It’s a banner year for Oscar newcomers in the uber-competitive acting races. Outside of the veteran-heavy lead actress contest, 13 of the 20 nominees in lead and supporting are receiving either their first or second nominations. Considering how often the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tends to play favorites, it is good to see new blood. As voters enter the final balloting period before the March 2 ceremony, the guilds and other precursor awards have provided two fairly solid lead-category frontrunners—one of whom is a first-time nominee.
With wins at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Movie Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Dallas Buyers Club’s Matthew McConaughey has leapt to the front of the pack in the incredibly tight best actor race, which has see-sawed all season. But storm warning ahead, Matthew: The all-important British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards are still to come on Sunday, and you didn’t even snag a nomination there, leaving an opening for your chief rivals: The Wolf Of Wall Street’s Leonardo DiCaprio, a four-time acting nominee looking for his first win; 12 Years A Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor (who is British and a first-time Oscar nominee); and Nebraska’s Bruce Dern, enjoying his second nom. American Hustle’s Christian Bale, who won a supporting Oscar in 2011 for The Fighter, rounds out the category.
Within the best actress race, Cate Blanchett was the season’s first frontrunner and has turned into the only surefire lock so far for her turn in Blue Jasmine. After receiving raves in August for her role as a disintegrating divorcee, Blanchett has since gone on to enjoy a clean sweep of the precursor awards leading to the Oscar stage. In fact, her only loss among those bellwethers was with the National Board of Review. (NBR’s winner, Saving Mr. Banks’ Emma Thompson, failed to earn an Oscar nomination.) With five nominations and one statuette of her own, Blanchett is in good company in the lead actress race. She’s competing against such formidable veterans as Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench, as well as 18-time nominee and three-time winner Meryl Streep—imposing company in any year. Among the nominees, Amy Adams is the only non-Oscar winner in the bunch. Of course, she has been racking up nominations since her first in 2006 for Junebug. Her American Hustle nom is her fifth from the Academy, though this is her first for a lead acting role.
There’s always room for surprises, but here’s the current status of the lead acting categories.
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
It always helps to lose weight if you want to win an Oscar, and McConaughey famously lost 47 pounds for the role of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof. An Oscar plus is that he is playing a real person, which is a distinct advantage in recent years. With wins from the Globes (drama), CCMAs and SAG, McConaughey has the wind behind his back, but he has no other opportunities for acceptance speeches between now and the Oscars on March 2. Will his absence from BAFTA slow the momentum he clearly has? Or will his brilliant cameo in Wolf Of Wall Street help attract voters?
Things were a little dicey in the beginning for late bloomer DiCaprio as the film faced tough questions and controversy, but there’s no denying the power of his portrayal of Wall Street bad boy Jordan Belfort, a career best that earned him his fourth nomination. A Globe and a CCMA in the comedy categories gave him some much-needed awards cred, but the BAFTA could turn this into a competition. His absence at SAG doesn’t hurt because that group had to vote before the film was widely seen. Leo now has to overcome the surge McConaughey seems to be enjoying.
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
The 77-year-old veteran is the sentimental favorite of the category, and this is only his second nomination in a career that has spanned more than five decades. In terms of awards campaigning, the actor has practically gone door to door shaking hands since winning at Cannes in May. He’s the long-distance runner, and his performance is blissfully subtle and lacking in any mannerisms—or “Dernsies”—that viewers have seen before. He’s definitely a spoiler in the category, but he needs to gain some traction in the final mile if he’s going to get a statuette.
Many thought this first-time nominee could pull off a win, but so far he hasn’t taken home any of the major precursor awards, which seems to be diminishing his momentum in the race. However, BAFTA could be a very big opportunity for the native Brit to finally get a chance to give an acceptance speech before Oscar night. His odds are good for taking home a BAFTA trophy—if he can manage to get past the juggernaut of DiCaprio. (The Wolf Of Wall Street is a big box office hit in Britain, becoming one of the biggest earners the territory has ever seen.)
Christian Bale, American Hustle
He’s the only previous Oscar winner in the category, but Bale was no sure thing even to get into the final five. It apparently pays to gain 40 pounds, shave your head, create an awful comb-over and sport a Bronx accent. The movie is one of the frontrunners for best picture, so that helps give him some traction, even if he lost to DiCaprio at the Globes and CCMAs and was not nominated at SAG (except as part of the winning ensemble cast). He’s a long shot at BAFTA, but a surprise win there for this Brit could make him anything but the dark horse at the Oscars.
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
There is no question that Blanchett is the frontrunner, and she has been since even before the season launched. Her extraordinary performance might have echoes of Blanche DuBois (a role she played on Broadway), but remember, Vivien Leigh won her second Oscar for playing that role. And Blanchett could win her second Oscar for another unforgettable, slow-burning nervous breakdown, even if it’s not quite on the scale of Streetcar Named Desire. Woody Allen has a knack for writing and directing Oscar-winning roles for women, and Jasmine is no exception. The current scandalous headlines for Allen should have no effect on Blanchett’s chances.
