We’re in the home stretch of Oscar prediction week. Today I’ll take a look at the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. There is some really solid work in both of these categories and despite what some predict, I don’t think either of these are a lock.
Best Actor Nominees
Christian Bale (American Hustle) – This guy is a chameleon. It isn’t just the physical transformation either. Sure, he put on 40 pounds to play Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle but it’s his immersive performance that is so engrossing. Bale is so good in this role that you can feel Irving’s anxiety grow every time Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso disregards Irving’s expert advice and takes their sting another step closer to spinning out of control.
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) – There is a fine line between “subtle” and “bland.” I don’t think there was anything about Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant that was subtle. The entire performance is Woody gazing off into the distance, unaware of the conversation around him wrapped in one long pause after another followed by a distant and confused, “Huh?” That’s an Oscar nominated performance? Not in my book.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) – What is it going to take for the Academy to give Leo some love? This is by far DiCaprio’s best performance since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? but without the benefit of the juicy mentally challenged role the Academy drools over (when it’s done well). DiCaprio’s performance as Jordan Belfort is a runaway train that doesn’t slow down for one second. I can only imagine how exhausting that must have been. But there isn’t one frame of let down, and clocking in at a robust 3 hours that’s a lot of frames. And DiCaprio is in nearly every single scene. The guy is a machine and carried The Wolf of Wall Street from cocaine-fueled start to Quaalude-induced finish.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) – I am so glad to see Chiwetel Ojiofor finally getting some recognition. I was really surprised he didn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2005 for Kinky Boots. He has so much range. If Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant is overacting with subtlety to the point of boring (yes, not all overacting is Nicolas Cage style), Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is the picture of restraint. Northup is constantly suppressing unimaginable rage under the surface but stays true to himself. Ejiofor carefully reveals these complex layers to the audience with great depth. This is how subtlety should be played, Bruce.
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) – McConaughey could have received 2 Oscar nominations this year. One for Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club and one for Best Supporting Actor for Mud. Plus he had a scene stealing role in The Wolf of Wall Street. That’s how good a year he’s had. All of that on the heels of Oscar buzz last year for Magic Mike. It’s a McConaissance! (get it? like a renaissance… but with Matthew McConaughey) The more I watch him in this role the more impressive it gets. I read that a couple of other high-profile actors turned down this role. Whether or not that’s actually true, it wouldn’t be as good if it weren’t McConaughey. Like with Christian Bale, it isn’t just about the physical transformation which is truly impressive. It’s Ron Woodroof’s emotional and psychological transformation that McConaughey delivers that wows the most. It also isn’t just because it’s Matthew McConaughey. It’s not like Adam Sandler pulled off this role. McConaughey has always been a serious actor. It’s about time we all figured it out.
OSCAR WINNER: Matthew McConaughey
SELBY PICK: Matthew McConaughey
Best Actress Nominees
Amy Adams (American Hustle) – Like Bradley Cooper, I wasn’t sure Amy Adams would get nominated for her this role. But I’m glad she did. What I liked most about her performance as Sydney Prosser was how she played the Lady Edith Greensly side. It was a performance inside a performance. Adams made such a great choice in how she played Sydney playing Edith. She didn’t make the mistake of playing it as two characters but rather Edith was Sydney’s take on Edith. The British accent she gives Edith is pretty lousy. But that’s not because Amy Adams can’t do a great British accent, it’s because Sydney can’t. It was a 1970’s interpretation of what a former stripper from New Mexico thought passed as a sophisticated Englishwoman. It’s just one small part of what makes Adam’s work so enjoyable.
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – I wrote recently about how our expectations influence how we watch movies. I think it’s a fascinating concept when you start to think about it. I had heard quite a bit about Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine Francis for quite some time. And Blue Jasmine was the final film I saw in my annual Oscar watch. I don’t know if she fell victim to the enormous buildup but I was a little disappointed. Now don’t get me wrong. She is stellar in this film and the nonlinear style of storytelling employed really demonstrates the different stages of Jasmine’s journey and how the events she’s gone through have changed her. But I was expecting the kind of slam dunk, Oscar lock we had last year with Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. She was fantastic but I don’t see her as the runaway favorite.
Sandra Bullock (Gravity) – Bullock’s performance as rookie mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity was also touted as a guaranteed Oscar nomination and highly probable win once upon a time. And I can see why. What she has to carry as a performer basically all by herself for the vast majority of the film is extraordinary. There’s also more depth to her character than some have given her credit for. I think Dr. Stone’s backstory plays very well into this adventure and you have to hand it to Bullock for layering that emotional experience with great precision.
Judi Dench (Philomena) – Can a foreigner be a national treasure? Probably not here. So I envy the Brits for getting to claim this Dame for themselves. How has Judi Dench done such incredible work for so long with so little to show for it in terms of Oscars? One?!? For Shakespeare in Love? That’s it? That’s a shame. I think she may suffer in that area due to such incredible consistency. There isn’t anything Dench can’t do. She does so much so well in her portrayal of Philomena Lee that it seems effortless. Every bit of heartache, devotion, regret, loss and hope is woven so naturally that not for one moment do you question the sincerity of Dench’s depiction. Philomena is an emotional tale to be sure. But Dench keeps it from ever becoming phony or sappy.
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – Speaking of doing great work for so long. I used to joke about how Meryl Streep will get nominated in any given year because she made a film. While that’s not entirely true, there have been a few times where I wondered if the nomination was really warranted (The Bridges of Madison County, Music from the Heart, The Devil Wears Prada). But not this time. It’s hard to imagine why Streep isn’t the frontrunner in this category. Violet Weston is such a complex character and Streep plays her so complexly. Every cutting jibe, every snarky eye roll, every rebuke wrapped in Oklahoma charm are delivered so instinctively they never come across as forced dialogue or just plain mean. I never hated Violet Weston in this film. I don’t think we’re supposed to. We’re not supposed to feel sorry for her either. That’s a fine line to walk and a lesser actress would have a hard time not teetering right off. Street walks it with ease.
OSCAR WINNER: Cate Blanchett
SELBY PICK: Meryl Streep
We’re getting close to our finale tomorrow. Be sure to let me know what you think by commenting below and voting. And as always you can hit me up on Twitter (@cmselby). Tomorrow I’ll break down each of the Best Picture nominees. In the meantime, check out all of my Oscar predictions here.