By Matt Neglia
Whenever I bring up the topic of the Best Actor race this year, two things continuously come up: Peter Dinklage was robbed of a first-time nomination for his heartbreaking performance in “Cyrano” and “Why does everyone think Will Smith easily has this category locked up?” Yes, the former is disappointing for the four-time Emmy Award-winning actor, but the latter has been an interesting point, which calls into question the idea of an “Oscar narrative,” and what the current state of the race is for Best Actor.
Ever since the Telluride Film Festival, where “King Richard” had its world premiere, Oscar pundits, bloggers, and other journalists have declared the Best Actor race to essentially be over once they saw Will Smith’s performance as Richard Williams. This is not because his performance is seen in this year’s Best Actor category as “the best.” Most people have made it clear they prefer Benedict Cumberbatch’s powerfully nuanced work in “The Power Of The Dog” and Andrew Garfield’s physically committed turn as Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” However, Will Smith has something no one else in the category has, and that’s a career narrative.
One of the biggest blockbuster movie stars in the world, during a time when a name could sell a film rather than intellectual property, Will Smith has always been well-liked by audiences and those within the industry. His charm and charisma are infallible, with the right level of dedication and sincerity, which has allowed him to have staying power over the last three decades. Although he’s mostly known for his high-budgeted blockbusters such as “Men In Black,” “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day” and countless others, when Smith has decided to turn towards dramatic roles, critics and the Academy have welcomed him, awarding him two Oscar nominations for Best Actor for his work in ‘Ali” (2001) and “The Pursuit Of Happyness” (2006). It’s true that not every Will Smith blockbuster is a huge financial success (“After Earth”), or every dramatic turn is highly regarded (“Collateral Beauty“). Still, the perfect storm seems to have happened for Smith and “King Richard,” which could see the 53-year-old actor going on to win his first Oscar.
Everyone who was expecting “King Richard” to make a misstep on its way towards last week’s Oscar nominations has been proven wrong time and time again. After the film premiered at Telluride, there were many people such as myself proclaiming Smith would not do well with the critics’ precursor awards, but when we got to the televised awards such as Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA, that would be his time to shine. And so far, that prediction has been accurate, with Smith having won the Golden Globe award (despite the show not being televised this year) for Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama. The Critics Choice, SAG, and BAFTA are still to come, and it’s here where I hear so many beginning to doubt Smith’s chances? Why is that?
The first thing I want to point to is the competition. Andrew Garfield also won a Golden Globe for his performance in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and many have seen him as a formidable challenger to Will Smith in the Best Actor race due to several factors. One is how excellent Garfield’s performance actually is. Singing, dancing, and showing several layers of emotion, it’s a performance many weren’t aware the actor was capable of, and he totally knocks it out of the park. However, his film suffered some setbacks, which could affect his chances. Historically, you want to have a corresponding Best Picture nomination to go alongside your Best Actor nomination. 23/27 of the last Oscar winners for Best Actor had a Best Picture nomination except for Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”), Denzel Washington (“Training Day”), Forest Whittaker (“The Last King Of Scotland”), and Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”). Forest Whittaker swept the Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA awards while Jeff Bridges won 3 out of 4 of those, and his closest competitor, Colin Firth (“A Single Man”), was also starring in a film not nominated for Best Picture. Nicolas Cage similarly won where it mattered, with the Golden Globes and SAG, while Critics Choice winner Kevin Bacon was not even nominated for his performance in “Murder In The First.” The outlier and only precedent for Garfield is Washington, who overcame some truly staggering precursor odds to upset Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA winner Russell Crowe (“A Beautiful Mind” – also that year’s Best Picture winner) that year at the last minute.
