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 of 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 Best 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.
Ironically, 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 Humbling, from 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 regard 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 Costner’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 already 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 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.
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.
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 Is 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 there. 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 on 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 Sniper (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.