Two years ago the Best Actor race was so crowded that such surefire contenders as Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) saw their hopes dashed right out of the gate when both were overlooked for even a nomination. Competition was lethal, as it has been for the past few years in this category. Unlike what is usually the case in the Best Actress race—though not this year—it seems there are just too many great male performances fighting for one of those five coveted nominee slots. This year, in fact, Tom Hanks is back with another heralded turn in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War spy drama, Bridge of Spies. Critics praised this subtle and striking role as one of the two-time Oscar winner’s best ever, even comparing it to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But guess what? What happened to Hanks two years ago could repeat itself. His work is so stoic and understated that it easily could be overlooked against more obviously flashy contenders. That would be a shame. Still, he is definitely up there in the first tier of contenders, one where several Best Actor candidates with past nominations—but no wins—could make a strong case for themselves.
That list is led by four-time nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, who goes through the ringer, physically and emotionally, in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant. DiCaprio is well-respected by his fellow actors and almost certainly would have won two years ago for The Wolf of Wall Street had he not run into the Matthew McConaughey juggernaut from Dallas Buyers Club.
Another frequent visitor to the category back in the running is Johnny Depp; his chilling turn as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass is making waves—and not just for the make-up job. Depp’s portrayal digs way beneath the surface to pop up as the three-time nominee’s best shot at the gold in years. The hang-up might be that some voters think he has been squandering his talent in tentpoles like Pirates of the Carribean and the upcoming Alice in Wonderland sequel. But Depp’s Bulger should remind anyone of the great actor he is.
Two-time nominee Will Smith (Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness) could find himself front and center again for his dead-on portrayal in Concussion of Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose work linked football injuries with brain damage. Smith is winning high praise—even if the film has received more mixed reviews—and has a secret weapon in Omalu, who has roundly endorsed his performance.
Coming back from last year’s big Oscar win for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne is back as a transgender pioneer in The Danish Girl. The transformative nature of the role is rich stuff for voters, and some are predicting Redmayne could be the first actor in 20 years to win back-to-back Oscars. Who did it last? You guessed it: Tom Hanks, for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
Also back from last year is Steve Carell, who was a standout in Foxcatcher and is again in The Big Short, as a Wall Street operator who finds himself in the heart of the 2008 economic collapse. With a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale (all excellent), it is Carell who is being campaigned in the lead category and has the best shot to repeat for a second year in a row.
Nominated once previously for 12 Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender, in the titular role in Steve Jobs, has jumped to the top of many pundit’s prediction charts. However, weak boxoffice for the film and portraying a roundly unsympathetic person makes him a slight question mark. Still, the performance is awesome and he also might be able to impress voters with the upcoming Macbeth.
Two-time acting nominee, and an Oscar winner for his Good Will Hunting screenplay, Matt Damon has been making a steady climb toward the magic five, right in concert with the enormous success of The Martian. Damon spends 90% of his time in the film alone on screen and makes it funny, poignant, suspenseful and entirely satisfying. Damon could be a sleeper.
Stirring the pot and making the Best Actor race all that more interesting is a trio of British veterans, all Sirs, getting a rare lead role in the autumn of their careers. With perhaps the best chance to break into the top five is two-time winner Michael Caine (Hannah and Her Sisters, The Cider House Rules), who is going for his seventh nomination in Youth, portraying a retired composer/conductor on a spa vacation in Switzerland. Youth is an English-language film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who won last year’s foreign language film Oscar for The Great Beauty. Caine’s 1966 breakthrough role in Alfie gave him his first Best Actor nom, although both his wins came for the two times he was nominated in a supporting role.
Past two-time nominee Ian McKellen is only in his 70s yet superbly plays the 90-something Sherlock Holmes in the summer indie hit, Mr. Holmes. This would be his second trip to the lead category following 1998’s Gods and Monsters, which also was directed by Mr. Holmes helmer Bill Condon. In Gods McKellen played the director James Whale in his 70s, even though the actor was only in his 50s then. It seems like adding 20 years to his age has been a blessing for Sir Ian.
Then there is two-time nominee Tom Courtenay (Doctor Zhivago, The Dresser), who is outstanding in 45 Years as a husband with a secret that now threatens his four-decade marriage to his wife, played by Charlotte Rampling. Courtenay could make the cut as a dark horse, especially if voters see this penetrating marital drama.
One other major possibility in this race could be Emmy- and Tony-winning Bryan Cranston for his searing role as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the biopic Trumbo. Mixed reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival dampened enthusiasm for the film among some pundits, and middling boxoffice in a limited run could hurt, but my gauge is that the industry seems to really enjoy the film and the ever-likeable Cranston.
Other possibilities further down the list include Son of Saul’s Geza Rohrig, who is devastating as a Hungarian Jew forced to help the Nazis during World War II. The film was a sensation in Cannes and is Hungary’s entry into the Foreign Language Film race. Distributor Sony Pictures Classics is going to qualify the pic in other categories including this one, where Rohrig, a non-pro actor who lives in Brooklyn and also is a poet, has a compelling life story to sell on the campaign circuit.
Another film novice, young Abraham Attah, is a longshot here for the intense Netflix hopeful, Beasts of No Nation. Out of the large ensemble cast of Quentin Tarantino’s western, The Hateful 8, Samuel L. Jackson is hoping to rack up his first and only nomination since 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Joseph Gordon-Levitt nailed a difficult challenge in playing the French-born tightrope walker Phillipe Petit in The Walk. And, finally, it might be nice to remember Jake Gyllenhaal’s striking performance as a troubled boxer in July’s Southpaw. Gyllenhaal was clearly robbed last year for his brilliant work in Nightcrawler, another season that was impossibly crowded with Best Actor prospects. Just like this one.