Oscar Coverage: Best Actor

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/Courtesy

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I finish off covering the acting categories with not just my favorite lineup this season, but one of my favorite acting lineups the Academy has ever compiled  period. Best Actor almost always languishes with the Oscars mostly because voters are  so adamant about only honoring respected, well-established older actors. They love to nominate young, rising female stars, but they like their leading men aged and respectable. Rarely do they venture into new territory with this category.

And although I don’t believe they ventured too far from their safe zone this year — that would have required nominating the brilliant 21-year-old Logan Lerman for “Perks of Being a Wallflower”—  they went just far enough to find excellent work by diverse performers: two always-reliable acting veterans, one who showed us a new side of himself, and one who achieved a peak in a trademark style of acting specific to him; one A-list actor with a love/hate relationship with the Oscars, but who gave an undeniably great performance; one charismatic movie-star finally recognized for his acting chops rather than his rugged persona or star magnetism; and one quasi-rising young star who pulled the rug out from under us with a bonafide performance. These are the Oscars’ best friends this year (though not in the order I described them)…

Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”

Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”

Hugh Jackman, “Les Miserables”

Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”

Denzel Washington, “Flight”

What do I think?

If I had to rank the nominees it would go 1) Phoenix, 2) Day-Lewis, 3) Cooper, 4) Washington, 5) Jackman.

I hate to actually rank this category if only because I think every single one of these actors made remarkable contributions to movies last year. Like I stated above, this category is stockpiled with amazing work. Even Jackman, housed in a movie I found berating and insipid, has plenty of magical moments to consider his performance an acting triumph. If his is the one performance here I didn’t truly love, I still thought he was exceptionally strong, and I appreciated the obvious commitment and dedication he brought to the part.

Whip Whitaker is Denzel Washington’s meatiest role since “Training Day,” and he delivers a painstaking portrait of a bruised, defiant soul. The fact that this gargantuan performance ranks only fourth says a lot about the quality of work in this category. Heck, the fact that Bradley Cooper managed to paint an even more visceral picture of anxiety and restlessness than his co-nominee surprises  in a good way. I admired how tightly controlled and focused Cooper remained throughout “Silver Linings Playbook,” not just because the actor appears reads so disciplined inside the schizophrenically turbulent character, but even more so because he does that under clunky direction and erratic editing.

The last two contenders give me headaches precisely because I can’t quite choose one over the other. Day-Lewis’s and Phoenix’s performances have nothing in common except for sheer brilliance. Day-Lewis wowed me less so because he added another indelible characterization to his resume and more so because he deviated from an architectural acting style that’s characterized most of his work since “My Left Foot.” Watching him step into Abraham Lincoln’s shoes was like watching Day-Lewis finally strip from a (metaphorical) black-and-white suit we always see him in and into his pajamas. There’s an effortlessness in his performance that allowed him to let down his guard and find nuances we’d never seen from him before.

Finally, there’s the clammy worm Joaquin Phoenix crafts in “The Master.”  Phoenix turns into an aimless soul hidden underneath a shell of inarticulate thirst for something unspeakable. It’s because of Phoenix that, to me, “The Master” became less of a quasi-Scientology study and more of the spiritual journey  and eventually loss. A war veteran endures in post-war limbo.

This is why it’s so hard to pick a favorite … so I’m rooting for a Day-Lewis/Phoenix tie, which of course won’t happen, but in my mind it will.

Who got snubbed?

The fifth spot always seems like it’s up for grabs in awards season. But this category narrowed down quickly to six men very early on.  John Hawkes landed in the dreadful sixth spot for his role in “The Sessions.” There were other long-shots like Anthony Hopkins (“Hitchcock”), Richard Gere (“Arbitrage”), and Tommy Lee Jones (“Hope Springs”). But none of them really had the fighting chance that Hawkes had that in the end failed him.

Unfortunately, Jean-Louis Trintignant was overshadowed by his costar, Emmanuelle Riva, in “Amour.” Riva ended up surprising with a much-deserved nomination, but Trintignant was left on the cutting board for an even more tremendous performance. If Oscar nominations were based solely on quality of work  which they aren’t, but should be Trintignant should have scored here with relative ease.

Who will win?

It’s surprising the ease with which Day-Lewis rose to frontrunner status so quickly in the game given the level of competition. He seems insurmountable at this point, which partly saddens me just because a category this awesome automatically demands a fierce race between such brilliant contenders. Still, Day-Lewis will make Oscar history with a fantastic performance. He deserves it.

My ballot (in alphabetical order)

  1. Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook,” because Pat is a challenging character to master in terms of both tone and motivation, and Cooper aced it.
  2. Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln,” because he’s even more moving as a warmhearted father and a disgruntled husband than he is gripping as the sixteenth President of the United States.
  3. Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master,” because he aced a Sean-Penn-style part, doing marvels with tetchy physicality. The way he hunches his shoulders, flares out his arms like a vulture and ramrods his posture with a cocked jaw add meaning to Freddie Quell’s distorted soul.
  4. Jean-Louis Trintignant, “Amour,” because the anger underneath the good-heartedness, the philosophical life-questioning so readable in his face, and the stoicism fading into his elderly strut make us wonder if Georges is the bigger victim in Haneke’s Book of the Death.
  5. Denzel Washington, “Flight,” because he perfected his patented cocksureness, belligerence and take-no-bullshit bravado so unique to his performances, while still coloring Whip with an anxious, heavy heart and a bruised soul.

Extremely Honorable Mention to Logan Lerman, who doles out character details and flashes of teenage angst in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I wish I could have squeezed him in here but there was just no room.

Contact Braulio at [email protected].