This is a year with such quality acting that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should seriously consider following the example set with the best picture category a few years back and expand to 10 potential nominees. It’s an embarrassment of riches with some history-making possibilities.
Consider the battle of the 77-year-olds: Robert Redford in All Is Lost and Bruce Dern in Nebraska. Neither has won an acting Oscar and both have only been nominated once before for their onscreen work. If either manages to take the gold, they would be the oldest ever to win in the best actor category. Or consider that on the 50th anniversary of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking best actor victory in 1963 for Lilies Of The Field, there’s such a diverse list of candidates this year, including African-Americans Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) and the UK-born Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) and Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom). You could even throw in another fine performance from April’s 42, in which Chadwick Boseman memorably starred as Jackie Robinson. We could also see two-time winner Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks) and never-been-nominated Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud) grabbing nominations in both lead and supporting.
On the best actress front, another record could be set with a potential nominee lineup filled with previous Oscar winners: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) and Kate Winslet (Labor Day) are the names on most voters’ lips. It would be a very rare Oscar royal flush if five of these six make the final cut, recalling the supporting actor race last year in which all five nominees were previous winners (Christoph Waltz prevailed in the end for Django Unchained). There’s also a very diverse cast of supporting actresses this year, including Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave), Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Brit Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom) and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station).
In other words, a year that many think is already an extraordinarily rich one for movies also is boasting an incredibly dense and exciting field among the actors. Here’s the play-by-play on where the early odds are landing. But remember: It’s a long season, and this is just a first pass. There are still films such as American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street that are just now starting to be widely seen and both have an impressive list of actors who are no stranger to Oscar campaigns.
This category has to start with Redford. As the only actor onscreen for nearly two hours in All Is Lost, his physically and mentally grueling performance is all the more formidable because it was all done on water. Although Redford has won a directing Oscar for 1980’s Ordinary People and an honorary award for creating the Sundance Institute, he has only been nominated once for acting, and that was 40 years ago for The Sting, not even one of his most memorable portrayals. Joining him in the category is likely to be McConaughey vying for his first nomination after a string of acclaimed roles over the past two years. Losing 47 pounds to play an AIDS activist is obvious Oscar fodder, and McConaughey pulls it off brilliantly in Dallas Buyers Club. Ejiofor will almost certainly grab a slot here for his strong and dignified work in the critics’ darling 12 Years A Slave. And how do you deny Dern his moment of glory as lead actor in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska? Dern has been on the campaign trail since early summer, tirelessly appearing at numerous small screenings on the circuit that it will almost certainly pay off with a nomination. The fifth slot probably has Hanks’ name on it for Captain Phillips, although voters could decide to reward him instead in supporting for playing Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. I have a hunch he can pull off the rare twofer.
If any of the above falters, or fortunes change, the list could include Whitaker for The Butler, Elba as the title character in Mandela, Jordan in Fruitvale Station or Oscar Isaac—coming up on the outside—in the hapless title role in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. The oft-told tale of his ability to pull off singing and acting with equal aplomb is a huge plus with the actors branch that votes in these categories. Christian Bale in American Hustle as well as Out Of The Furnace and Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street are late to the race in major December releases but their track records precede them, so either could be a spoiler here. Add to the mix Joaquin Phoenix in love with his operating system in Her, a powerful and emotional Hugh Jackman in Prisoners, Mark Wahlberg in the true-life war story Lone Survivor, Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight and Ben Stiller in the Christmas Day release The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, and you’ve got quite a competitive pool.
This list is almost certain to be dominated by those who already know what it’s like to give an Oscar acceptance speech, some more than once and one more than twice in the case of Streep, vying for her 18th nomination and fourth win as an overbearing matriarch in August: Osage County. She expertly and gloriously chews the scenery like no other in this one, and voters can’t get enough of her. Blanchett had a summer head start on the rest of the crowd in Woody Allen’s July release, Blue Jasmine, and quite frankly, many voters to whom I’ve spoken already have engraved her name on a second Oscar without even seeing the rest of the field. But not to be overlooked are the likes of Dench, heartbreaking and perfect in the true-life story Philomena; Thompson as the difficult author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, in Saving Mr. Banks; Bullock for her extraordinarily difficult and tricky work in space in Gravity; and Winslet, a frequent visitor to the category in the romantic and dramatic Labor Day.
