I have to be honest, I was really and genuinely surprised that Robert DeNiro wasn’t nominated for this award. Considering that he had done his best work in years making THE IRISHMAN, it seemed a no brainer to me that he would get a nod for the first time in seven years (for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which came 21 years after the previous one, for CAPE FEAR, in 1992). I mean, if Al Pacino is going to be nominated, then of course DeNiro would be, too, right? So much for that logic.
To be clear, I’m not saying I’m disappointed that he wasn’t nominated, just surprised. I mean, looking at the list of actors here, the two biggest surprises to me are the ones who, in my mind, deserve the award the most, but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s take a moment to talk about the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and how it tends to shake out.
Last year, I said that Rami Malek deserved to win this award, and he did win it. Looking back, I think I was wrong. I think that what Bradley Cooper did last year was just as good performance-wise as what Malek did, and when you consider the fact that he directed himself in the performance, and in his directorial debut, to boot, I think that should have earned him the extra points needed to beat Rami’s pitch perfect Freddy Mercury impersonation.
The thing about that is, it’s actually a microcosm for the Best Actor race, year in and year out, and also showcases one of its major issues: it often rewards mimicry over actual performance. Of the last 10 winners of this category, six of the actors won for playing a real person. Taking nothing from Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, or Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln, or Colin Firth’s King George VI, they won because of how they immersed themselves into the roles, more than they won for a genuine performance. This is especially true for Eddie Redmayne, who stole an Oscar from a far more deserving Michael Keaton in 2015 by doing a bad impersonation of Stephen Hawking, which mostly consisted of slurring his words and being slumped in a wheel chair for long sections of the flick.
No, I don’t forget injustices, so let’s just move on.
It’s because of this that I was so surprised about DeNiro, and, paradoxically, why I was so aggravated that Taron Egerton didn’t get nominated for ROCKETMAN, but was so happy that Jonathan Pryce got his first ever Oscar nod for playing Pope Francis in THE TWO POPES.
But Neil, you might ask, how is that different from the complaints you just registered above? Glad you asked, and here’s the answer: because both Egerton and Pryce didn’t try to impersonate two of the most well known men on the face of the planet. Instead, they both played it as an interpretation, just as Pryce’s co-star Anthony Hopkins did of Pope Benedict. The Two Popes is, in a sense, a fantasy, and the two actors play it that way. Where a lot of the other examples here lack a certain subtlety, the two performances in this movie are ALL subtlety. Subtlety is what the whole movie is about, and why it deserves even more credit than it has received. Egerton, meanwhile, did his own spin on who the former Reginald Dwight is, and that difference, that variation, is why it’s more than just another rock and roll biopic.
The same, in fact, could be said of PAIN AND GLORY, which I have already discussed to some degree in days past. I will do so one more time, below, and this sort of goes hand in hand with what Pryce did, and why it was so different from the types of “performances” we’re used to seeing in this category when real historical figures are involved.
But first, the nominees: Antonio Banderas for PAIN AND GLORY, Leonardo DiCaprio for ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD, Adam Driver for MARRIAGE STORY, Joaquin Phoenix for JOKER, and Jonathan Pryce for THE TWO POPES.
Back to Pryce for a moment here, because this is one of those times when the nomination is the reward. Pryce is a very successful and popular character actor who has been on screens both big and small — and, to be fair, stages, too — for decades. He’s done action movies, comedies, musicals (people forget he was Juan Perón opposite Madonna’s EVITA), and was even a Bond villain. He has done tons of TV, and has two Emmy nominations to show for it. His career spans nearly 50 years, and this nomination is his first, to go along with the Tony Award he won for MISS SAIGON in 1991, and it is supremely well deserved. It really is a shame that he has no earthly shot at winning.
Since we’re here, let’s whip through two more who also don’t: DiCaprio and Driver. Both of them did lovely work, sure, but they were both vastly overshadowed by the guy who we all know is going to win this trophy, Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has taken every major award handed out before now, and there is no reason to believe he won’t win this one. He is mesmerizing as Arthur Fleck, and as he slowly loses his mind on screen, there is something about Phoenix’s performance that keeps us right along with him as he does. We sink to the bottom with him, and it’s hypnotic as it happens. That’s all about him, and he has earned every one of the kudos he’s been given, even if the performance is sort of standard in how BIG it is. It fits with the movie Todd Phillips made, which is, in my mind, very badly flawed, but just like THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008, is held together by this singular performance of comic books’ greatest villain.
