Oscar Watch: Best Actor Race Most Crowded Ever; Why Academy Should Double Number Of Nominees

We are only just on the cusp of October and you can already put the “NO VACANCY” sign out on the Best Actor Oscar race. Sorry, no room. Don’t even think about jumping in. Every year pete_hammond_300x100of late, it seems the Actor race gets richer while the Actress contest actively searches for candidates. Remember how “sure things” Tom Hanks and Robert Redford didn’t even make the cut last year? Perhaps that is just a reflection of what juicy roles the industry is offering on either side of the gender divide.

Nevertheless, for 2014 it’s worse than ever and we have a serious glut of qualified Bestacademy-awards-actor Actor possibilities — just under 30 by my count, and even more seem to be trying to gain entry. This is the year the Board Of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really ought to amend the rules, just as they did for Best Picture a few years ago, and make it possible to nominate up to 10 actors, at least in the leading categories. This traffic jam is just too much. If you’re thinking about still trying to get into this thing FUGGEDABOUTIT, to quote a famous line from the Al Pacino film Donnie Brasco.   

the humblingIronically, Pacino himself is the latest to throw his hat into the overcrowded ring this week when, as my colleague Mike Fleming Jr. reported, Millennium said it will be opening his latest film — The Humblingfrom director Barry Levinson — in time to qualify for the 2014 Oscar race.

I caught the movie, which debuted to big ovations in Venice, at TIFF, and there’s no question Pacino is back in vintage form, playing an actor questioning everything about his craft and his life. But I’m not sure Millennium will spend what needs to be spent to really get this micro-budgeted indie seriously in the game.

The competition, even for a top-of-his-game Pacino, is just fierce. In fact, you could say one of the category’s early frontrunners, Michael Keaton in Birdman (releasing Oct. 17) already has cornered the market this year for a role about an actor in crisis.

The two films have something in common in that regardImage (1) birdman__140412012401.jpg for post 713902 and should appeal heartily to both SAG and the Academy’s large branch for actors. But Birdman distributor and campaign veteran Fox Searchlight, which has, with (with Birdman’s New Regency) the reigning Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave, is certain to outspend smaller companies like Millennium just dipping their toes in these shark-infested waters.

But both these actors playing actors should be catnip to the actors branch, who are after all the ones voting in the category.

Pacino may not be the only late-breaking Oscar-winning veteran itching to get back in the game.

Sources close to Kevin 63rd Annual Academy AwardsCostner’s Black And White have been floating the word all week that Open Road Films is on the verge of acquiring that strong, racially charged drama, which has been up for sale since beginning to screen for distributors in the spring.

The plan, they say, is to qualify it before the end of the year, what Costner told me he was aiming for when I spoke to him after the film’s world premiere in Toronto. Open Road has yet to comment, but a move like that would just complicate matters, as I think Costner is doing his finest work in decades in this film and would be hard to ignore. But with so crowded a field, it’s going to take a dedicated and forceful campaign just to get noticed — or most importantly, to convince Academy members to see your film.

And if this comes to pass, Costner would not even be the only Best Actor nomination possibility to come from the company, as Open Road alreadyJake Gyllenhaal looks scarily thin on the set of his new movie 'Nightcrawler' in Los Angeles has Jake Gyllenhaal doing career-best, chilling work in the delicious Nightcrawler (Oct. 31) and Gael Garcia Bernal, who is excellent playing journalist Maziar Bahari, who was held captive and tortured in Iran in Jon Stewart‘s terrific directorial debut Rosewater (Nov. 7). Both are deserving long shots if their films can gain traction upon their release.

Of films that have been seen, or are just beginning to be shown, the contender list is already ridiculously long. Leaders on that list include Eddie Redmayne as ALS victim and survivor Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything (Nov. 7) and fellow Brit Benedict Cumberbatch as troubled genius Alan Turing in the widely praised The Imitation Game (Nov. 21), which debuted at Telluride and Toronto.

