I usually only do Oscar posts after-the-fact–ranking the winners–but this year I thought it would be fun to look more closely at the nominees for the biggest categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor) in advance of the ceremony.
I already looked at the Best Actress contenders, so this time let’s look at the field for the Best Actor prize.
Christian Bale, Vice
Any other year, this performance would easily be the frontrunner. Unfortunately for Christian Bale, 2018 was an exceptionally weird year for Oscar campaigns. Movies and performances that seemed to be a lock at one point suddenly faded into the background–which is a point that will repeat in many categories (and will come up again here).
There was a lot of secrecy around Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney movie, which allowed movies like A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Green Book to build momentum early. Vice not only released late, but it didn’t even have a trailer for much of awards season. That strategy has seemed to hurt more than help in recent years (longer campaigns seem to do well these days), but it almost worked for Vice. It interrupted the conversation and got a lot of attention.
I might be iffy on the movie but Bale is extremely good in it, especially because he plays a tricky character in history. Dick Cheney is the ultimate poker player–keeping his cards close to his chest and not revealing much of anything. He’s certainly at least as good as Gary Oldman, who won in this category last year for nailing a historical figure–but Winston Churchill had an outsized personality and didn’t exactly hide his emotions. Ultimately, I think Amy Adams did a better job showing the internal life of her character than Bale did.
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
I’m not exactly a fan of Bradley Cooper, so color me shocked that I think he’s spectacular in A Star is Born. He seems to have a perfect understanding of who his character, an alcoholic and burnt-out singer named Jackson Maine, is. Maybe that’s because Cooper has been sober since he was 29, or maybe he’s just that good. Whatever the reason, it feels like the perfect pairing of actor and role. In the early days of Oscar season, both Cooper and A Star is Born seemed unbeatable, but in this crazy year both have faded from the competition–perhaps helped by the fact that Cooper decided not to campaign until it may have already been too late.
Cooper’s performance is also remarkably vanity-free. He looks awful in this movie: leathery skin, tired eyes. But it serves his character well.
A Star is Born is a truly heartbreaking movie. Without Cooper (both in front of and behind the camera), it would lose so much of its impact. He sells the premise and he provides all the emotional resonance that the movie hinges on. No other actor in this category has done more to make their film work.
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
I haven’t seen At Eternity’s Gate, so I need to go strictly off of the film’s trailers and clips that have been posted on YouTube. And while Dafoe is, technically speaking, far too old to play Van Gogh (Van Gogh was 37 at the time of his suicide and Dafoe is currently 63), he seems to be in his element playing the uniquely talented but underappreciated, mentally imbalanced painter.
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Okay, so Malek is genuinely good as Freddie Mercury in what is otherwise a remarkably execrable film. You could argue that he’s the film’s main attraction, which would make me a liar for saying that no other actor in this category did as much as Bradley Cooper to carry their movie. But I would contend that the way Bohemian Rhapsody is structured puts Mercury on such a pedestal that Malek isn’t doing as much of the heavy lifting as it might initially seem. And since the movie isn’t actually all that interested in exploring Mercury’s psyche, Malek never has to go very deep. He basically just has to cosplay his way through a Behind the Music-esque biopic that plays so fast and loose with the facts of Mercury’s life that it actually becomes homophobic. And no, he doesn’t get points for helping get director Bryan Singer fired from the movie.
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Green Book is another movie I have not seen yet. From trailers and clips, Mortensen looks like a lovable enough lug, playing the slovenly side of an odd couple pairing in which an uneducated white driver chauffeurs a highly intelligent black musician on a concert tour through the deep south during the Civil Rights movement. It’s basically Driving Miss Daisy with two men. Maybe I’ll feel differently after seeing the movie, but watching clips it just doesn’t look like there’s much of anything to celebrate in this performance.
Should Win/Will Win
I never would have guessed that I would say this, but I absolutely believe Bradley Cooper should win–not just because he both starred in and directed his movie, because I think there were some flaws with the technical side of his direction. The performance is just that good.
But because we live in the real world and the real world is an awful place (especially these days), Rami Malek is going to walk away with this thing. I cannot roll my eyes hard enough.
My Personal Nominations
The Best Actor category has been fairly weak in recent years–at least compared to Best Actress. That means there isn’t a whole lot to play with outside of Bale, Cooper, and Malek–who definitely think deserve to be here, I think. I would swap Mortensen for John David Washington, who was charming as hell in BlacKkKlansman, perfectly selling Spike Lee’s tone and providing the movie with some emotional heft to boot. That leaves a crapshoot between Dafoe and Ethan Hawke, who racked up a fair amount of critic’s prizes for First Reformed. I haven’t seen either movie, but from clips I think I’m more sold on Dafoe. But I reserve the right to change my mind on that later.