Speaking of that other performance, the late Heath Ledger deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his version of Joker, but he also deserved the Best Actor Oscar three years earlier, when he lost it to another actor who was taken from us too soon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His Ennis Del Mar was the quiet, taciturn heart of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, in a performance so restrained, so much within itself, that he controlled the film without saying anything. It was, again, all about subtlety, the kind that is far harder to pull off than it appears. Hoffman’s work as Truman Capote in CAPOTE, on the other hand, was the same kind of big, outlandish and flashy performance that Phoenix gave us this year. That is the kind of thing that wins awards, for better or worse.
So, yeah, Joaquin’s going to win, but now is where I am going to get a wee bit controversial, and actually tell you the truth, as I see it: he doesn’t deserve to win this award, because Antonio Banderas does.
Banderas has worked with Pedro Almodóvar many times over the years. Indeed, Banderas’ first major role was in the director’s LABYRINTH OF PASSION in 1982, and he became a star in Almodóvar’s 1988 film, WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. So it’s incredibly fitting that, as the great director makes his valedictory film, the semi-autobiographical one about a gay filmmaker nearing the end of his career and life, and looking back on what he’s accomplished and how he’s going to move forward, that Banderas would play him. Essentially, the star is playing a version of his director, and it is a wonder to behold. The movie is gorgeous, as I have mentioned before, but the truth is, as beautifully as it is written, it is Banderas’ performance that makes it go. I mentioned subtlety just a couple paragraphs ago, and how important it is, and that’s what Banderas gives us on screen. Looks. Expressions. Reactions. Remembrances. It is a study of being within oneself while also having every single emotion and insecurity exposed on film. I have long been a fan of Banderas, but this was something else. This was revelatory, a monumental achievement without all the flash and glitz that Phoenix gave us. I don’t know if Banderas will ever get another acting nomination, I certainly hope he does, but if not, this is a hell of a thing for which to be recognized. It’s the same type of crowning achievement that his director accomplished with this film. It is a genuine shame that neither will be properly rewarded for it.
WHO SHOULD WIN: Antonio Banderas
WHO WILL WIN: Joaquin Phoenix
Just yesterday, I talked at some length about the reverence paid to impersonations when it comes to the handing out of awards. While what is true for the Actors category has been true in the past for the Actresses, it’s less so over the past decade. Three of the last 10 winners in this category played real people, but only one of them is generally considered to be a part of the zeitgeist. Meryl Streep winning for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in THE IRON LADY is the one, and that falls under the category of impersonation. I mean, she was fantastic, and she disappeared into that role — her longtime makeup artists, Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland, also won Oscars for their work in the movie — but it was a total impersonation.
The other two examples are Sandra Bullock, who won for playing Leigh Ann Tuohy in THE BLIND SIDE, and Olivia Colman, who won last year for playing England’s Queen Anne in THE FAVOURITE. Tuohy was the subject of a Michael Lewis book of the same title, but is hardly a household name, nor is she someone you might recognize if you bumped into her on the street. Queen Anne, meanwhile, was only the regent three centuries ago, so it’s not like there was footage of her for Colman to study before she pulled on the corset.
Why am I bringing this up again after getting into it to some degree just yesterday? Because what both Bullock and Colman did were interpretations of real people, rather than impersonations. One might wonder what the actual difference is between the two, but it’s less subtle than you think. Even though this is the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role category, I’m going to use a male actor to help make the point. Twenty years ago, Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman in MAN ON THE MOON. I don’t use that word lightly, either. He BECAME Kaufman, even staying in character off camera, and driving director Milos Forman nuts in the process. That was a complete impersonation of a great actor and comedian who was very much in the public eye, right up until his death from cancer.
The last couple years, there have been several other nominated performances that feel more like interpretations than impersonations. Melissa McCarthy, nominated last year for playing Lee Israel in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, was definitely that, as was Margot Robbie’s work as Tonya Harding the year before in I, TONYA. Same thing. Meanwhile, that same year, Meryl Streep earned yet another nod for playing Katharine Graham, but, at this point, Meryl Streep mostly gets nominated for playing Meryl Streep, which is something we should all probably just accept, and then move on.
It could be that the difference is in how well the person in question is known, but that only goes so far, especially when it comes to one of this year’s nominees. Actually, that’s understating it. In fact, that person is the clear frontrunner. Which is as good a segue as we’re going to get to introduce the nominees.
They are, Cynthia Erivo for HARRIET, Scarlett Johansson for MARRIAGE STORY, Saoirse Ronan for LITTLE WOMEN, Charlize Theron for BOMBSHELL, and Renée Zellweger for JUDY.
Easy stuff first: Charlize disappears into the role of Megyn Kelly, replete with makeup so good that the team behind it also earned an Oscar nomination. Now, understand, