I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lately has had a serious problem when it comes to at least one of the acting races. Too many contenders for best actor and only five slots. I know, I know. Readers are going to come after me for saying this again, but, just as the Academy did in expanding the best picture race to allow for as many as 10 nominees in any given year, they should do the same for the acting races.
While we are at it, the directors as well. There are at least 30 legitimate, viable contenders for lead actor this year. Why not at least offer voters the opportunity to recognize up to 10 of them? You might say that wouldn’t make sense because, conversely, this year there aren’t enough worthy lead actress candidates to even fill out that category as it is now. I actually don’t agree with that as far as this year’s crop goes, but, even if it is true, then nominate only three. Or four. Or whatever. Why, in other words, does it have to be a fixed number? This is how it’s been for the acting categories since the beginning, with no flexibility for voters. Times have changed, and it’s time for this arcane system to change with them. I don’t think it would diminish the value of the Oscars one bit to loosen the regulations and let it more accurately reflect the year in which these awards are given.
And that pipedream now leads us to the state of Oscar’s 2014 conundrum, particularly when it comes to those leading men. Here’s the rundown.
There’s no question that we are starting to sound like a broken record each year in talking about the depth, diversity and density of the lead actor field. It just seems to be increasing as Hollywood appears to be offering so many more intriguing roles to men than women, and boy, that is truer this year than ever. Leading the pack of this wild bunch is a group of stars never before even nominated for an Oscar. Incredibly, that list includes Birdman’s Michael Keaton, who got the role of a lifetime in Riggan Thomson, a fading comic book hero trying to reignite his career and life as the star of a Broadway play. Keaton, now in his early 60s, also qualifies as the sentimental favorite and even racked up an early win by taking the Gotham Independent Film Award. But right on his heels are a pair of young British stars playing brilliant geniuses. Eddie Redmayne took on the challenge of portraying ALS-afflicted Stephen Hawking and nailed it, even to the point of getting a ringing endorsement from the man he was playing, Hawking himself, in The Theory of Everything. Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t have the luxury of the same praise from the late, great Alan Turing, but his achievement in The Imitation Game is no less impressive. Then, as if this race needed any new major contenders, it got a new pair in the form of Selma’s David Oyelowo, powerfully portraying Martin Luther King Jr. and Steve Carell, playing completely against type as creepy John DuPont in Foxcatcher. Right there you have a fascinating lineup of actors who easily could comprise the five slots Oscar has available. Four of the five are playing real people, though for Keaton it could be said he’s playing a variation of another real person, himself—a former Batman star.
Bubbling under the surface of this group is another pack of actors taking on real-life subjects and delivering the performances of their lives. Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle Award winner Timothy Spall impressively plays painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Jack O’Connell perfectly captures the remarkable Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, and Chadwick Boseman follows his portrait of Jackie Robinson in 42 with a riveting turn as James Brown in Get On Up. So far, that is eight actors with realistic shots at nominations—all Oscar virgins. Then there’s Oscar nom veteran Bradley Cooper. As sharpshooter Chris Kyle, Cooper could well land his third consecutive nomination for his stunning turn in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. He bulked up for the role, as did Oyelowo, who put on 30 pounds to play King. Weight adjustments always are an Oscar plus. Conversely, Jake Gyllenhaal took off 30 pounds to portray a creepy news cameraman in Nightcrawler, and it earned him the best reviews of his career. Don’t count him out. Or veterans such as Kevin Costner in Black or White, Robert Downey Jr. in The Judge, Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler, Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, Brad Pitt in Fury, Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, Bill Murray in St. Vincent and Al Pacino, back in fine form in the low-budget indie The Humbling. There’s always last year’s winner, Matthew McConaughey, so good again in Interstellar. The list goes on and on. But before I end, let’s add a few more newcomers to the Oscar game, such as Whiplash’s Miles Teller, A Most Violent Year’s Oscar Isaac, Foxcatcher’s Channing Tatum and Into The Woods’ James Corden. You get the picture. Oh, and let’s not forget Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane, who spent 12 years shooting his sterling debut performance.
