You can write Brad Pitt off right now—not because his performance presumably owes some debt to the wizardry of makeup and hexadecimal code (let’s face it, actors frequently flat-out win this category thanks to wonton latex appliqué), but instead because this category is owned by the assholes. Make that old assholes, otherwise Leonardo DiCaprio’s devolution in Revolutionary Road from smooth but sensitive breadwinner to sniveling, tantrum prone boy-in-man’s-body would probably be every bit the contender Kate Winslet is. DiCaprio’s still got a shot, but we prefer the odds on Richard Jenkins (who underplays his crusty role to the extent that The Visitor becomes less an example of white liberal guilt and more an endorsement of well-timed white liberal rage), Frank Langella (whose Richard Nixon resembles the former president only in the same sense that Joan Crawford resembled Medea), and Clint Eastwood. Granted, Eastwood’s probably got the toughest obstacles to surmount because, though his character (potential spoiler alert) achieves a dignified and easy moment of total redemption, and even though he coughs up more blood than Camille, Satine, and Ratso Rizzo combined, there is the small matter of how delicately Eastwood the director allows Eastwood the scowling matinee idol to walk the line between absolving him of his grumpy-old-coot racism and valorizing him (it. But we can easily imagine there’s a big enough bloc of Academy members who now stroke their own cocked fingers while glaring at their minority of choice. That all said, the category’s two undeniable frontrunners—Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke—are admittedly not so much assholes as they are calculating and callous, respectively. Rourke’s biggest dick move (forgetting to go out (dinner with his estranged daughter) would normally be forgiven in the second act of a family sitcom. And Sean Penn’s ruthlessness as a politician is easily rectified by the film’s firm knowledge that he’s in the right; in other words, slightly dirty politics are A-OK if they light the fire under the asses of the well-meaning do-nothing-ers. Like Nixon said, when Harvey Milk stabs Dan White in the back and all but blackmails George Moscone, it’s not illegal.
Will Be Nominated: Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk), and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
Should Be Nominated: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Redbelt), Michael Fassbender (Hunger), Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Sean Penn (Milk), and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.