Garfield is already in a good place, having won the Golden Globe. However, only Benedict Cumberbatch and Will Smith were able to score nominations at Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA. Many feel Garfield’s best chance will come at SAG since his performance is one many actors might connect with and thus, feel compelled to vote for him. It’s not impossible for such a twist to occur at this stage in the race, and it’s more likely than him prevailing at Critics Choice. Garfield was surprisingly left off the list from his home country’s top award, the BAFTAs, as the voting jury did not save him. With upcoming nominations at Critics Choice and SAG, Garfield will have the opportunity to deliver a televised speech so audience members can point at their television and say, “Look! Spider-Man won an award!” And that’s the other elephant in the room: “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The biggest film of 2021 and one of the biggest films of all time, the exposure this box office phenomenon has given Garfield, who returned to play the iconic web-slinger alongside Tom Holland and Tobey Maguire, cannot be overstated. There’s clearly a lot of goodwill and sentiment towards the 38-year-old actor who is on his second Oscar nomination following his turn as Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson’s World War II true story, “Hacksaw Ridge.” With acclaimed performances in “Mainstream,” “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye,” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” combined with the latter’s immense popularity, this should’ve all worked out for Garfield and I’m not surprised many still think it will. However, the lack of a Best Picture nomination and no BAFTA nod has sunk Garfield’s chances in the category down to third place, unless he manages to pull a Nicolas Cage and win the remaining precursors he’s nominated for over Smith and Cumberbatch, without his film being nominated for Best Picture. Then, and only then, would I consider him still a threat to win but until then, I think the race is down to the other two men.
Much like Andrew Garfield, Benedict Cumberbatch is having the best year of his career with acclaimed performances in “The Courier,” “The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain,” and his Oscar-nominated performance in Jane Campion’s “The Power Of The Dog.” He is also benefitting from having a supporting role in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” returning as Doctor Strange, and he will reprise the role again in a few months with “Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness.” Cumberbatch has been the critics’ pick of the season, having won a total of 24 awards, including the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Actor. Because of his precursor run and starring in the Best Picture frontrunner, many feel there’s a world where he will be the one to challenge Will Smith at Critics Choice, SAG, and BAFTA. I’ve spoken to some who think Cumberbatch will win all three, but I still believe a certain level of pushback is in order.
Remember just recently in 2019, Adam Driver was the precursor leader for another Netflix film in Best Actor with “Marriage Story,” and many thought if he were going to win anywhere, it would be at Critics Choice. But that was not to be as Joaquin Phoenix, who had at that point, only amassed a small handful of critics prizes, went on to sweep the Best Actor televised awards for his performance in “Joker.” This should not be the case, in my opinion, but the reality is, just because you’re the critics’ precursor leader does not necessarily guarantee you a win at the Critics Choice Awards. That’s because (sigh), many Critics Choice voters are more concerned with “trying to predict the Oscars” than voting for who they objectively think is the best. Lots of voters would rather see their vote go towards a horse in the race, they know has a good shot at winning the Oscar, which means if you’re nominated at Critics Choice and not at the Oscars, your odds are slim to none.
So, let’s say Smith wins Critics Choice, this leaves SAG and BAFTA for Benedict Cumberbatch to pick up some steam and possibly get looped in with his film’s widely predicted Best Picture win. However, at SAG, due to the increased voting body now including everyone from TV weathermen to social media influencers, their choices skewer more populist, which would favor someone like Smith, who is already a likable celebrity who people want to see win awards and is starring in a crowdpleaser which you can sit anyone in front of and more than likely, they’ll walk away enjoying it. I’ve seen primarily serious film critics as the group not in the camp for “King Richard,” and that’s not surprising to me in the least bit. A movie like “The Power Of The Dog” is more well-tailored towards their sensibilities, while “King Richard” can be seen as trite and lacking in nuance. However, critics are not voting at SAG, and they’re not voting at the Oscars, and considering “King Richard” got in for Best Ensemble while “The Power Of The Dog” did not, I would give Smith the edge at SAG.
