Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Riz Ahmed’s Place In The Best Actor Race

By Nicholas Bisa 

With Critics groups chiming in daily and industry nominations now having their say, Oscar season is in full force. While there is almost no overlap between the academy membership and all the various critics’ groups, one of the best things these little groups can do is keep the smaller scale, independent projects and performances firmly in the conversation. This usually applies to work from what we call “indie” films instead of big-budget studio films. Films such as ​”Moonlight,​” ​”Sideways​,” “​Winter’s Bone,”​ ​”Her​,” “​Whiplash​,” ​”Room​,” “​Call Me By Your Name,​” “​Get Out​,” “​Roma​” and most recently ​”Parasite,” all​ benefitted from consistent recognition by critics groups in the lead up to the industry nominations.

However, this does not always come through with films such as ​”The Florida Project​,” “​If Beale Street Could Talk​” and ​”Short Term 12,​” which were unable to go as far as they could’ve in the Oscar race. Regardless, they were still bolstered into the Oscar race and likely only missed out by a smattering of votes.

But how does this relate to Riz Ahmed in ​”Sound of Metal​?”

Well, these critics circles are also very good at keeping performances in the conversation, especially indie lead ​male​ performances such as Ethan Hawke in ​”First Reformed​,” Adam Sandler in ​”Uncut Gems,​” Viggo Mortensen in ​”Captain Fantastic​,” Willem Dafoe in ​”At Eternity’s Gate​,” Joaquin Phoenix in ​”The Master​,” Michael Fassbender in ​”Steve Jobs,” Antonio Banderas in ​”Pain and Glory​,” Mickey Rourke in ​”The Wrestler​,” Ryan Gosling in ​”Half Nelson​,” the list goes on and on. Not all of them translate to an Oscar nomination but they’re at least in the conversation despite their small budgets.

How does all of this relate to Riz Ahmed, who has so far received Critics Choice, Golden Globe and SAG nominations for his acclaimed performance in the small-budgeted film “Sound of Metal​?” First of all, none of the above performances’ films were nominated for Best Picture. This may be similar to Riz Ahmed for ​”Sound of Metal​.” At the moment, it’s sitting just outside the bubble for most awards pundits, much like “Whiplash” did in 2014 before it landed some crucial last-minute precursors to push it into the Best Picture lineup. So which Oscar contender from the year’s past does Ahmed most resemble?

Broadly speaking, Riz Ahmed plays a drummer experiencing sudden-onset hearing loss. He is not playing a ​famous​ real-life figure, rather a character dealing with a debilitating illness. Therefore, he cannot be compared to people such as Steve Jobs and Vincent Van Gogh (even though he literally lost his own ear). He has not been previously nominated by the Academy for a leading role, shaving off Eddie Redmayne, Joaquin Phoenix and Viggo Mortensen. He is not a veteran actor making a comeback or dramatic turn, which leaves out Mickey Rourke and Adam Sandler. He is not part of an established director’s film, seeing off Antonio Banderas (Pedro Almodóvar) and Joel Edgerton (Jeff Nichols). This cuts down some of the close comparisons we can make.

So what does Riz Ahmed have in common with some of these contenders? He is a well-known actor from TV, winning an Emmy for ​”The Night Of​” back in 2017 over veterans such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Geoffery Rush and Robert De Niro. But, while this can be compared to Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo,” it can be said that Bryan Cranston was a slightly more renowned, veteran actor, nominated for multiple Emmys and winning four for his G.O.A.T. contending series ​”Breaking Bad.​” He had also shown himself to be a great stage actor, winning a Tony for his portrayal of former President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 2014 stage production of ​”All The Way.​”

Unfortunately, this limited series win for Riz Ahmed does not hold much stock in an Oscars campaign. It has shown to be a slightly more regular occurrence in the supporting races, but mostly for ​actresses​ such as Meryl Streep, Olivia Colman, Regina King and most recently Laura Dern; many of which also possess the veteran factor that Riz does not have the luxury of.

So if the Emmy doesn’t help Riz in terms of recognition, then what does?


​Well, he does possess a noticeable physical transformation, reportedly undergoing a rigorous workout and nutritional regime to achieve Ruben’s “ripped rock star​”​ look. ​This can be compared to Jake Gyllenhaal’s 30-pound shave for ​”Nightcrawler​” (a film which, Ahmed also starred in) as well as Emile Hirsch’s 40-pound loss for his role in ​”Into the Wild.,” but neither of them received an Oscar nomination for their performances in those films.

Riz also has fellow supporting artists gaining similar critical recognition for the film, with Paul Raci and Olivia Cooke both scoring nominations and even wins (mostly Raci). This can be compared to Ryan Gosling for ​”Half Nelson​” (Shareeka Epps), Don Cheadle for ​”Hotel Rwanda” (Sophie Okonedo), Colin Firth for ​”A Single Man”​ (Julianne Moore) as well as both Gyllenhaal (Rene Russo) and Hirsch (Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener). ​”Sound of Metal​“​ is the directorial debut of Darius Marder, which is correlative to Tom Ford’s ​”A Single Man​,” Ryan Fleck’s ​”Half Nelson,”​ as well as Sean Penn’s ​”Into The Wild” and Tom Gilroy’s ​”Nightcrawler​.” ​”Sound of Metal​“​ seems to be gaining similar screenplay recognition to that of “​A Single Man,​” “​Hotel Rwanda,​” “​Into the Wild​” and ​”Nightcrawler“​ also, as evidenced by its most recent nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Critics Choice Awards. As a result, these five performances and their films seem to correlate most closely to Riz and “Sound of Metal​.​”

