OSCAR COUNTDOWN 2015: Lead Actor and Actress

We’re so queasily close to the end now that it’s maybe better just to jump headfirst into the lead performance races, one of which feels pleasingly locked in place, while the other will be a pretty tense race to the finish.

Bradley Cooper, American SniperBest Lead Actor

Every year people talk about how tense this race is, yet it often finds its way to being steamrolled by a frontrunner. There was such long-standing tension between Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio and eventual winner Matthew McConaughey until the SAG and Globes placed McConaughey in pole position. This year isn’t like that. This year we are in a position where no other guild or group has voted on a nominee ballot quite like this, so it’s tough to tell who will win.

A part of me wants Michael Keaton to win Best Actor this year. Not for his performance, just to clarify. I think Keaton’s casting speaks to a problematic cultural reflexivity in many of Birdman‘s casting choices, and while he does practically roast himself physically and psychologically on the screen, I think he fulfills less of the main character than the camera does. So much of the narrative pushing him towards the win is that he’s overdue, yet not everyone’s aware of precisely what he’s overdue for. I think that confusion will hurt it, but the tertiary part of me that wants it to win is merely so we can have a year where no biopic performance wins.

The only biopic performance with positively no chance of winning is the one that had to claw its way in here. There are plenty of obvious reasons to denigrate Steve Carell’s work in Foxcatcher as being heightened by the prosthetic makeup and not being expressive beyond the a whispy monotone. I think that’s too quickly dismissing the physical transformation as encapsulating the performance, which I think is more sensitively attuned to many different characters moments. Whether happy or sad, it’s constantly registered as desperate and hopelessly confused, and there’s something palpably tragic about that.

Steve Carell, FoxcatcherI think, by comparison, the affectations of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Imitation Game are more excessive and less motivated by subtle character moments. He was pegged early on in the season as finally giving the performance to break the star sphere with, but what causes me to hesitate with it is how similar it is to all his other performances. Nearly every character he plays is some psychologically acute brain, and I see very little variation in between them. I think Alan Turing deserved a performance that felt emotionally specific and unique, and this felt too much like Cumberbatch being Cumberbatch, not inhabiting a character. I wouldn’t be surprised if Academy members had similar reservations.

Of the two ostensibly interchangeable British biopics, The Theory of Everything has both a likelier chance of winning and more impressive performance at the center of it. You may argue that Stephen Hawking isn’t the most essential part of Theory of Everything, though it’s a performance that Eddie Redmayne admittedly does an affecting job of inhabiting. If Redmayne doesn’t take it Sunday, though, don’t say it’s because he got Norbited by his work in Jupiter Ascending, which I’m convinced will only grow in its camp status as a diamond of Redmayne’s career.

So if not Redmayne, who do I have my cards on? The one who hasn’t had a narrative to speak of yet. Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper performance hit very late in the game, subsequently missing Golden Globe and SAG nominations in the process. It’s impossible to tell if that’s the reason he has no momentum yet, but I’m increasingly believing it’s Cooper’s time to win. It’s significant enough that American Sniper wouldn’t exist without his support, but it wouldn’t be half as financially successful or morally intriguing if not for his physically galvanizing, psychologically resolute performance as a version of Chris Kyle. I don’t think any performance is as much the story of its film as this, and I believe we’ll see that mirrored on Sunday.

Will Win: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Should Win: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Lead ActorDream Oscar Ballot

  • Jesse Eisenberg, Night Moves
  • Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man
  • Jack O’Connell, Starred Up
  • Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street

Runners-Up: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper; Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins; David Oyelowo, Selma; Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant; Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Only one person on my ballot was truly an emerging talent in my eyes, so perhaps that makes me as bad as the Academy at favoring old established men. I understand Jack O’Connell’s been building for a while, but surged to the fore this year for the sheer physical velocity and slow-crushing emotional discord of Starred Up. Eisenberg and Tatum may have fashioned their distinct forms before, but the former is so electrifyingly unnerved in Night Moves, the latter such a hysterically heightened satire of his own bromantic image in 22 Jump Street, that it feels like both are at the tail-end of a remarkable breakthrough. The only two older gents of my ballot may merit mention simply for fear of never being mentioned again. Ralph Fiennes managed to plumb empathic depths, good-natured courtesy, and just foul-mouthed veracity in Grand Budapest Hotel, in ways I barely thought possible before.

I’ve often been aware of the intense heights Hoffman could achieve, and I admit the emotional wallop of his far premature death is a factor in my profound affinity for his work in A Most Wanted Man. That doesn’t make it any less profoundly moving or finely calibrated in its manipulation of, yet stunted desire for, the emotional ties of others. Hoffman’s often played on unexpected love stories – see The Master, Mary and Max, Mission: Impossible III, etc. – but here that sense of love made impossible by his own frustrated political position is a crushing note underscoring an intense pot-boiler.

