The Best Actor race is insanely crowded this year. So packed that there already seems to be a set list of five nominees, with as many as five more fighting to squeeze their way into a tightly locked space.
To start off, Chiwetel Ejiofor seems set for a nomination and possibly the win for 12 Years a Slave, where he plays Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840's. He and the film have received amazing reviews and as the star and focus of the likely Best Picture winner, he'll be getting the most attention, as often times the Best Picture has a strong lead in the Actor or Actress category. Ejiofor himself has also been working in films for many years now and has been long overlooked in character parts, so this will be his first nomination. Everything seems to be pointing his way at the moment, the only drawback would be that his part is not as showy as his co-stars Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o, who are also favored to win.
In second is Robert Redford, who many see as a lock for All is Lost, and another frontrunner for the win, but I'm iffy on this one. I believe that as the legend and icon he is, that Redford will likely be nominated, but I'm not convinced about the win, seeing how the movie has proved polarizing with audiences (although very well-reviewed by critics). The thinking here is the Academy voters (who are mostly old, white men of his age group) will identify with him and want to see him win an acting Oscar (his only nomination was for The Sting back in 1973), but that didn't work out so well for eight time loser Peter O'Toole a few years ago (and if anyone was owed one it was probably him, right?)
In third we have Matthew McConaughey, who got career best reviews for Dallas Buyers Club and seems assured his first ever nom after a critical career comeback going on two years now. Most think he's locked here and it does look set, but I think if anyone could be bumped for an outsider he's the one who's vulnerable, despite the dramatic weight loss he undertook for the role as a man dying of AIDS.
In fourth is Tom Hanks, who was fantastic in Captain Phillips and hasn't been nominated for an Oscar since Cast Away in 2000. Phillips was well reviewed and has already made $100 million at the box office, so to me this is another set in stone nomination, which would be his sixth (and possibly seventh if he scores a double nod for Saving Mr. Banks this year). On the other hand, if voters want to reward him for one movie and don't see the need for a double nomination, is it possible he's vulnerable? It could happen, but I'm doubtful because he's another beloved icon and the performance is so strong (especially the last fifteen minutes) that I think he will sail through.
And the fifth slot I think will be filled by Bruce Dern for Nebraska, another industry vet who's been around in supporting character parts for decades and has now landed the best role of his career at the age of 77. He would seem in slightly shakier territory, but with people like best bud Jack Nicholson personally out there campaigning for him, he may have more support than we think. It's difficult when every performance is so worthy, because the fight for nominations becomes more based on outside factors- campaigning, likability, personal support within the actor's branch, etc. Who do they want to vote for?
And that's where we come to the outsiders looking to break in to that really tough group and Forest Whitaker is the one I'd love to see make it. He's the center of The Butler, and even though his performance is subtle and understated, he conveys more emotion and power through just his eyes and mannerisms than anyone else could. The movie is backed by Oscar whisperer Harvey Weinstein and may be underestimated in a lot of categories (we'll get to that when I do Best Picture), so I think Whitaker is still a threat here. After him it's Joaquin Phoenix in Her, who has to act opposite an OS and has been spectacularly praised, Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, who's a newcomer as a lead but has also gotten stellar reviews, and Leonardo Dicaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street, who's the big question mark, along with Christian Bale for American Hustle. Both are multiple former nominees who could easily get in again if their performances live up to the hype.
For now, here's who I've got:
I'm not voting for any surprises here, because to me that particular group may very well be locked right now, no matter how great Leo and Christian Bale are in their upcoming movies. The shakiest one of that group in my opinion is either Dern or McConaughey, and I think either of them may be replaced by Forest Whitaker. And we could have a situation where Redford and Dern are fighting it out for the veteran slot, and only one of them makes it. But out of those five, I think Ejiofor's still the one to beat at the moment. Next week I'll take a look at Supporting Actress.