However, BAFTA is Smith’s biggest obstacle. Many did not expect the star to receive a BAFTA nomination for his performance, considering this is the same awards body who have never nominated Denzel Washington once for any of his many incredible performances. But Smith pulled it off, whether he was one of the top two vote-getters alongside Cumberbatch or a save by the jury to help “diversify” the lineup. He’s still there, and he’s still in contention to win. Despite not receiving a Best Picture nod at BAFTA, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility for Smith to win this award too. Still, I will freely admit, it’s less likely as most of the BAFTA winners for Best Actor tend to come from films nominated there for Best Picture.
However, I take issue with one point I keep seeing getting mentioned. I’ve spoken to more than a few people who see similarities between this year’s Best Actor race and last year’s, where the late Chadwick Boseman won Best Actor at the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, and SAG for his final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but when it came to BAFTA, he lost to British homeboy Anthony Hopkins for his acclaimed performance in “The Father.” Hopkins would go on to win the Oscar, having only won BAFTA and a small handful of critics’ prizes along the way in what was seen by some as an upset and what was seen by others as a deserved victory that caught on late due to Sony Pictures Releasing campaign strategy. Either way, many are using this precedent to suggest that the same outcome might occur this year, and I would strongly caution those who are resting on this to predict a Cumberbatch win.
Now, suppose he wins something else like Critics Choice alongside BAFTA. In that case, I think we’ll have a more exciting race on our hands, but if he has BAFTA, the comparisons to last year start to fall apart for me due to one huge difference: the Academy embraced “King Richard” more than “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Although George C. Wolfe’s film won two Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hairstyling and scored two additional nominations for its stars, the beforementioned Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Best Actress, it underperformed on Oscar nomination morning, missing key nominations in Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, two categories it was widely predicted to secure. “King Richard” got every Oscar nomination it was predicted to receive, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress for Aunjanue Ellis, Best Original Song for Beyonce, and Best Film Editing (the one category most people were unsure of). It was never in serious conversation for a Best Director nomination, and any talk of Jon Bernthal in Best Supporting Actor had quickly dissipated by the time nominations rolled around. There are some who are even suggesting “King Richard” is closer to “The Power Of The Dog” in the Best Picture race than “Belfast” due to the level of broad support it received from the Academy.
So, where are the cracks? Why are people so against the idea of Will Smith winning? Is it because this was a manufactured narrative that started back in September is still going strong, and people are just bored? Do they just not enjoy Smith’s performance or the movie? All of these points are irrelevant since the complaints have been coming mainly from individuals on the internet with no voting power whatsoever, but I suppose the one thing they do have working in their favor is that we’ve seen “Career Oscar Wins” occur less and less the larger the Academy’s membership has grown. Sylvester Stallone did not win Best Supporting Actor for “Creed,” Glenn Close still does not have an Oscar despite having eight nominations, Willem Dafoe didn’t win an Oscar for “The Florida Project” despite overwhelming precursor support, and of course, there’s Chadwick Boseman last year. But for every one of these that gets brought up, I give you Julianne Moore for “Still Alice,” Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour,” Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side,” Renée Zellweger for “Judy” (despite already having an Oscar), the list goes on and on. Sometimes, despite the subjective quality of a film or a performance, the industry simply decides it’s your time. At this point, everything is in place for Will Smith to have his time. Unless proven otherwise, there have been no signs of weakness shown by the film’s performance with the Oscar nominations or in Smith’s campaign. Warner Bros. is electing to push harder in Phase Two to get Smith over the finish line and achieve possibly even more Oscar success than just a Best Actor win. So far, they haven’t overplayed their hand and have been following the path which was laid out before them all the way back in September. We’ll see if and how Critics Choice, SAG, and BAFTA change this trajectory, but unless something truly goes awry, there’s a good chance Will Smith will have an Oscar in his hands on March 27th, 2022.
What do you think? Who do you think will win the Oscar for Best Actor? Check out the Next Best Picture team’s current Oscar predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture