OSCAR FORECAST: Best Actor 2013

Current Predictions (09/05/12):
John Hawkes, THE SESSIONS
Denzel Washington, FLIGHT
Daniel Day-Lewis, LINCOLN
Joaquin Phoenix, THE MASTER
Richard Gere, ARBITRAGE

Word out of the Venice Film Festival is that Hoffman and Phoenix give dual lead performances of equally stunning proportions in The Master. Could this spell two nominations for the film? In some ways, I can see it going this way, as the film does feel like a bouncing ball of two men trying to wriggle control from one another. Viewers may not be able to separate the two and the movie might stand as a rare dual-protagonist piece. However, unlike the Best Actress category, the Academy rarely gives one film two leading actor nominations. This could be born out numbers. There simply are more juicy lead roles for men and, therefore, the competition is stiffer. Or it could be that female-driven films tend to be littered with startling performances, of which none can standout above the rest. Of course, the cynic in me believes that we live in such a male-driven society that we like to save our pedestals for men, without diluting the success of a performance by giving another lead nomination to the same film. Either way, we have one of those rare years where two men in the same movie might be competing for Best Actor. If only one gets in, it will almost certainly be Phoenix. He’s gotten Oscar love in the past and he has been categorized more as a lead performer than Hoffman’s “character-actor” has. Capote was a bit of an apparition. I’m not sure Hoffman has fully shed the preconceived notion of his looks in the minds of many voters. Additionally, he plays the role of passive lead in The Master, therefore, Phoenix might suck all the air out of the room.

John Hawkes, quickly becoming one of the most interesting actors working today, looks like a shoe-in for a nod. It’s early to call anyone a shoe-in, but if anyone looks locked, on the basis of past results and the type of role, this is it. As such, Hawkes also feels a bit like an “also-ran.” I keep thinking of Sean Penn in I Am Sam. It seems a superficial comparison, but in reality these kinds of roles pop up often with the Oscars. Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn had a similar feel. Word came early and heavy. She did impress but only enough to fulfill the expected nomination. Sometimes these standout performances, in otherwise flawed films, actually take home the award. Charlize Theron in Monster, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.  It seemed voters went for those roles out necessity rather than specific interest. They also bowed in extremely week years. This being a strong year for name actors, I can’t really see Hawkes winning. I doubt The Sessions will contain the kind of sentimentality that I Am Sam did, but it also won’t come with the star power. There’s a distinct possibility of this film sinking into obscurity over the next few months, but, for now, I think it’s safe.

No actor has garnered more sight unseen buzz than Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of the 16th president in Lincoln. The few stills we’ve gotten of his physical transformation look groundbreaking and director Setevn Spielberg almost has carte blanche with the Academy. He needs to swing and miss very badly for his work to be completely dismissed by the Oscars. The presence of a two-time Oscar winner in maybe the most Oscar-baiting material imaginable, makes this role the leader in the clubhouse. As for a win, Day-Lewis’ past accomplishments, especially a fairly recent one, will work against him. Best Actor and Actress Oscar winners are a lot like Super Bowl champs. Often the same person will come back to compete the next year but rarely do they win the prize in succession. If Day-Lewis knocks it out of the park, then he has a chance. If not, I’m going to guess he will be happy to be on the ballot.

Rounding out the final two, I’m going with Denzel Washington in Flight and Richard Gere in Arbitrage. Both films have winning, eye-opening trailers with material that looks to lend itself to Oscar worthy performances. The Academy has shown love to Washington and Gere in the past. They also love, as I mentioned earlier, giving men the pedestal for films that are vehicles. Both of these movies are come back star-turns of sorts. Unless each picture bombs, and even then I’m not counting either out, these look like good bets at this moment. The two major dark horses this year are Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly and Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson. Both look like pieces molded to twist but not quite turn their respective genres completely on their heads. Without Earth-shattering originality, I’m not sure either one of these actors can rise above the reservations certain viewers will bring to their films.

Also, with the excitement over Argo after its Telluride screening, I would not be surprised to see Ben Affleck show up in the top five. Having not seen the film, it’s hard to say whether the excitement was a bit reactionary or if it will sustain through the next few months. I’m also starting to wonder about Michael Haneke’s Amour. It seems to have the legs and the subject matter to be a crossover success. It’s rare that foreign films that are successful with the Academy are successful in the Lead Actor category specifically, unless the lead is playing an over-the-top lovable foreigner, a la Jean Dejurdin in The Artist or Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful. Jean-Louis Trintignant looks to give a very subtle, grave performance as an expectant widower. Look for this film to have more of a play in the Lead Actress category than this one, though I wouldn’t count it out just yet. Additionally, I think it’s safe to say Clint Eastwood has “empty-chaired” his way out of the race. I’m not sure how serious a contender The Trouble with a Curve was going to be either way, but with lots of fire on his back, I’d think the Academy hard-pressed to show him support. This is a popularity contest after all.

Good Bets:
John Hawkes, THE SESSIONS
Daniel Day-Lewis, LINCOLN
Joaquin Phoenix, THE MASTER

Shaky:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, THE MASTER
Denzel Washington, FLIGHT
Richard Gere, ARBITRAGE
Bill Murray, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
Brad Pitt, KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Ben Affleck, ARGO

Other Contenders:
Jean-Louis Trintignant, AMOUR
Bradley Cooper, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
Matt Damon, PROMISED LAND
Hugh Jackman, LES MISERABLES

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