Cumberbatch has the advantage of also coming off The Imitation Game Movie New Pic (1)an Emmy win for Sherlock: His Last Vow. In a mild irony, Cumberbatch also has an awards-worthy Hawking role in his past, nominated for a BAFTA TV award for 2004’s BBC TV movie Hawking. 

As far as I can tell Redmayne does not have a performance as the late Turing on his resume but Hawking himself has endorsed Redmayne’s portrayal and that’s always a plus when playing a real-life person. The Academy responds strongly to biopic performances. This promises to be a spirited competition just between the two one-time co-stars of 2008’s costume drama The Other Boleyn Girl. 

But wait, there’s more. Much more. Steve Carell has won raves ever since Cannes for his startling turn as John DuPont in Foxcatcher and Sony Pictures Classics is campaigning him in lead as well as co-star Channing Tatum. But it’s Carell who has the real chance here. SPC also has Timothy Spall, who was similarly praised for his astounding Mr. Turner (December 19) in the Mike Leigh film, which actually grabbed him the Best Actor prize in Cannes and immediately sparked talk of his first Oscar nomination.Image (7) foxcatcher1__140519144742-275x264.jpg for post 732922

Brad Pitt, as dark and gritty as possible in Fury (October 17), will be a major contender for his role as the obsessed and war-wise leader of an American tank unit fighting Nazis on German soil — that is if voters can get the fact this is a completely different kind of character than the obsessed Nazi hunter he played in Inglorious Basterds. Also on the movie star front: Ben Affleck, never better as a husband accused in his wife’s disappearance in Gone Girl (October 3), and Robert Downey Jr. returning to form opposite Robert Duvall in The Judge (October 10) and proving again after a foray into superherodom that he remains one of the finest — if not the finest actor — of his generation, and way overdue for Oscar recognition.

ST-VINCENT-If Oscar voters are looking for something a little lighter, Bill Murray is at his absolute best since his Oscar -nominated Lost In Translation in the wonderful comedy St. Vincent (October 10), and Paramount just dropped Chris Rock into the race for the hot TIFF title, Top Five  (December 5), which is really Rock’s Annie Hall. Even though an Original Screenplay nod might be the most likely avenue here, it should be remembered that occasionally voters actually embrace comedians in a comedy so don’t count Rock’s wildly funny turn here completely out- – and count it completely in for the Golden Globes against Murray and Keaton for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. And speaking of musicals, two actors taking on iconic music industry legends should not be counted out either. Andre Benjamin was brilliant as Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All IsTop Five By My Side, but may be more likely to turn up at the Indie Spirits since the film is so small it will possibly drown against the competition. And if Universal campaigns him, and voters remember, Chadwick Boseman deserves a shot for his dead-on work as soul legend James Brown in Get On Up!

IFC  is going to push first-timer Ellar Coltrane, who shot the lead role in Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking Boyhood over the course of 12 years, adding up to two thirds of his young life so far. That ought to count for something — and probably will at the Indie Spirits but not the Oscars I would guess, where the actors branch might admire the performance if not the amount of time it took to get Image (10) whiplash-miles-teller__140206211231-275x183.jpg for post 677953there. Among the younger set, Miles Teller’s intense music student in Whiplash (October 10) has been wowing audiences since Sundance and finally opens in a couple of weeks, but this year is just too tough and SPC is also actively pushing Carell and Spall. His co-star J.K.Simmons though is a sure shot in supporting.

Supporting is where I would also put Ralph Fiennes who became one of the year’s earliest contenders for his acclaimed and witty work in the March release The Grand Budapest Hotel. It can be argued he is a standout in an ensemble cast, but Fox Searchlight tells me he will be campaigned in lead, probably making it much harder to prevail at the Oscar nominations but a definite possibility in the Golden Globes comedy category which might help his cause with the Academy.

