Saturday, February 20, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio is the frontrunner for Best Actor for his performance in The Revenant.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Actor

The nominees are:

Bryan Cranston for Trumbo
Matt Damon for The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant
Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl

You cannot stop a moving train, especially when this particular train has been picking up steam for more than two years now. The world wants to see DiCaprio win an Oscar. The Internet certainly does, and for the first time, it seems like the Academy is coming around to that view as well. For the most part, this started two years ago when DiCaprio’s The Wolf of Wall Street performance lost out to Matthew McConaughey’s more traditional work in Dallas Buyers Club.

There are other exceptional performances this year – Fassbender and Cranston are particularly memorable – but there is no other narrative as strong as the one building up around DiCaprio. Damon and Redmayne have already won Oscars. Cranston is beloved, but he is a first-time nominee. Fassbender, like DiCaprio a generation-defining talent, will have other chances. No, the story is DiCaprio and his long-overdue recognition as one of the best in the business.

Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant – In reality, the obsession with DiCaprio winning an Oscar started long before The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio has been one of the biggest stars in the world for nearly 20 years, but even before Titanic rocketed him to superstardom, he was an Oscar nominee for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Many felt he was snubbed for Titanic, and in some quarters, a narrative built up that Academy members might consider DiCaprio too much of a pretty boy whose success was derived from looks and youth more than talent.

However, DiCaprio made smart choice after smart choice, rarely faltering in the projects he championed and never turning in a bad performance. His nominated work on The Aviator and Blood Diamond, as well as The Departed and Shutter Island, showed an actor willing to dig into the psyches of his characters and deliver raw, visceral experiences onscreen. We associate “getting ugly” with Best Actress winners – such as Charlize Theron in Monster or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball – but the phenomenon is just as real for Best Actor. Consider McConaughey, Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, and Adrian Brody in The Pianist.

Well, DiCaprio not only “gets ugly” in The Revenant, but he goes feral, eating raw bison liver and subjecting himself to the many hardships of the frontier all in order to bring the story of Hugh Glass to life. However, this is more than a physical stunt. It is a searing, emotional portrait of a man betrayed, adrift, and alone. DiCaprio has never been better, and no other leading actor this year was this good. He will win, and in at least one respect, all will seem right.

Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs – Interestingly, the last time Fassbender was nominated, he lost Best Supporting Actor for his performance in 12 Years a Slave to McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club co-star Jared Leto. I would have gone the other way, but at least the Academy’s choice was defensible. What is not defensible is the fact that Fassbender is on just his second nomination after incomparable work in films such as Hunger, Shame, and Frank. Oh well, he is in the club now, and he will keep coming back because there is no other actor like him working today.

Director Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is a frustrating movie with a number of fine elements teetering on the edge but never tipping over into greatness because the whole exercise feels just a little too self-conscious. Fassbender, however, is scintillating as the title character, a business genius whose personal life is in shambles. He creates chaos everywhere he goes, but because he sits in the eye of the storm, everything seems perfectly clear to him. Fassbender brings out the frustration and rage of someone who believes he is better than everyone else and cannot tolerate playing down to their level.

Bryan Cranston for Trumbo – Speaking of frustration and rage, we also have Cranston’s blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. A brilliant wordsmith, Trumbo was persecuted for his political beliefs, and rather than back down, he fought back with his typewriter. He refused to let the system shut him up and stood up to become a hero for freedom of expression. The great thing about Cranston’s performance is that he does not play Trumbo as a hero. Instead, he shows us a man annoyed by the stupidity and bigotry he must endure. He battles because it is in his nature to fight. He just happens to be fighting for a righteous cause.

Cranston is a beloved and respected figure in the industry. Though he is mostly known for his television work on Breaking Bad, for which he won four Emmys and a Golden Globe, Cranston has proven to be a popular character actor in films such as Drive, Argo, and Little Miss Sunshine. He is even the best part of the otherwise disposable Godzilla remake from 2014. In his first true leading film role, he knocks it out of the park. He will continue to be a force in this industry for as long as he wants, but this will not be the year he wins an Oscar.

Matt Damon for The Martian – Damon was the nominee about whom no one was really certain. There were a few other options hanging around the edges of the season such as Johnny Depp in Black Mass and Will Smith in Concussion, but ultimately, Damon prevailed. Looking back, it should not be that shocking – and if I can toot my own horn, this is the exact lineup I predicted in this category back at the beginning of December.

Damon carries The Martian on his shoulders entirely. The scenes back on Earth with the NASA team and everyone else are important to the plot of course, but the movie does not work without a tremendous actor playing Mark Watney, the man stranded on Mars. Damon is the perfect combination of brainy, funny, and sympathetic to pull off this role. Even in dire circumstances, he remains fun to watch because he gives the character a spark of mischievousness to counteract the seriousness of the situation. Everything we feel when watching The Martian is because Damon is able to bring those feelings out in us.

Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl – If Redmayne had not won this award just last year for The Theory of Everything, this awards race might have been a little closer. Indeed, some were positing that Redmayne could become the first back-to-back Best Actor winner since Tom Hanks in 1993-94 and just the third ever. Alas, The Danish Girl did not catch fire, either at the box office or with the industry, meaning Redmayne’s work does not have the necessary heat to make history at the Oscars.

The work is solid, and it is mesmerizing to watch Redmayne make the transition from portraying a confused man to a man becoming a woman and finally to the woman that man always was. Redmayne finds a number of subtle notes to play in the transformation, and with his guidance, the audience is never at a loss to understand the character. By the end, Redmayne simply becomes Lili, and it is as if that is how it was always meant to be.

The final analysis

There is not much else to say. Cranston and Fassbender each picked up some early critics’ awards, but that was before the locomotive that is DiCaprio in The Revenant pulled out of the station. Since then, DiCaprio has taken everything in sight – the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild Award, and the BAFTA, among others. When he wins an Academy Award next Sunday, it will be one of my favorite moments in Oscar history, watching my favorite actor accept an award he richly deserves.

Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant
Should have been here: Tom Courtenay for 45 Years

Tomorrow: Best Documentary

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