However, if voters want to inject some freshness into the category, and perhaps some youth—such as with last year’s best actress winner Jennifer Lawrence—they could do a lot worse than Brie Larson, who is simply sensational in the small indie Short Term 12 or the impossible to pronounce but equally impossible to forget Adele Exarchopoulos for her daring and demanding work in the French-language Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is The Warmest Color. Other potential nominees include Berenice Bejo, returning two years after The Artist gave her a first supporting nomination and now graduating to lead in The Past, or four-time supporting nominee Amy Adams, going for her first lead nom in the yet-unseen American Hustle. Also in the mix is Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who proved she has the stuff for the big screen in the romantic comedy, Enough Said, Julie Delpy in Before Midnight and Felicity Jones as The Invisible Woman (a period piece, not a bad sci-fi movie as the title might suggest).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
In addition to Hanks, frontrunners here include Dallas Buyers Club’s Jared Leto as the transgendered AIDS fighter Rayon, and Michael Fassbender as the evil but complex slave owner in 12 Years A Slave. The long list continues with Steve Coogan in Philomena, Barkhad Abdi as the head Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips, David Oyelowo in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis, Will Forte in Nebraska, Geoffrey Rush in The Book Thief, George Clooney in Gravity, Jonah Hill in The Wolf Of Wall Street, Bobby Cannavale in Blue Jasmine, Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners, McConaughey in Mud, Chris Cooper as the male standout of August: Osage County, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in the March release The Place Beyond The Pines, Bradley Cooper again in American Hustle, Jeremy Renner from the same film, Casey Affleck in Out Of The Furnace, Josh Brolin in Labor Day and veteran Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in 42. Ford has been nominated only once in his career for Witness so there could be the sentimental factor at play such as with Redford and Dern. Sentiment also could come into play in a posthumous nod for James Gandolfini in his unexpected role in Enough Said, the finished version of which he never got to see.
Lastly, two who stand out and should not be left out in the cold are Daniel Bruhl, brilliant as race car Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s criminally overlooked Rush, and from summer, the always great Sam Rockwell, who indeed rocked as the waterpark manager in the terrific The Way, Way Back.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
This packed category includes 12 Years A Slave sensation Nyong’o, The Butler’s force of nature Winfrey, past winner Spencer, fine again in Fruitvale Station, and Harris, very powerful as Winnie Mandela in Mandela. But attention must be paid to the wonderful 84 year old character actress June Squibb, who puts up with her sometimes senile husband, Woody—portrayed by Dern—in Nebraska. She’s just sensational. There’s also fine work from Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine and the always great Melissa Leo, who is almost unrecognizable in Prisoners. From the large August: Osage County ensemble, Julia Roberts is going for supporting (but could fit into lead, too) as Streep’s long-suffering daughter and veteran Margo Martindale, a ray of light in the same film. Jennifer Garner does the best work of her big-screen career and subtly balances Dallas Buyers Club, as does Emily Watson in The Book Thief. Lea Seydoux is the other half of a torrid lesbian affair with Exarchopoulos in Blue Is The Warmest Color, and she is just as effective as her costar. Last year’s best actress Jennifer Lawrence is back in a change of pace—and hairstyle—in American Hustle and wowing early viewers of the film. And could Oscar voters really decide to make history this year and nominate Scarlett Johansson for playing Joaquin Phoenix’s operating system in Her? She makes us believe he could fall head over heels for her and does it remarkably well using only her voice. It would be one of many firsts this Oscar season (although the HFPA for some reason ruled her ineligible for a Golden Globe for the role). For that matter she also makes us believe porn addict Don Jon could fall for her in that Joseph Gordon Levitt film too.