And wait! There’s still more. Among those in films still yet to be seen anywhere, or those that only a handful might have been shown the list, includes reigning Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (November 14), Jack O’Connell in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (December 25), Mark Wahlberg in the remake of  The Gambler (December 19), David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma (December 25), Oscar Isaac in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year (December 31 and opening AFI Fest onUnbroken movie trailer Louis Zamperini November 6), Christian Bale in the Ridley Scott epic Exodus: Gods And Kings (December 12), Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice (December but premiering at NYFF next Saturday), new CBS Late Late Show  host James Corden whom I am told really nails it as The Baker in Disney’s Into The Woods (Dec 25) and the studio plans a leading campaign (not to mention Golden Globes),  and finally late entry Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s American american-sniperSniper (December 25). You can make arguments for and against all of these yet-unseen actors and performances but you can’t count any  of them out yet. So where do we find the room?

Again, Academy, it may be time to convene a special meeting and allow the possibility of doubling the number of  acting nominees. At least this year, in this category that promises lots of heartbreak and second guessing when nominations are announced January 15.

    1. Agreed. No matter how many good performances there are in a year, there should never, ever be more than 5 nominees.

      1. Yeah I would be very upset if they ever changed the 5 nominees system. It’s a tradition that goes back 50 + years – don’t fix what isn’t broken !! that’s why the Oscars are the highest acting honor one can receive or aspire to get – it’s not easy !!

      1. There is still something notable going on, though. We all hear and talk about Hollywood not making non-comic-book fare but this is an impressive list of non-comic-book movies. Taking nothing from Jean Dujardin, the year he won he was up against Clooney in Descendants, Gary Oldman in Tinker, Demian Bichir in a movie no one saw and Brad Pitt in Moneyball. That’s a desert by comparison.

  1. Don’t be ridiculous, that’s what makes it an honor, only a FEW are chosen. What do you think it is, Pee Wee Football where everyone gets a trophy?

  2. Pete. love reading your columns and articles, but it seems you’ve really drunk the kool aid here. You’ve mentioned the lead actor in every vaguely serious minded film of the year, seen by you or not … There maybe a good performances among them, maybe even some great ones (although I doubt that in the annals of film history many of them would hold a candle to previous Oscar winners or even nominees who lost). It was difficult coming up with a list of five films for best picture and the board change to ten was ridiculous. I’m still trying to get five. What expanding any category to 10 does is diminish the achievement of getting a nomination. Period. Why not 15 or 20, why not nominate everyone who gets an audience award from Sundance or buzz from Toronto or applause at Venice. And I for one start a petition among Academy member to reverse such a decision by the board. Remember, Pete this isn’t a sports event with playoffs to a world series or super bowl. We, the Academy member vote based on the quality a the film or, in this case, the performance. I certainly have never based my vote on buzz or other awards and actor picks up before the Oscar voting. And I believe it’s the same for a lot of other Academy members. The big thing is to get us to see these movies either at screenings or on the dvds we receive. And I for one, I must admit that half the films you mentioned I will have to force myself to watch.

  3. This is a terrible idea, it will only fragment the nominees even more. With multiple split votes, the least-deserving person will end up winning.

    What they need to do is limit the number of wins a person can get in a category. This would work much better for the Emmys, where Bryan Cranston doesn’t have to win 37 times for the same frickin’ role, but could be applied to films as well.

    Dustin Hoffman and Tootsie not winning Oscars because Ghandi came out the same year was reprehensible, and there have been many more examples since then.

    1. Reprehensible? Come on.

      The whole concept of awards is a bit of a goof so don’t sweat it. There are film festivals who put a limit of one prize each to every film but where’s the fun in that? Even if it goes wrong, it’s still a silly night with questionable social value. Mostly it’s for fun and, on occasion, a film or a role or a script that hits it out of the park gets its moment in the sun.

  4. With so many choices, shouldn’t the Studios hurry up and send SAG NOMM screeners and open movies up for guild members? I received a grand total of 0.

