oscars 2012: and the best lead actor nominees are… cue crickets…

Well, unlike the Best Picture and Lead Actress races, the competition for Best Lead Actor is a little dodgy thus far.  In fact, there seems to be nary a remote contender in sight as we head into August.  Have we ever seen an acting category this back-nine-loaded?  There will surely be dozens of possibilities later this year, but the first section of this write-up will certainly be a bit of a stretch as far as naming off real “contenders.”  And with arguable frontrunner Leonardo DiCaprio out of the race along with the rest of The Great Gatsby, these guys are dropping to 2013 like flies.  (Perhaps you all can shed some light on potential threats from the first seven months of the year.)

Long Shots – Do They Even Stand a Chance?: Well with July behind us, you’d think there’d be some clear spring and summer releases producing some Best Actor choices, but there are only two that I can remotely endorse as a possibility.  Sure, Oscar isn’t nearly as kind to young actors as it is to young actresses, but Jared Gilman has at least started the 2012 conversation for his deadpan turn in the hit Moonrise Kingdom.  Contending with the older guys in this category is near impossible, though.  And if it’d had a better release, perhaps Detachment could’ve granted Adrien Brody his long-gestating second Oscar nod.  Alas, the film, which garnered some positive reviews, came and went without much fanfare despite a strong cast.

Indie Contenders – Trifles or Heavyweights?: Every year the independent film community produces some potential nominees in the acting categories, though it seems Lead Actor isn’t always the place where these folks strike it rich.  Nonetheless, John Hawkes is a major part of the conversation for The Sessions (nee The Surrogate) and is well on his way to a second Oscar nod.  Perhaps not as certain are Frank Langella, for his well-received role in the quirky robot buddy comedy Robot and Frank, and David Oyelowo, who’s been logging away a widening filmography and had a role in festival fave Middle of Nowhere.  In addition, seemingly Oscar catnip Richard Gere found some fans from the financial thriller Arbitrage.

Honor the Film or Honor the Actor?: There are plenty of pieces, namely ensemble films and epics, that constantly create question marks as to whether or not the actors themselves will get any love.  First off, there’s Lawless, which seems to have two leads, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy.  There’s a pedigreed cast here to be sure, but neither have had much luck in the past, and this film could easily go by way of Public Enemies and completely miss.  In the same position is Ben Affleck, who is a true contender for directing Argo but perhaps not for acting.  He also has a shot if To the Wonder sees a release this year.  Tom Hanks is no stranger to this category but has certainly lost some of his cache.  Still, he’s the biggest name out of Cloud Atlas, but how actorly the movie is remains to be seen.  Finally, The Hobbit will surely produce a multitude of tech awards, but we all remember how stingy Oscar was with Lord of the Rings’ actors.  Will Martin Freeman break through with the title role?

The Arguable Frontrunners: On its face, there are some men in play that seem to have the director backing, the Oscar history and the strong buzz to go the distance.  Brad Pitt has become somewhat of a fixture into his middle ages, and Killing Them Softly could be a promising prospect.  (Does anyone else see him possibly gaining George Clooney status soon – the automatic nomination?)  The real story of this year will likely be the return of Joaquin Phoenix who looks to be seriously committing in The Master.  His biggest hurdle may be the questionable status of Phillip Seymour Hoffman – lead or supporting?  Clint Eastwood looks to get back into the good graces of the Academy starring in the baseball drama Trouble with the Curve.  And perennial favorite Daniel Day-Lewis has a plum biopic role in Lincoln – but why do I keep getting the feeling it’ll fall in with J. Edgar and make voters grumble?  Rounding out the group is one more strong biopic possibility, Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson (though will his hot and cold relationship with Oscar sour this one?), and Jean-Louis Trintignant for festival golden child Amour.

The Movie Stars Make Good?: There are a handful of stars with celebrity status that are looking to either enter the serious acting fold or return for some Oscar glory after a sabbatical.  I’m not sold yet that Bradley Cooper could ever nab a nod, but with David O. Russell behind the picture, Silver-Linings Playbook is definitely a part of the conversation.  Hugh Jackman is a strong one to break into the top five for Les Miserables, whose buzz seems incredibly strong though I’m not totally sold that it’ll deliver Academy-wise.  Jamie Foxx already has an Oscar under his belt, but has stepped away for less golden pursuits – teaming up with Tarantino in Django Unchained is definitely a major step in the right direction, but will it be his movie or DiCaprio’s?  Seth Rogen is starring opposite Barbra Streisand, which could be the magic touch for The Guilt Trip.  It’s not totally implausible – we never thought we’d be saying Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill, did we?  Finally, Colin Farrell continues his quest for Academy credibility with Seven Psychopaths.  It’s easy to forget he’s had a smattering of prestige roles mixed in with the action movies – I see him eventually connecting, perhaps not this year.

Rising Stars and Possible Late Entries: Every year a few straight-up newbies or established actors looking for the break-out Oscar role enter the mix.  Joel Edgerton has gained a handful of fans for his turn in Animal Kingdom, and a seemingly starring role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty could be just the ticket. But will there be a true lead in this bin Laden flick?  Suraj Sharma has the benefit of popular source material and lauded director in Life of Pi – but will it be a visual affair more than a performance one?  Oscar Isaac has been threatening to break out for a few years, and a starring role in the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis could do it.  It just needs a solidified release date.  Jeremy Irvine made waves last year in War Horse but didn’t see much for award hardware.  Perhaps the latest adaptation of Great Expectations will do the trick.  Ryan Gosling has two strong roles down the pipe, Only God Forgives, the re-team with Drive director Refn, and The Place Beyond the Pines, though neither has a release date yet.  And Christopher Plummer looks to follow up his long-gestating Oscar win with Barrymore, which looks to be a December release.  Rounding out the possibilities are performances that will probably get limited qualifying runs, Colin Firth in the action comedy Gambit, Terrence Stamp in Song for Marion, and Ewan McGregor in sci-fi thriller The Impossible.

So who stands the best shot as of now?  I’ll take a stab, in order of likelihood of a nomination:

(1) Joaquin Phoenix, The Master (2) Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (3) Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson (4) Clint Eastwood, Trouble with the Curve (5) Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly*

*Though I could see Hoffman and Plummer entering the race if the former goes lead and if the latter finds a solid release.

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