93rd Academy Awards: Handicapping the Best Actor Nominees

This article originally appeared on The Film Experience on 4/18/21

Few years can boast the overall performance strength of this season’s Best Actor lineup.  In a category with two previous Best Actor Oscar winners and two up-and-coming screen stars, the conversation has been blanketed by the shadow of tragedy.  What is the likelihood of each nominated actor coming out on top on Oscar night?

Gary Oldman, Mank
3rd Nomination, 1 Win

Herman J. Mankiewicz doesn’t seem like much of a drunk.  Most of the time he is drinking, but Mank himself is more reserved and prone to intellectual conversations.  Gary Oldman is known to sink into his characters and the sober/mostly sober version of Mank is a man riddled with doubt, worry and resolve, which Oldman embodies beautifully.  The one time Oldman gets to go big and truly drunk, he transforms into an entirely different species.  Oldman/Mank is more of a cartoon than that of a human.  Every word is booze-laden and slurred.  No one step is in front of the other.  He blisters and rails in a way that comes after a powerful moment, but still feels unearned.  Not only does he drunkenly pitch his ideas, the pitch goes on-and-on with no end in sight.  I really appreciate and enjoy the Oldman I get in every other scene, but his drunken film pitch almost ruins the entire characterization.  While Oldman performs admirably overall, it’s the weakest of this strong group.

Odds to Win: 100-1.  Oldman is firmly in the “Happy to be here” group.  He doesn’t even pose a long-shot chance of upsetting.

Steven Yeun, Minari
1st Nomination

Ahmed, Boseman, Hopkins, Oldman all have their big and bold Oscar clips at the ready.  Steven Yeun’s work in Minari is the work of underplaying and quiet.  Yeun’s Jacob has no outburst or tearful monologue; he is trying to succeed for his family without divulging his struggles.  Jacob believes in the American dream and he will put in the work (and work he does) in order to achieve that dream.  Does that dream include selfishness and shortsightedness?  Absolutely.  He represses his emotions because he knows his emotions don’t matter when it comes to succeeding.  Yeun’s performance is more of an ideal than a showcase.  Jacob’s presence looms throughout as the family adapts to the world around them, constantly buoyed by the work Jacob performs.  Just as Hopkin’s performance works in concert with that of Olivia Colman, Yeun’s performance is echoed in the exasperation of Yeri Han’s character Monica.  The two performances are so linked together, it feels almost criminal to celebrate Yeun without a corresponding notice for Han.  Monica wants family harmony and ease, while Jacob wants prosperity and legacy and is willing to sacrifice his own happiness to achieve it.  Yeun could have overplayed the part so easily and it would have made Minari less effective.  Luckily, Jacob lets his farming do the talking and Yeun proves why doing less can equal more. 

Odds to Win: 40-1.  Minari’s late-breaking momentum garnered Yeun a well-deserved nomination, but he will have to wait for another year for the gold.

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
1st Nomination

My personal favorite male performance of the year.  Ahmed’s character Ruben arrives starkly; shirtless with bleached hair while banging passionately on the drums.  His musicianship is punctuated by his calculated listening and playing off his music partner/girlfriend.  Shortly after, Ruben loses his hearing.  This sends his life, which he felt like he finally had under control, into a spiral.  He finds solace in a rural shelter for deaf recovering addicts.  Ahmed makes an intelligent decision early on.  As Ruben craves stability, his mind is anything but stable.  Ruben rebels from the systems of the community, then embraces it.  Later, he breaks the rules and learns to adapt with them.  The film is littered with Ruben’s indecision and snap judgement, but concludes with Ruben finally in a place of stable serenity where Ahmed’s thoughtful work can shine and we as the audience can know that Ruben is at peace.

Odds to win: 20-1.  Without Boseman, Best Actor would be down to Ahmed vs Hopkins and it might have bent in Ahmed’s favor given Hopkins’ previous win.

Anthony Hopkins, The Father
6th Nomination, 1 Win

The character of Anthony (the role shares a first name with the actor) doesn’t feel like anything is wrong.  How would you feel if everyone says you constantly need help and can’t live alone in your own apartment?  Would you feel like the world is closing in on you, or would you lash out?  All the characters in The Father are on eggshells around Anthony because they don’t know how intact his mind is from moment to moment.  Meanwhile, Hopkins knows just how Anthony would act as he turns on the charm for a young woman or chats politely with the cordial man sitting in his living room.  Just because Anthony’s mind is deceiving him in regards to time and memory, it doesn’t mean he is stupid and Hopkins wears his character’s knowledge like armor.  It would be so easy to infantize Anthony and make him a puppy that needs protecting, but Hopkins portrays booming life and cannot understand why everyone is making such a fuss.  Why do people keep showing up and keep showing such emotion?  When his mind begins to wander and he wonders if something is amiss, he still tries to remain in control.  Anthony is not a simple, sweet man, but a complex portrait of a complex man, with a decaying mind.  Portraying an illness like dementia could have been so wrong in less capable hands, but Hopkins shows that old age does not mean he has lost a step.

Odds to win: 8-1.  Screen legend + powerful performance + playing their advancing age = Oscar gold, but this is not a normal year.  Chalk his BAFTA win to his Britishness.  This is still Boseman’s.

Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
1st Nomination (Posthumous)

The shadow of Boseman’s death is inescapable from the film and that’s what makes Boseman’s performance as Levee so devastating.  Levee is ALIVE and Boseman imbues him with fervor and grand dreams, and God help you if you get in his way.  The role allows Boseman to show off a radiant personality while holding back where his real motivations lie.  Though they share only a few scenes, Viola Davis’ titular character and Boseman are the push and pull that makes the film sing.  Ma Rainey wants to play the standards in the way they were intended to be played.  Levee wants to shake things up for the way the world is evolving.  Levee’s problem is the world is evolving too slowly.  He has no illusions about the truth of the world, but naively believes he can overcome those truths if he does things certain ways.  Just as Levee was born a century too early, Boseman left us far too early.  At least he left us with this searing portrait of ambition and life.

Odds to win: 2-5.  The performance itself was great enough and the posthumous nomination will  translate to an Oscar win.  Expect a heartfelt, tearful acceptance speech from Boseman’s widow.

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