We’re currently at a very thrilling moment in the awards race. It’s the time when there are still so many possible ways that every single category can go. With no significant precursors or critics awards announced yet, every contender is realistically still on the board. This will all change soon, as major voting bodies will begin doling out their chosen champions – the New York Film Critics Circle announces their winners tomorrow, followed by the National Board of Review on December 6th, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association on December 10th, not to mention the onslaught of televised and guild awards that will be releasing their picks not long after that.
While awards pundits and followers can rarely agree on anything, it’s widely recognized that the Best Actor race is consistently among the least exciting, especially compared to the often-overstuffed Best Actress category. This isn’t to say we’re ever lacking an abundance of leading male performances, especially in Hollywood. Still, oftentimes, the final five men ultimately selected by the Academy are rarely a quintet that truly represents the best of the year. This year, however, there’s an excellent chance that the crowded Best Actor field will not only result in one of the better modern lineups but also give us the types of heartbreaking snubs usually reserved for Best Actress. Before things get locked into place and feel all but inevitable later in the season, let’s look at the major contenders at this point in the awards race.
There’s a clear trio of leading men who have established themselves as frontrunners, even this early in the season. In alphabetical order, they are Bradley Cooper (“Maestro“), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Killers of the Flower Moon“), and Cillian Murphy (“Oppenheimer“). Long story short, there would have to be some big unforeseen shake-ups for them not to be nominated, based on the reactions to their respective films and buzz for their performances.
Like his previous Oscar-nominated performance in “A Star is Born,” Cooper is directing himself and serving as a co-writer for this passion project biopic about the great composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro.” Self-directed performances aren’t uncommon amongst nominees of the past, but only two actors have won an acting Oscar for a film that they directed – Laurence Olivier for “Hamlet” all the way back in 1948 and Roberto Benigni for the World War 2 dramedy “Life is Beautiful.” The Academy is much more willing to award actors in the Best Director race, such as Clint Eastwood (“Unforgiven” & “Million Dollar Baby”), Kevin Costner (“Dances with Wolves”), and Warren Beatty (“Reds”), among others. Still, Cooper’s performance seems to have all the qualities of many recent Best Actor winners. For one, he’s playing a real person. In the past decade of winners, all but four Best Actor winners depicted real-life figures in biopics. And for another, he’s covered in a not-insignificant amount of makeup, which worked well for recent winners Brendan Fraser (“The Whale“), Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody“), and Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour“). The Academy is clearly drawn to transformative performances from their leading men, which may help push Cooper from being a nine-time Oscar loser to an Academy Award winner in a performance many are calling the best of his career.
Leonardo DiCaprio is no stranger to the Oscars. Ever since his first nomination at 19 years old for Best Supporting Actor for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” he’s been an Academy favorite. In fact, part of the reason that he finally won for “The Revenant” was the incessant narrative of him being overdue for the win, which had even burst out of the relatively niche circle of awards followers into the mainstream. He’s been very selective with the roles he’s chosen since winning, only working on three films since “The Revenant.” His follow-up performance in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” resulted in another Best Actor nomination, and he probably came close to one for the Best Picture nominee “Don’t Look Up.” With his latest film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” DiCaprio has reunited with Martin Scorsese for the first time since 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That film was an Academy favorite that landed five nominations, including one for Leo, and there’s little reason to think that his latest collaboration with the master filmmaker won’t similarly appeal to the Oscars. His performance as Ernest Burkhart is decidedly different from roles he’s taken on in the past – he’s a charmless, unappealing man with few qualities that match the movie star charisma that’s helped DiCaprio remain an A-list talent for 30 years. It’s a relative stretch for him, making his performance even more impressive.
It seems inevitable that “Oppenheimer” will be the big story at the upcoming Oscars. The film was universally acclaimed upon its release this past summer, made an almost shocking amount of money for a three-hour-long period drama that’s almost entirely made up of men having conversations, and (along with its marquee buddy “Barbie“) was undoubtedly the most impactful film that the culture has seen since before the pandemic. That’s an impossible combination of factors for the Academy to ignore. Not only is it likely to rack up double-digit nominations, but it may also sweep a good number of above and below-the-line categories the night of the ceremony. Cillian Murphy’s performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer is at the center of the film. On the surface, it’s not exactly the kind of work that the Oscars usually go for in this category. Best Actor winners are typically loud and attention-grabbing. Murphy gives a much more subdued, internal performance, which is essential to the film working. He’s rarely off-screen, and when he is, it’s almost always to defer to other characters talking about him. And while it may not be the flashiest performance, it’s already become iconic in its own way. One only needs to briefly scroll Twitter to find someone using a screenshot of him to express distress. In fact, the incredibly powerful final moment is predicated on Murphy’s face, being able to show a specific, almost paradoxical mix of unreadability and extreme regret. It’s impressive work that the acting branch of the Academy might respond well to in particular.
After this trio stands another three leading men who are arguably clamoring to fill the last two slots in the category; first is Colman Domingo, the titular civil rights pioneer in “Rustin.” Domingo is the kind of working actor who’s earned plenty of respect in featured roles for decades (along with an Emmy win and Tony nomination), and with “Rustin,” he’s finally the center of a film. Responses to the movie have been mixed overall, but no one is denying the impact of his performance. Outside of a potential Best Original Song nomination, Domingo’s performance will likely be the only aspect of the film contending for Oscar recognition. That’s not unheard of in this category – Paul Mescal was the singular nomination for “Aftersun” just last year. But overall, the Best Actor category has more heavily favored Best Picture nominees and films that play well to the Academy as a whole. If Domingo has enough passion and goodwill directed towards him – with the assistance of the all-powerful awards machine of Netflix – he could hear his name called on nomination morning.