Sci-fi and action do not usually add up to Oscar nominations in this category, but Bullock defied the odds. She created a living, breathing, fascinating emotional portrait of a woman in distress—even though she wore a spacesuit and acted mostly while suspended uncomfortably in a lightbox. Talk about working without a net! The biggest drawback is that the movie is considered more of a technical marvel than an acting vehicle. While Bullock proves that notion wrong—delivering a moving, engaging performance—it will be difficult for her to get by Blanchett.
Judi Dench, Philomena
Seven-time nominee Dench (she won in 1998 for supporting actress in Shakespeare in Love) has the advantage of being in a film beloved by Academy members. She also has benefitted from having the real-life person she portrays so movingly, Philomena Lee, touting her performance. Lee has been tirelessly working the awards circuit while Dench has been away shooting a film and largely unavailable for campaigning. Dench is always formidable when it comes to performances, but it will take a lot of Philomena love to let her catch up to Blanchett.
Adams is clearly an Academy favorite with four previous supporting nominations since 2005’s Junebug. This nom gains her entry into the leading actress club with her incredibly complex and tricky portrayal of Sydney/Edith in David O. Russell’s American Hustle. Adams plays a con artist who presents herself as a British aristocrat, meaning she has to deftly switch personas throughout. Being the only nominee in the category who doesn’t already have an Oscar gives her a rooting chance, but grabbing the gold statuette might take one more time at bat.
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
This is Streep’s 18th career nomination and 15th in this category. She already has three Oscars, but there is no indication she has to make room on the mantel for a fourth this time around. She delivers another bravura performance as vicious matriarch Violet Weston in this big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. Streep tears up the screen in the role, drawing laughs and tears, but the movie evoked a mixed response from critics. It would be a very big upset if the queen of the Oscars manages to win her fourth statuette for this one.
The supporting races feature a host of first-time nominees.
Among the suppporting players, Dallas Buyers Club’s Jared Leto is a strong favorite, having just about run the table in all the pre-Oscar derbies. His absence from BAFTA (the film was eligible but is just now being released in England) is not as concerning. His lead seems commanding at this point. And there’s been a bit of a horse race in the supporting actress category, where Jennifer Lawrence grabbed the New York Film Critics Award and Golden Globe early on only to see Lupita Nyong’o come on strong at the Los Angeles Film Critics, CCMAs and, most importantly, SAG Awards. Nyong’o now has frontrunner status thanks to a great performance, great acceptance speeches and great looks on the red carpet. Here’s where the race stands as voters look at their final ballots.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jared Leto as Rayon, the transgender AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club, is certainly the frontrunner. Leto has been away from the screen for six years in his quest (successfully) to transform himself into a rock star. Now he’s back, and it will be awfully hard for Oscar voters to deny the power of this performance. Bradley Cooper in American Hustle and Jonah Hill in The Wolf Of Wall Street turn in tremendous and very funny portrayals of guys whose grand plans blow up in their faces. Both are on their second nomination and will have other chances to be sure, but overcoming Leto’s lead will be tough this time around. Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave gets his first nomination with a three-dimensional portrait of a slave owner that could have been one-note in lesser hands. But his absence during the season probably hurt any early momentum he had. And the nomination is the victory for first-time actor Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. The fact that he’s going to the Oscars and co-star Tom Hanks sadly isn’t tells the whole story. Abdi stole the show.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
In a category that often produces surprises, anything could happen, but 12 Years A Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, making her heart-wrenching film debut, is winning fans wherever she goes this season. She’s definitely taken the “it girl” mantle away from fellow nominee Jennifer Lawrence, who is looking for a rare back-to-back Oscar win with American Hustle. This one has been going back and forth, but Nyong’o appears to have a slight advantage. She’s proven to be a very smart—and stunning—contender, even for a first-timer. On the other end of that scale is another Oscar first-timer, June Squibb, the 84-year-old costar of Nebraska who steals every scene she’s in. Look for her to be a dark horse possibility if Nyong’o and Lawrence split the vote. If Blanchett is the surest of shots for lead actress, her equally fine costar in Blue Jasmine, Sally Hawkins, is probably the longest of shots for supporting actress, but it is nice to see great work rewarded. Finally, August: Osage County’s Julia Roberts does her best work in years as the frustrated daughter of Streep. It will be an uphill climb, but of all the nominees here, she probably has the biggest and meatiest role. Her star status means attention will be paid, but with her first nomination since her 2000 best actress win for Erin Brockovich, it’s nice to have her back in the game, no matter how it turns out.