What Kurt said yesterday about the Best Actress race applies to the Best Actor race in spades, only with a little more direct focus. Instead of covering the gamut of popular Oscar strategies, the two strongest locks in this category are playing variations of the same game: homecoming king. No one is going to say either Brad Pitt or George Clooney stretched their acting muscles to the point of tearing in Moneyball and The Descendants. They’re mainly being rewarded for dependability and reasonably mature taste in pet projects, especially in the case of renaissance man Clooney, who at least has the wherewithal to play up his creeping schlubishness—not to mention split an onion in the palm of his hand during The Descendants’s emotional high point.
In contrast, Pitt doesn’t even break a sweat as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, much less shed a tear. If Pitt’s performance is ultimately the better of the two, it’s also the shallower and easier one. But what does one expect of a homecoming king other than to show up, be the effortless best in the room, and waltz away with everyone’s vote? A vote for Pitt says, in essence, we don’t need or even want you to “act.” Just simply be the shining star you are. Oscar picks truly strange times to atone for ignoring Cary Grant, but even skeptics of Pitt’s “magic” insofar as it applies to Moneyball have to at least hand it to the Academy for not forcing Pitt to pile on putty and dodder around as King Lear or Kim Jong-Il before handing over the goods.
Which brings us to Leonardo DiCaprio’s tepidly received performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s dodgy, maybe ever so slightly senile biopic. There are about as few individual people who seem genuinely enthusiastic about his performance as there were contemporaries who witnessed the real Hoover clutch the pearls while imagining what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would look like in a printed sundress. But with nominations from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, the Eastwood factor, the biopic clause, and the old-age spackle all at play on his behalf, the math will likely just show its own work.
Obviously, the balloting closed before the moment Jean Dujardin, upon winning the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical (neither of which The Artist is) broke into an impromptu soft shoe, no doubt at the
contractual demand behest of Harvey Weinstein. He’s charming in both the film and on the circuit, but you’d have to hold your nose pretty tightly not to detect the faintest whiff of Roberto Benigni wafting from the worn elastic of Weinstein’s cummerbund. The slot is all his, but I bet Weinstein wonders whether he shouldn’t have forced Dujardin to scale Sofía Vergara’s chair last Sunday.
No one can seem to agree on who will take that last slot, and the surfeit of solid contenders only points up how frustrating it is to see all but one of the slots in this category all but pre-filled out on the ballots. Some say Michael Shannon, some say Demián Bichir, some say Woody Harrelson. Probably the most salient name in the conversation is Gary Oldman, who delivers a remarkable, controlled performance in a film that admittedly makes it difficult to appreciate. The outrage is that his performance, which outclasses any of the four mentioned above, even comes with an Oscar campaign narrative: the workmanlike professional finally getting his due. On the other hand, there’s Michael Fassbender, who appeared in almost as many movies this year as Oldman has throughout his career. We now know Clooney wants to schedule a round with him on the links, but (as Mark Harris pointed out already) Fassbender’s naked performance in Shame comes up short (ahem) in the ways the Academy typically favors (i.e. it’s implosive, not explosive), and is revealing in ways that make Oscar turn its head and cough. Still, given some of the other locks in this category are pretty skin (or latex) deep, we still like his chances.