Paul Giamatti is in the running for a film that’s much more likely to appeal to the Academy: “The Holdovers.” This Alexander Payne film feels like a fastball pitched right toward Oscar voters. It’s a throwback to the kinds of mid-budget, adult-minded films that the Academy gravitated towards in the 70s, which is when the film is set. It’s amiable and difficult to dislike and is widely predicted for Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nods, along with potential supporting nominations for Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa. And Giamatti gives the kind of funny performance with moments of genuine heart that the Academy loves. However, long-time Oscar watchers are almost certainly having flashbacks to the last time that Payne and Giamatti paired up – 2004’s “Sideways.” That film was beloved by the Academy, scoring five nominations, including Best Picture and winning Adapted Screenplay. However, despite a strong precursor awards run, Giamatti was shockingly snubbed by the Oscars in what was a similarly crowded Best Actor field. The Academy’s mea culpa came in the form of a Best Supporting Actor nomination the following year for “Cinderella Man,” but that doesn’t mean he’s the kind of Academy favorite who is guaranteed a nomination this season.
The last of this second tier of contenders is Jeffrey Wright for “American Fiction.” At its premiere, the film took the Toronto International Film Festival by storm, eventually winning the all-important People’s Choice Award. That distinction launched the film into the Best Picture race and, along with it, put Wright on the path to a potential Oscar nomination. Like Murphy and Domingo, Wright has been a respected actor for decades who’s finally been given the chance to lead a film. There’s an argument to be made that Wright is currently the most talented actor who has yet to score an Oscar nomination, mainly owing to the types of sturdy featured roles he’s taken on in the past. These parts are essential to the success of their respective films but aren’t the types of roles that the Academy usually feels the need to spotlight. However, his role in the crowd-pleasing “American Fiction” could change all that. If it scores Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations, as many are predicting, it’s easy to imagine that love translating to a Best Actor mention for Wright.
Outside these six men competing for five slots, there are still a host of other leading actors in contention. It’s still early enough in the season that this race is far from solidified, and every player is still on the proverbial table. Adam Driver plays the legendary founder of the titular luxury car manufacturer “Ferrari,” helmed by acclaimed director Michael Mann. The auteur has a rocky history with the Academy – “The Insider” scored Best Picture and Best Director nominations, and “Ali” and “Collateral” each received a handful of nods. And, of course, Driver is one of those actors who feels like he’ll inevitably win an Oscar one day. However, even if he manages to get a nomination, this doesn’t feel like his victory year.
Barry Keoghan follows up his Best Supporting Actor nomination for last year’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” with “Saltburn” from Oscar-winning writer-director Emerald Fennell. The film is a brash, shocking look at class politics that may scare off the average Academy voter. However, if it’s embraced, Keoghan could receive the kind of “we really like you now” nomination quickly following a first-time nod that the Academy loves to give out.
“All of Us Strangers” is the latest film from the well-regarded filmmaker Andrew Haigh, and it’s been making audiences cheer and cry in equal measure ever since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. Andrew Scott is the film’s anchor, and much like many of this year’s contenders, he’s the type of respected actor who’s been working and receiving good notices for quite some time but has yet to break through with film awards bodies. The movie stands a decent chance at recognition in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, and if enough voters find themselves moved by it, it could break through into Best Picture and Best Actor.
Beyond these strong contenders lies a handful of other leading men who are definitely in the running for Best Actor, although for one reason or another, their chances appear less likely at this point in the season. Michael Fassbender is a two-time Oscar nominee who leads David Fincher’s “The Killer,” and although his performance is well-regarded, the film doesn’t seem like the type of Fincher flick that’ll appeal to the Academy. Gael García Bernal plays the titular role in “Cassandro,” the true story of a gay luchador. The film received decent notices after its premiere at Sundance, most notably for his performance. However, he will likely be the film’s only point of recognition this season if he manages some critics’ awards wins. Ridley Scott’s latest epic “Napoleon” is led by Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix as the infamous emperor. The film is decidedly divisive, but voters clearly love Phoenix. After some initial category confusion, A24 is wisely campaigning Teo Yoo in Best Actor for “Past Lives.” Like the film itself, it’s a quiet, yearning performance that doesn’t exactly line up with the typical work that gets rewarded in Best Actor, but if Academy voters embrace the film, he could get swept up in the love. And finally, Koji Yakusho gives an acclaimed performance in Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days,” which is a strong contender in the Best International Feature race. In recent years, the typically America-centric Academy has found room for international performances, such as Antonio Banderas for “Pain and Glory” or Penélope Cruz for “Parallel Mothers.” If the newer, more diverse voting bloc falls in love with his performance, that may be enough to land him a surprise nomination.
We still have weeks to go before the Oscar nominations are announced, and as every season proves, there’s still plenty of time for surprises and unexpected twists. The only thing guaranteed about this year’s Best Actor race is that it’s likely to be one of the best lineups the category has ever seen.
Who do you think will win NYFCC tomorrow? Who do you think is the frontrunner for Best Actor? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.