Julianne Moore, Still AliceBest Lead Actress

It’s incredibly easy to love the women nominated for Best Actress more than the performances they’re nominated for. The picture of this year’s nominees at the Oscar luncheon is getting framed on my wall if it’s the last thing I do. There’s little reason not to be happy for every actress here, and because only one of their films is up for Best Picture, we know most of them are the most beloved thing about their film. Put that way, you can maybe feel a little bad for Felicity Jones, whose expressive work in The Theory of Everything adds a breathe of lightness to a period piece that otherwise risks being stultified by its biopic structure. She’s far from the win, and the shortest performance of this lot, but as an overdue nomination for The Invisible Woman.

Slightly further up the ranks is Rosamund Pike for playing the sociopathic wife everyone has opinions on of Gone Girl. This is undeniably a film where the substantial feminist argument around how her character is represented is itself part of the film’s politics of representation. For her part, Pike’s bewitched stare functionally inhabits a character whose self-liberating actions become the most exciting things about the film, though you could counter that the same character could’ve afforded a more ambitious performance from someone else.

Maybe somebody like Reese Witherspoon, who produced Gone Girl and is nominated here for Wild. The Reesurgence (copyright Katie Rich) laid its foundation this year, and it could hardly ask for a more refreshing mission statement than Wild, a physical and emotional journey through the trials of human isolation and reticent adulthood. Witherspoon started the season as a success story, and her work here is nervily distanced, locked in combat with her defense mechanisms.

Reese Witherspoon, WildThat narrative’s since been trumped by the more enveloping narrative of Julianne Moore finally getting her due. After all, Reese already won here in 2005. Moore’s been up time and again over the years, often for stellar work, though more often work that’s less stellar than her best. That the Academy overlooked her career best work in Safe is heartbreaking enough, but even more heartbreaking, for Academy members at least, is her work in Still Alice. Playing a woman slowly, but swiftly succumbing to early onset Alzheimers, Moore has the intellect to build a nervous, anxious, and quite daringly prejudiced character out of this story. Some have dismissed the film at large as being narratively thin, but even those individuals find themselves buckling to the performance, but more immanently, her Oscar narrative.

If Marion Cotillard had any significant narrative this season, it’s that she’s been struggling with tepid campaigns from the studios that were supposed to be supporting them. I wholeheartedly believe The Immigrant could have been a stalwart player if Harvey Weinstein put his weight behind it instead of The Imitation Game. The way Harvey’s ignored it has been downright childish, but thankfully Cotillard has more support from Sundance Selects, which got her a narrow actress nod for her profoundly affecting, crushingly reluctant performance in Two Days, One Night. The narrative she should have carrying her is how she’s so consistently given extraordinary performances ever since winning in 2008 for La vie en rose. One feels with certainty that she’ll be back here in due time.

Will Win: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Should Win: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Lead ActressDream Oscar Ballot

  • Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
  • Essie Davis, The Babadook
  • Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights
  • Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

Runners-Up: Patricia Aquette, Boyhood; Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nymphomaniac; Luminita Gheorghiu, Child’s Pose; Keira Knightley, Begin Again; Kristen Wiig, The Skeleton Twins

Narrowing down your Best Actress ballot to 5 is comparable to deciding which of your sextuplets to smother with a pillow. It’s brutal and inhumane, but necessary for one’s sanity/the Academy’s nomination limit. It’s especially hard when actresses don’t restrict themselves to giving just one extraordinary performance a year. How insensitive of them? Doesn’t Marion Cotillard understand being so affecting in Two Days, One Night means we can’t help feeling inexplicably guilty choosing between it and her tersely accented, tragically self-punishing, yet silently graceful work in The Immigrant? And the same to you, Scarlett Johansson, so transfixingly muted, yet searching in Lucy that we can’t help thinking about it coinciding with her equally alien, if inverted work in Under the Skin, where she inflects a seemingly empty vessel with such confusion, fear and vastly untapped desire.

The remainder of my field is proliferated by breakout talent, but each seized the screen with a kind of fresh excitement that establishes their names with intense potency. Jenny Slate is such a gangly, warm presence in Obvious Child, blending her comic and emotional faculties in quite remarkable ways. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, meanwhile, is transfixingly divided in Beyond the Lights, playing up her duplicitous celebrity to mask the broken, betrayed fragility underneath sexualized pop star Noni. If there’s any person I remain shocked not to see here, though, it’s Essie Davis. Against my better instincts, of course, but The Babadook became such an overnight favorite in so many circles that I’m surprised that didn’t transfer into a campaign for Davis’ furious, frayed and deliciously bats performance as a mother whose grief and anxiety create a literal nightmare for herself and her son.

What are your dream nominees, and who do you hope/think will win?

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  • Not a fan of Sniper or Cooper. I think its between Keaton and Redmayne, the latter will win. Although Keaton SHOULD win. I hate the fact that Oyelowo and Gyllenhaal weren’t nominated.

    Julianne Moore will and should win for her brilliant performance, I favor her followed by Cotillard. So many great performances that weren’t nominated.

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