If there’s one race this Oscar season that bears watching closely it’s best actor. Ridiculously over-crowded, we could actually easily fill this category two or three times over. This is a year where, in the case of the leading men, they have all come to play and some truly deserving performances not only might not make it to the finish line, they are in danger of not even making it to the starting line. The field is that strong and is topped by a pair of actors who stand a real chance at grabbing their third Oscar, but nothing is certain, especially in a late-breaking group brimming with career-best turns. Here’s a rundown of the contenders and their current place in the race.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Twice a best actor Oscar winner for My Left Foot (1989) and There Will Be Blood (2007), Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln, one of the most recognizable figures in world history. There are all sorts of landmines he had to avoid, and some have even criticized the vocal choices he made (this is not the Disneyland version of Lincoln), but Day-Lewis nails it like he belongs on that $5 bill and certainly earns as least a share of frontrunner status here.
Denzel Washington, Flight
Washington is another two-time winner (Glory, Training Day) but might have topped even those roles with a bravura turn as a troubled drug- and alcohol-addicted pilot who becomes a media hero just as his own demons threaten to do him in. Playing drunk has always been a ticket to the Oscars, but Washington manages to add a strong human element in a riveting performance certain to gain the attention of his fellow actors.
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
The ever-unpredictable Phoenix made waves and won critical praise for working without a net in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s-set drama about a young man caught up in the early days of a religious cult. Reminiscent of something Brando—or even Day-Lewis—might have done, Phoenix, in a minicomeback, shows again he has acting chops second to none. Even his recent comments disparaging the whole Oscar campaign process likely won’t prevent him from landing in the final five.
Bradley Cooper, The Silver Linings Playbook
Cooper could easily score his first Oscar nomination for this heartfelt, alternately funny and sad portrayal of a man returning home after spending time in a mental institution. Cooper shows new sides of a talent only hinted at in previous movies but must compete against more flamboyant roles. A Golden Globe nomination for comedy is assured, and the film’s popularity could help push him into the final five at Oscar time.
Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock
It always helps to play well-known biographical figures, and Hopkins is the perfect fit as Alfred Hitchcock. Voters are suckers for this type of role. Hopkins, a four-time Oscar nominee and a winner for Silence of the Lambs (1991) hasn’t been in the race since 1997, and Hitch could be his ticket back.
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Breathing Lessons, the documentary short about the life of Mark O’Brien, a disabled man who had to live in an iron lung, won an Oscar, and now Hawkes plays the same man as he attempts to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). Hawkes hits the bullseye with a performance that is dramatic but also surprisingly funny, and he could get his second nomination in just two years after landing in the supporting category for Winter’s Bone in 2010. An actor’s dream role, Hawkes’ performance would be a slam-dunk nomination in any year but this one. Searchlight’s ability to keep the movie front of mind in the race will determine his fate.
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
As a manipulative and slick Wall Street player, Gere delivered his best performance in years, one widely acclaimed by critics. But in a highly competitive field, will the small theatrical/VOD release find enough of an audience to deliver his first-ever—and long overdue—Oscar nomination?
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Taking on one of musical theater’s quintessential roles, the never-nominated former host of the Oscars could find himself sitting front and center for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in the movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Allowing Jackman to show off his considerable musical talents, with even a new song written for him, is something the Academy has long awaited, and this could be a performance that resonates for the likable and popular Jackman.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Lured out of retirement after 14 years, this iconic French star (A Man and a Woman) has the role of a lifetime as a man dealing with the rapidly declining health of his beloved wife. At 82, Trintignant is enormously moving, but can this intense drama about an aging couple break through to enough voters who could find the subject matter wrenching to watch?
Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson
Many think Murray was robbed of the Oscar for Lost in Translation, his only previous nomination, and a nod for his crafty and unexpected turn as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could make up for that slight. Voters love seeing comic actors turn dramatic, and Murray nails the role, but mixed reaction to the film could hurt his chances of making the final five this time.
Also in the mix…
Jack Black, Bernie
Going against type Black, like Murray, impressed critics, but will voters remember this early spring release?
Ben Affleck, Argo
He did a fine job as Tony Mendez, but the Academy is more likely to recognize Affleck in the directing and producing categories and feel they can spread the wealth to other actors in this competitive year.
Tom Holland, The Impossible
Although only 14, Holland carries a big emotional load trying to put his family back together after a devastating tsunami, but will voters think he is too young to be in this category?
Omar Sy, The Intouchables
Sy upset favored Jean Dujardin last year for France’s Cesar award, but can lightning strike twice for this engaging actor? He’s an Oscar longshot, to be sure, but definitely a Golden Globe possibility.
Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch
Gyllenhaal is terrific as a cop patrolling the rough streets of South Los Angeles, but playing the good guy isn’t always to best way to win Oscar attention.
Matt Damon, Promised Land
Damon is earnest and very fine but more likely to land another original screenplay nod than to crack the best actor circle this year, plus the film is coming out very late near the end of the voting period, which hurts the buzz potential.
Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained
Foxx is always formidable, but the Quentin Tarantino film could be a challenge for older voters, hurting Foxx’s chances of repeating his Ray Oscar triumph.
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Waltz, the supporting actor Oscar winner from 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, is moving up into the lead category for another role in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Time will tell if he has as much success in lead as he did in supporting.
Suraj Sharma, Life Of Pi
Carrying the film on his shoulders, Sharma hits a lot of the right notes but is overshadowed by the sheer scope and visual magic of Ang Lee’s epic.
Alan Cumming, Any Day Now
Cumming is great, but the film is just too small to make a dent here. Independent Spirit Awards are a definite possibility.
Frank Langella, Robot and Frank
See Alan Cumming.
Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs
Jones stood out, but the buzz has faded. His best shot is now in the supporting category for Lincoln.
Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust And Bone
A terrific new actor, but his costar Marion Cotillard will get all the awards love for this intense drama.
Clint Eastwood, Trouble With the Curve
There could be sympathy for what might be Eastwood’s final leading role, and he’s in great form, but his trouble with the “chair” at the GOP convention and the movie’s quick disappearance might have negated that.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.