We weren't kidding back in December when we wrote about how this year's Best Actor pool may have been the greatest ever. Two months later, and we seemingly have the tightest race in this category in at least 12 years. And let's put an emphasis on “seemingly.”
From a pundit, industry and Oscar fan perspective, it appears as though three of the five nominees have a legitimate shot to celebrate on Oscar Sunday. First up is “The Theory of Everything's” Eddie Redmayne. The 33-year-old Brit has already won a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and, as expected, the BAFTA Award in this category for his incredible portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the popular biopic.
Redmayne's main competition for most of awards season has been “Birdman's” Michael Keaton. The veteran actor was the apple of critics groups' eyes, earning honors from the National Board of Review and, by our count, 20 other organizations. He took home the Globe for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy and managed two Best Actor honors from the Critics' Choice Awards. While he lost at the SAG Awards, “Birdman” did win Best Ensemble. That means you could easily make a case that there is support for the movie and his performance within the actors branch. Because of his long and legendary career, Keaton arguably knows more Academy members than his competitors and is seen as an icon for the lasting impact of his earlier work. Is there a faction of the membership that wants to give him an Oscar so he can finally join the club? You bet there is.
Once their respective films had screened in September it confirmed what many had foreseen in the summer, a race between Redmanye and Keaton for the win with “The Imitation Game's” Benedict Cumberbatch being a potential party crasher. What wasn't necessarily foreseen was the wild card entry of “American Sniper's” Bradley Cooper. “Sniper” debuted somewhat late in the season and that contributed to the actor finding himself out of the SAG race (he'd been nominated three times previously) and not earning yet another Golden Globe nod (he'd been nominated for his last two films).
On Oscar nomination day, however, Cooper was riding some high profile support and “Sniper's” incredible box office to effectively knock “Nightcrawler's” Jake Gyllenhaal or “Selma's” David Oyelowo (take your pick) out of the final five. In the weeks since, the R-rated “Sniper” has crossed the $300 million mark and many believe a Cooper win could be how the Academy collectively rewards the film. The 40-year-old is also nominated for the third year in a row. The last time that rare feat happened? 2004 when Renee Zellweger won Best Supporting Actress for “Cold Mountain.”
Momentum is a powerful thing in Oscar land. Just ask Adrien Brody, who won this category facing stiff competition from Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) and Nicholas Cage (“Adaptation”). The big difference between Brody and Cooper, however, is that the former had earned SAG and BAFTA nods, the latter did not. So is Cooper's perceived ascension more a case of wishful thinking from the media? Is it really still coming down to a “pick 'em” between Redmayne and Keaton?
It's important to note that Redmayne, Keaton and fellow nominee Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) have been working the circuit, literally, for months. You name an awards season event and they have probably been there. Cooper has been in the mix more recently, but considering how much he's played the game the past two seasons, he didn't hesitate to jump into the fray. The fact that Cumberbatch was barely able to campaign due to his work schedule is an example of how a potential winner can become an also-ran in a competitive season. (Nope, it's not always about the quality of the work itself, unfortunately.)
And yet, history may be on Redmayne's side. Statistically, only twice has an actor won both SAG and BAFTA Best Actor awards and lost the Oscar over the 21 year history of the SAGs. Hollywood also loves transformational roles, from Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” to Jamie Foxx in “Ray” and Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club” this past year. And, as silly as this sounds, have we mentioned how Redmayne has wonderfully charmed voters from New York to Los Angeles and back again? This is an incredibly tough race to call and anything may happen on Oscar night, but it's hard to bet against Redmayne at this point.