Thursday, February 23, 2017

One Category at a Time: Best Actor

Dammit, SAG. Y'know if it weren't for you, this would be one of the easiest calls of Oscar night. So utterly dominant was one contender for so much of the season, it seemed unthinkable that we'd have this tight a race for Best Actor, but so it is. It's a true two horse sprint to the finish in one of those rare categories that we know La La Land can't win.
The narrative actually started well over a year ago at Sundance, where Manchester by the Sea was drawing raves and prompting pundits to pencil in Casey Affleck as the next winner of this award even before Leonado Dicaprio had officially claimed the title. It is indeed a superb performance that towers above the competition in this viewer's opinion, and almost every single regional critics group agrees. But that's not where the story ends. As disquieting allegations of sexual harassment and gross misconduct from his past arose -- coupled with Affleck's completely transparent disdain for award campaigning -- the question has been raised as to if he's "likable" enough to nab this coveted honour?

But everyone likes Denzel Washington. His magnetic powerhouse reprisal of his Broadway role in Fences has all the typical hooks of an Oscar-winning performance. I don't think there's any precedent for an actor who only won the SAG coming out on top with the Academy, but the guild has anticipated this category for twelve consecutive years. That's a mighty intimidating streak.
Yes, it's true that the SAG had never honoured Denzel before, and he missed the BAFTA nomination altogether, and he's lost every other head-to-head with Affleck all season... but my gut is telling me in a super close race, maybe whoever wins the popularity contest wins the whole thing?

I don't know. It'll be a nail-biter no matter who you predict, and anybody other than those two winning would be nothing less than the shock of the year.
But it's still fun to speculate who the hypothetical dark horse is.
I may be so bold to suggest that Ryan Gosling is the one running a distant third. La La Land has all the heat, and the allure of seeing the year's most swoon-worthy onscreen couple clutching matching Oscars might appeal to the film's most ardent fans. Even if that's a pipe dream, it shouldn't go unappreciated how this nomination is something of a small miracle. Sure it was a weak year, but men have a tough time earning recognition as musical headliners or romantic leads, even within the most Oscar'ed films in recent decades: Leo in Titanic, Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love, McGregor in Moulin Rouge, Gere in Chicago... All of them snubbed for films that by any yardstick were quite popular with the Academy.

You could make a case for Andrew Garfield as well in that second runner-up slot. Hacksaw Ridge has done just about as well as it could have with the Academy, and Garfield has the additional favorable quality of an endearing character. But is his presence here (perhaps like Gosling's) more the byproduct of a thin field of contenders? While I can't discredit the effort he puts into selling the 'Aw shucks' Jimmy-Stewart-esque nature of Pvt. Desmond Doss, I also can't pretend that his isn't the least impressive performance of the five by a wide margin.

Ideally, the next in line behind Affleck would be Viggo Mortensen for his layered, humbly anarchic survivalist in Captain Fantastic. He's arguably the most valuable player for his film too, relative to his fellow nominees in this category. Every time the movie steers into twee indie tropes, he's there to ground it with complex but sincere emotion. To have copped the nomination given Captain Fantastic's early release and low profile is, in and of itself, a joyful mini-miracle.

Will win: Denzel Washington, Fences
Could win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Should win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Should be nominated: Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight

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