Here are their various pros and cons:

Colin Firth, 50, was much older than Riz (38) at the time, but he too found early acclaim in TV with 1995’s “Pride and Prejudice” as well as 2001’s ​”Conspiracy​.” He also benefited from his supporting artist Julianne Moore’s critical and, to an extent, industry-recognized (Golden Globe nomination) performance. Despite this, by 2009, Colin was far better known within the film industry than Riz, appearing in Academy Award winning films such as ​”The English Patient” and ​”Shakespeare in Love”​ as well as box office hits like ​”Bridget Jones’ Diary”​ and “Mamma Mia​.” His film ​”A Single Man,​” while obviously low budget, was already hyped up as it was famous Fashion Designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut; thus, many would have seen the film regardless of the buzz for his performance. Is Riz’s performance good enough to overcome both his and Darius Marder’s lack of fame?

Jake Gyllenhaal, 34, was similar to Riz in age and obviously boasted the same body transformation for his role in ​Nightcrawler.​ He similarly had the support of BAFTA-nominated Rene Russo, but Jake had actually already received prior academy recognition for his supporting performance in ​”Brokeback Mountain”​ back in 2006. He even won the BAFTA and was considered an outside shot to win before ​”Brokeback Mountain​ was infamously snubbed the Best Picture prize in favor of “Crash.” He was also an established dramatic film actor, and his performances were almost always in the Oscar conversation throughout the 2000s-2010s with acclaimed director’s films like David Fincher’s​ “Zodiac,​” Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers,​” David Ayer’s​ “End of Watch​” and Denis Villeneuve’s “​Enemy” and​ “Prisoners​.” Will Riz be able to break through without any real prior film industry recognition?

While Emile Hirsch, 22, was only a young kid, ​”Into the Wild”​ was his breakout film performance. He, too, sported an impressive 40-pound weight transformation and had the support of ​two​ supporting artists in Hal Halbrook and Catherine Keener. However, he was also in a film with Sean Penn as its director, an already Oscar winning actor who turned to go behind the camera for the fourth time. Penn received a DGA and Critics’ Choice nomination for directing. Therefore, the film would have already been in the conversation for more than just acting and possibly screenwriting. Does Riz have this same star power behind him and his film? How can he compensate?

Don Cheadle, 40, was similar in age to Riz, and he too found acclaim in TV before making his break in film with Emmy nominations for roles in ​”The Rat Pack​,” “​A Lesson Before Dying” and ​”Things Behind the Sun​.” He also had support as his co-star, Sophie Okonedo, received acclaim and prizes for her performance. However, something he was uniquely boosted by was the sheer importance of the story and subject matter of ​”Hotel Rwanda,​” with the film itself receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture – Drama, a Critics’ Choice nomination for Best Picture as well as a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble. The film also received a Best Original Screenplay nomination. Does Riz have this same level of broader support within the Academy for his movie?

Ryan Gosling, 26, also found his breakout role with ​”Half Nelson​” and had the help of similar critical praise for young supporting actress Shareeka Epps. He portrayed a similar struggle with addiction and acceptance to Riz’s Ruben, and his film ​ was also its director’s directorial debut. Unlike with the other performances, the movie itself wasn’t in either the Best Picture or Best Screenplay conversation, despite Epps’ praise. It was more so recognized in the categories such as Breakout Actor and Young Actor. Gosling was the film’s only real chance at an Oscar nomination. Could Riz’s supporting actors, Raci in particular, potentially overshadow his own acclaim? Highly doubtful, considering Riz has been nominated everywhere he needs to where Raci is currently struggling.

Although they may be contradictory, these are some of the questions we have to ask when considering one’s chances at a coveted Academy Award nomination; in any category (or at least I do).

So who is Riz Ahmed this year? Is he the indie breakout lone nominee Ryan Gosling in ​”Half Nelson​?” Is he the British TV-turned film veteran Colin Firth in ​”A Single Man?​” Is he the lead-screenplay-supporting package like Don Cheadle in ​”Hotel Rwanda?​” Is he the critical-x-guild favorite that gets shut out by both the British and Oscar Academies like Emile Hirsch in “​Into the Wild​?” Is he a precursor juggernaut who is nominated everywhere he needs to be and is then left on the cutting floor on Oscar morning like Jake Gyllenhaal in ​”Nightcrawler?​” Who knows! As William Golding famously put it, “Nobody knows anything.”

Or maybe Riz Ahmed is our very first Riz Ahmed and there is nothing we can turn to in the past to tell us anything. We can only judge the performance itself, which is one of the year’s best. As of right now, the film looks likely to get at least a Best Sound nomination along with Ahmed, so that’s helpful. But then again, the Oscars aren’t statistically generated. These are actual people voting. But, regardless, you can’t blame us for trying to find some correlations.

So what do you think? Who is Riz Ahmed in this year’s Oscar race? Is he ​in​…or is he ​out​? How will his film perform overall? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. You can also check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Nicholas and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Letterboxd here

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