If this year’s Best Actor race is all about which nominee brandishes the most compelling story, then Christian Bale faces some mighty long odds. Not only is the actor only two years removed from his Oscar win for The Fighter, but the consensus is that he gained enough of a victory by being nominated this year. Not faring much better is Leonardo DiCaprio, whose “always the nominee, never the winner” stasis—admittedly a sexier narrative—still needs about 10 more years of ripening before voters begin to sympathize. And as if those reasons weren’t enough, the cheating, swindling characters Bale and DiCaprio play, in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street respectively, are the two that Academy voters will surely find most unlikable, which effectively guarantees their losses.
Bruce Dern’s case is admittedly more complicated. While his confused character from Nebraska elicits more pity than outright contempt, the actor’s emergence from nearly two decades of relative obscurity for “one last shot” at Oscar gold almost certainly played a part in awards prognosticators deeming him the early favorite after the Cannes Film Festival last May. But as the Best Actor campaign took shape through the fall and into the winter, it has whittled down to a two-way race between Chiwitel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey, a development no doubt aided by the charged racial and gender politics of their respective films.
Slant’s Oscar predicting team was largely not won over by either Dallas Buyers Club or 12 Years a Slave, in view of the former’s problematic ideological issues (outlined cogently by R. Kurt Osenlund), and the latter’s aesthetic ostentations. Nonetheless, we recognize (some more grudgingly than others) that both McConaughey and Ejiofor, in their respective roles, command the screen with intimacy and nuance rather than the kind of overblown intensity that too often translates to a victory here. It’s probably no coincidence that both actors portray men who are abruptly faced with their mortality and take extreme measures to survive. Oscar voters love a good redemption story, and there are even traces of that in how both actors have arrived at this point in their careers.
For instance, Ejiofor’s rise from career-long character actor to convincing leading man has a redemptive quality and makes for a formidable narrative for voters to rally behind. But the home run here is McConaughey, whose trajectory from Hollywood’s wonder boy to “will do anything for the paycheck” rom-com leading man brands his campaign even sweeter to Oscar voters who never thought he could summon more beyond a charming smile and Texan accent. Few could have predicted that McConaughey could ignite a three-year run of vivid performances that would eventually culminate in Oscar glory and, more importantly, validation of his distinctive voice and long-hinted-at thespian gifts. And since Dallas Buyers Club is a terrible reminder of Hollywood’s hypocritical ideals, perhaps it’s fitting that the very community that has long denied McConaughey the ability to show off his chops now stands poised to accept him into its elite ranks.
Will Win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Could Win: Chiwitel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street