In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!
This year's Best Actor race was the most competitive I've seen in years. The nominations could easily have been filled with a different quintet, actors like Forest Whitaker, Oscar Isaac, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and more all boasting potential throughout the season. Indeed, the category brought a shocker in the form of Hanks being dismissed in favor of – in all likelihood – one of the actors from the year's two late-breaking contenders. It was an embarrassment of riches, and the final five are hard to argue with, to be perfectly honest. I mean, I can't speak for anyone else, but I'd be happy with any of them winning. We've likely seen the writing on the wall for over a year, however, ever since a certain project was announced for a certain actor changing the trajectory of his career.
The nominees are…
Christian Bale, “American Hustle”
Christian Bale actually put out a pair of fine performances in 2013, it's just a shame his superior work in Scott Cooper's “Out of the Furnace” wasn't the one that was remembered. Nevertheless, he offered up yet another transformative piece of work in David O. Russell's “American Hustle,” one of four cast members from the film nominated for Oscars. As good as he was in it, though, and as solid a year as he had, he feels like he's bringing up the rear in this race. All of his co-nominees have precursor support or narratives going for them where Bale is just sort of here, keeping that even keel of greatness going. Perhaps we're in an age of taking it for granted. (Check out our interview with Bale here.)
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Against all odds (including sniping journalists and Oscar bloggers who thought it was insane for Paramount to chase a lead campaign, even after he WON the Cannes lead actor prize), Bruce Dern is finally a Best Actor nominee. His performance in “Nebraska” is, like a number of great pieces of work this year, deceptively simple. It's less a performance than a becoming, and the actor relished the opportunity to get under the character's skin. Behind the scenes he's had the likes of Jack Nicholson stumping for him, and plenty of goodwill built up besides. So you can bet he's landing his share of votes. It probably isn't enough to win, but the question is, which of the three most likely players is he pulling votes from? (Check out our interview with Dern here.)
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Leonardo DiCaprio turned it on at just the right moment with his “Wolf of Wall Street” campaign. During phase one, with ballots in hand, he hopped on the phone with the press, defended the film against certain rhetoric and basically just planted a flag. Along the way he picked up Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards, though in comedy categories. And his last real opportunity to take a stand and position himself as serious competition for the win may have been at the BAFTA Awards, with the film surging at the UK box office. He wasn't able to turn the trick there, so that may be a sign that he didn't quite build up enough steam. But don't be surprised if he pulls it off after all; this is one of his greatest performances and his campaign highlighted that. (Check out our interview with DiCaprio here.)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
If you're feeling like this race is ripe for a surprise and you want to predict outside the box, your best bet may be Chiwetel Ejiofor. The actor won the BAFTA prize for “12 Years a Slave” and, in many ways, he and his work in the film feel like a classic winner in this category (particularly if the film itself is set for a Best Picture victory, which it very well could be). An actor who has been toiling away in character work for years, Ejiofor hit the leading man stage with a vengeance this year and we certainly haven't heard the last of him. He may well be nominated here again in the future. But I have a hunch he'll be defined by this wonderful work for some time. (Check out our interview with Ejiofor here.)
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
All of that having been said, the smart money remains on Matthew McConaughey. The narrative has been written about ad nauseam by this point, but the actor completely changed the course of his career a few years ago and the “McConaissance” hit overdrive in 2013 with stellar work in “Mud,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His performance in the latter as a homophobe diagnosed with HIV took him places he's never been before. He lost a ton of weight and brought a truly committed performance to the screen, one that has won him a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and a Critics' Choice prize. He's on a roll, and it just feels like his year. (Check out our interview with McConaughey here.)
Will win: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Could win: Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Should have been here: Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Much as I love McConaughey and what he's done with his career, I can't help but admit I'd love to see DiCaprio take this. But again, I'd be happy with any of them winning. More importantly, it remains, to me, rather despicable that “Inside Llewyn Davis” was so nearly stiffed by the Academy, but c'est la vie. Oscar Isaac gave, to my mind, the year's best performance, but he always seemed like a longshot, even when it appeared the film itself might do better than it did. In any case, you could go a number of different ways here if you wanted to be frisky with your prediction, but if you want to play it safe, put the chip on McConaughey.
Who do you think deserves to win Best Actor this year? Vote in our poll below.
Who should have been here instead? Have your say in the comments section.