that competing in the supporting race would amount to prostitution. It’s noble to face the competition in the correct category, but any degree of opinion could edge Dern out of the race in such a crowded field.
Forest Whitaker stars in Lee Daniels' The Butler Photo: Anne Marie Fox
If Dern appears on differing ballots, the vote will go easier for other heavy favourites like Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Tom Hanks (who, like Ejiofor, seems like a safe bet since Captain Phillips looks to be a surefire Best Picture nominee), or Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Any of these three could conceivably win just as easily of the aforementioned trio of actors. The reviews are there, as is the both office in the case of Captain and Butler. Buyers opens in some theatres this weekend, but McConaughey is already riding high on the claims that he is more overdue for recognition than any actor in the race. For an actor who was almost nominated for a small part in a middlebrow stripper flick like Magic Mike, a risky, provocative festival favourite like Dallas Buyers Club could acknowledge the actor for his string of strong work since his recent comeback.

However, three and three makes six. Like Best Actress, Best Actor is overloaded with strong contenders. Add to this the underdogs (Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Isaac) and new favourites (Joaquin Phoenix), and the race is bound to explode when latecomers like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street introduce Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio to the race.  If the performances of the latter two actors are half as good as the early footage of their films indicates, then some early favourite could be absent altogether. The newly announced Christmas release of The Wolf of Wall Street will shake things up: even if the film doesn't deliver, which seems unlikely since it's a Martin Scorsese picture, it could at least remind voters of DiCaprio's strong work in The Great Gatsby

But who misses? Number ones and number twos will be essential on the ballot in a year like this: imagine a scenario in which universal acclaim isn’t enough! Being everyone’s second or third choice might just not cut it. For this reason, I’ve moved Forest Whitaker out of the top tier to make room for Redford, but in what world do the reviews for his performance and the hundred-million dollar box office take for The Butler result an omission?!


Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity*
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Almost put: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight*
Alt: Amy Adams, American Hustle; Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color;* Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha; Julia Roberts, August: Osage County; Kate Winslet, Labor Day

Best Actor
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

Almost put: Forest Whitaker, Lee Daniels’ The Butler*
Alt: Christian Bale, American Hustle (or Out of the Furnace); Steve Coogan, Philomena; Idris Elba, Mandela; Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station; Joaquin Phoenix, Her

*new or moved

What are your early picks for Best Actress and Best Actor?

Up next: Round 2 of full predictions!