On the actress side, many point to a thinner field of possibilities than the male races, but it’s a daunting field nonetheless, led by overdue four-time nominee Julianne Moore as a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon is back in the mix, taking on real-life Cheryl Strayed in Wild, her best role since grabbing the gold man in 2005’s Walk the Line. There should be a spot for Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything and likely Rosamund Pike as that Gone Girl. Can Jennifer Aniston, sans makeup and playing a victim of chronic pain, take the Cake for the fifth slot? Or will it be two-time winner Hilary Swank as a pioneer in The Homesman? Veteran possibilities include five-time nominee Amy Adams in Big Eyes and recent Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, who just took home the New York Film Critics Circle prize for a pair of 2014 performances in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night. If she isn’t hampered by the young-adult label of The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley could be looking at her first Oscar nom for her moving portrayal of a young woman with cancer. Disney is pushing Emily Blunt in lead for Into the Woods, but the role might not be big enough compared to the competition here. She’s certainly terrific in the musical adaptation, though. The same goes for Oscar winner Anne Hathaway as a lovelorn astronaut in Interstellar. Two longer shots who are way overdue for recognition in this category include indie darlings Sally Kirkland in Archaeology of a Woman, and 84-year-old Gena Rowlands, luminous in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. From earlier in the year there’s four-time nominee Annette Bening in The Face of Love, but weak reception for the movie probably makes this one an uphill climb for Bening, who’s superb. Michelle Monaghan, very fine as an Army vet in Fort Bliss, might have a tough time getting noticed in a little-seen film. And Jessica Chastain, an early talked-about contender for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, might have an easier time of it with two supporting roles this year. Who said this was a thin field?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Again, as far as the men are concerned, this category has an embarrassment of riches, but also a definitive front-running pair in J.K. Simmons, for his fearsome music teacher in Whiplash, and Edward Norton, as an egotistical actor in Birdman. Simmons just garnered the New York Film Critics Circle prize, while Norton won at National Board of Review. Hovering right under, I would say, is Ethan Hawke’s appealing dad in Boyhood and Oscar-winning veteran Robert Duvall, so powerful in The Judge. Mark Ruffalo has a very strong shot as the ill-fated wrestler in Foxcatcher, and late-breaking Unbroken has a couple of possibilities in Domnhall Gleeson and Japanese rock star Miyavi. From another WWII film, Logan Lerman was a standout as a rookie soldier in over his head in Fury. Christoph Waltz, playing out-of-control Walter Keane in Big Eyes, stands a shot of winning another nomination here after a perfect track record of garnering two Oscars for his two previous noms. Charlie Cox was very fine in The Theory of Everything, but most of the talk for that film revolves around its stars, not the supporting cast. Josh Brolin is an absolute standout in the ensemble of Inherent Vice. For that matter, so is the irrepressible Martin Short, who might have had a real shot if his role had a couple of extra scenes. Tom Wilkinson could compete here with his Lyndon B. Johnson in Selma if voters can get around the fact that he doesn’t even attempt the LBJ accent. I loved Andy Serkis, again bringing to motion-capture life the alpha ape Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the actors branch repeatedly proves resistant to any nominations for such technologically enhanced performances, of which Serkis is king. From the wonderful ensemble of Into the Woods, Chris Pine would be the likely nominee if voters fall in love with Rob Marshall’s great adaptation of a Steven Sondheim classic. Veterans Albert Brooks and John Goodman are back in play, too. Brooks might be a little too subtle in A Most Violent Year to make the cut (he was robbed of a nomination for Drive), and Goodman faces long odds trying to break out in his few memorable scenes in The Gambler.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
This is looking to be a very rich year for supporting actresses. How could it not be when Meryl Streep, playing a witch, is one of the main contenders? Going for an unprecedented 19th nomination, Streep is wickedly good in Into the Woods and proves she really can sing. Two femmes could get nominated for the same film if Anna Kendrick—delightful as Cinderella and previously nominated in this category for Up in the Air—gets some deserved recognition. The stiffest competition will come from Patricia Arquette as the struggling single mother in Boyhood. This is a role that easily could have qualified Arquette for best actress, but IFC campaigners felt she has a real shot to win it all in supporting. The Imitation Game’s Keira Knightley likely will grab a spot for her Joan Clarke. And Laura Dern is in strong contention for portraying a dying mother in Wild. I would add that it’s highly likely we’ll see a first-ever nomination for Birdman’s Emma Stone and possibly a third nomination for Jessica Chastain, competing for both Interstellar and A Most Violent Year. (The latter just won Chastain the supporting actress award from the National Board of Review.) If there’s any justice—and often there isn’t—Nightcrawler’s unscrupulous news director, as brought to life by Rene Russo, should be considered. In just a couple of scenes Vanessa Redgrave’s Pennsylvania matriarch tells you everything you need to know about the DuPont household in the film Foxcatcher, but will voters think the part is just too small? Don’t discount Marion Bailey in Mr. Turner, Viola Davis in Get On Up, the outrageous Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer, Kristen Stewart in Still Alice, Sienna Miller in American Sniper and Octavia Spencer in Black or White. And if there’s room for a newcomer, this year there are two: Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in Selma and Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam), who is really impressive in Inherent Vice. And to anyone who actually saw Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore’s Cannes-winning turn as an aging actress trying to remain relevant is good enough to earn her a second nomination this year, a neat feat she achieved once before when she was nominated for both Far From Heaven and The Hours in the same year.