OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Lead Performance Races

I’m feeling conflicted about the state of the lead performance races today. On the one hand, I disapprove of how easily each category has coasted to a well-assured frontrunner, cutting off the competitive buzz that should have us excited by this point in the season. Recall how close Emmanuelle Riva vs. J-Law felt? Meryl vs. Viola? And for a time I was so excited not to know the outcome of the Best Actor race before HBO made it all too clear. But on the other hand, I’m really sick, so I’d rather not strain my health further by agonizing over tough decisions.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall StreetBest Actor

  • Christian Bale, American Hustle
  • Bruce Dern, Nebraska
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
  • Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

As stated above, for a considerable time this race felt like it could fall any number of ways. Earlier in the season Robert Redford and Tom Hanks were considered shoo-ins for their turns in All Is Lost and Captain Phillips, respectively. It seems, though, they’ve both been lost at sea. I’d personally wager they’d have been more competitive contenders than two that made the cut in their absence. I’ve certainly heard a great deal of good will towards Bruce Dern’s turn in Nebraska, and he’s one of four Best Actor winners at Cannes to have gone on to a nomination in the past five years (2012’s winner, Mads Mikkelsen, got his own constellation prize in The Hunt‘s Foreign Language Film nod and very possible win). All the same, his work isn’t as vigorous as any of his contenders, and the Academy loves its winners fierce.

Christian Bale was probably the most surprising nomination in this category, with many bemoaning the Academy’s devotion to nominating as many members of David O. Russell’s ensembles as possible. Much of that seems to be left over from last year’s more bemoaned Jacki Weaver nomination, but it’s surprising to think that Christian Bale would be the weakest link of the main cast? That’s not to say his work isn’t totally devoted to pulling off the treacherous emotional path of his character, but he also has the least show-stopping work of American Hustle‘s four nominees. He’s the most balanced of the four characters, which is vital in anchoring the film in a steady conscience, be it one gradually racked with guilt.

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers ClubLeonardo DiCaprio was also something of a surprise on nomination morning, but he’s since become one of the fiercest leaders of the category. I saw this coming on Golden Globes night, and since then I was convinced that Leonardo DiCaprio could totally steal this prize. He’s not even 40 yet, but as far as the industry’s concerned, DiCaprio’s an overdue talent. Many think the Academy doesn’t like him, but I hardly think that’s true. He’s merely been nominated for his least ignorable work, just like anyone else, and it’s hard to ignore his loud and proud work in Wolf of Wall Street. He’s screeching hilariously off the rails for much of the film’s three hour runtime, and though I think he suffers from that overexposure like everything else in the film, many Academy voters don’t find anything wrong with too much of a good thing.

In fact I’d be very willing to go all the way on DiCaprio taking this if it weren’t for the way Matthew McConaughey has navigated the season. His work in Dallas Buyers Club is very well charted, both physically and emotionally, and was the perfect thing to sell his career renaissance to public audiences. That’s not what’s sealed his win here. That would be True Detective, an HBO show where he’s been pushing boundaries even further on a character entirely different from the one he’s nominated for. It’s the kind of ingenious strategy he never could have predicted, and as many have pointed out, it’s been the anti-Norbit of his Oscar campaign.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a SlaveIt’s weird, then, that Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t seem as much of a threat now as he did at the season’s start. The way he navigates the titular period of 12 Years a Slave isn’t as startlingly transformative as DiCaprio, McConaughey, or even Bale’s work, but it’s one of a quieter staying power. His emotional journey isn’t a simple “walk a mile in their shoes” case, as it occurs to us that he may not be such a hero as an antihero. While not without compassion for his fellow slaves, he still thinks himself different from them, worthy of escape or redemption. It’s only towards the end that he realizes that obvious compassion that so many men of that era seem incapable of. That’s when the total force of his work hits, and he’s one of the film’s most essential assets in translating across in such a powerful way.

Predicted Winner: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Preferred Winner: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Write-In Vote: Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Cate Blanchett, Blue JasmineBest Actress

  • Amy Adams, American Hustle
  • Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  • Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  • Judi Dench, Philomena
  • Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

There’s usually a bit more contention in this category, as evidenced by the close races of the past two years. If we’ve currently coasted to a mutually assured frontrunner, it’s not for lack of trying. In spite the dreams of pre-fall contenders Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy and Brie Larson, the September festivals ended up solidifying the field in a very decisive way. Sandra Bullock was the first to really hit it off, bolstered by the narrative that people didn’t know she had it in her. Certainly her work in Gravity is her most physically demanding work, though I must believe they haven’t seen her startling performances in Crash and The Blind Side, both less compromised than the films themselves, if they’re truly shocked she’s capable of such committed work.

Judi Dench, PhilomenaFellow Venice candidate Judi Dench, meanwhile, has had a very sympathetic narrative throughout the season. Her years are visibly catching up with her, and her role in Philomena is an affecting encapsulation of this, playing a woman quite literally catching up with the years she lost after her son was seized away from her, that time never to be recovered. It’s nice to see her here, even if it’s a markedly safe choice. An even less surprising choice, though, is Meryl Streep, whose presence here is at once entirely assured and a complete non-factor. She’s the loudest of the bunch in August: Osage County, but she’s not somebody we believe or sympathize with, which makes her presence here inappropriate to me. Is it enough for her to just Streep her way to a nod every year or so?

Amy Adams didn’t enter the race until December, but she was always a likely candidate for a boost in the American Hustle bustle. She’s been nominated four times before, so many felt like this very well could’ve been her year. The performance itself confidently lives up to what we’ve come to expect from Adams, all while surprising with the self-deceptive layers she puts up to emphasize her character’s disillusionment. She’s a major presence onscreen, but she’s perhaps a less central focus in the film’s endgame than she should be. Perhaps she needed one more roaring scene at the end to go the full mile, but the time she does have is beguiling nonetheless.

Amy Adams, American HustleThat said, this race was wrapped up before any of those contenders arrived by Cate Blanchett’s film-devouring performance in Blue Jasmine, a singular feat that’s probably most responsible for the film’s status as Woody Allen’s best since _________. What initially still comes off as a committed performance, deliciously sinking into and expanding the neuroses of Allen’s characters, becomes something more as one dwells further on it. It could easily be remembered a radically affected comic gas, but there’s a bitterness at the film’s end which wouldn’t have felt viable if Blanchett didn’t totally sell her rapid downward spiral. She’s winning on Sunday, and I’d be shocked off the revived Allen-Farrow controversy actually has any effect on the matter. This is a performance, among many deserving others, that Blanchett deserves to be remembered for.

Predicted and Preferred Winner: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Write-In Vote: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color

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