  5. Maybe they should reduce the number of Best Actress nominees as, once again, there are going to be filler nominees as there are so few good roles for women.

    More nominees for Best Actor would, at least, reflect reality. Last year, Hanks, Redford, Whitaker, Jordan, Phoenix and Isaac were all potential contenders and didn’t even get nominations.

  6. Why is this a good thing? So we can fill a nominee list with a bunch of mediocre people? Keeping the list small forces, you would hope, the cream of the crop to rise up. Does that mean someone deserving loses out, yes, but that’s life.

    1. My suggestion is that the Academy be brought into the 21st century with a comedy/musical category and lengthen the actor/actress noms like the GG does.

  7. It’s like the Special Olympics. Everyone gets a ribbon. A trophy. Everyone is a winner. … Ridiculous!

  8. Horrible idea. What makes these things so great is that it is competitive to get in. You’re pandering to mediocrity here. I hope the academy doesn’t listen to people like you.

  9. It’s past time that the Academy mirror the Golden Globes, and even have a “comedy/musical” category. The Globes has more than 5 actors/actress noms, so why not the Academy?

  10. I think the problem is not a lot of people can even judge good, solid acting vs over heavy emoting (as in Al Pacino) or just being quirky (as in beautiful actresses uglying themselves up). I can’t judge any of the 30 or so “great” male performances out this year, but just judging from the past, I think this guy is kidding. I’ve seen too many cruddy performances that win awards, so it seems to often not be about the actual performances. And if “unrecognizable” Carell gets it this year, I hope they have a tiny Oscar ready for his fake nose.

  11. A lot of angry commenrs here. Nobody here is claimming that everyone should get a nomination, but just 5 spaces leave out too many worthy contenders. Many more films are produced now than Hollywood did 30 years ago, so it is natural that 5 may not be enough.

  12. This will never happen because it would call attention to how there aren’t an equal number of good roles for women.

  13. The trouble with doubling or even increasing the Best Actor nominations, you’d have to do that with the Best Actress as well, because gender politics, and then it would become absolutely ridiculous, as the Academy struggles to find even five roles for women to sink their teeth into these days.

  14. Maybe they could solve this issue by creating two categories of Best Actor: 1) blatant, pandering Oscar bait Best Actor (disabilities, Holocaust related, biopics of tragic figures, oppressed minorities, mentally ill, etc.) and a separate category for 2) non-Oscar bait Best Actor?

  15. I think you’re on to something here, Pete. Perhaps if the nominees come with a one or two percentages points of each other, the category can be expanded?

  16. I think SPC is making a HUGE mistake: They should not be campaigning Steve Carell in the lead actor category. That’s suicide. He should be put in best supporting where his chances are better. As a comedic actor, Carell will be taken more seriously for his spooky turn as the absurdist DuPont (read Robin Williams and Good Will Hunting, etc.). Not to mention, Carell going up against Benedict Cumberbatch’s Turling….Cumberbatch will slaughter him. He’s that good. That moving. That precise.

    1. The trick is to get the nomination, then a different set of factors come into play. As good Cumberbatch may be, he’ll be voted on, if nominated, by his fellow actors in the Academy…this is where politics and biases come to play.

      Though his proformance may be the best, can he win against another Brit actor also playing a genius? Or will they cancel each other out? Then there’s Keaton who is playing a once famous now struggling actor…that may appeal to the voters sensibilities more.

      As for Carell, he’s got the fake nose advantage in that when actors change up their appearence it gets noticed. Theron gained weight and uglied up; McCaunaghy lost weight; and Kidman also wore a fake nose. And while the first two gave good performances at least, Kidman was as wooden as she normally is.

      1. Good point. Kidman may have won by a fake nose, but will Carell? And Cumberbatch vs Redmayne? Attenboroughesque Brit period biopics about geniuses with disabilities? Sorry, we already gave at the office.

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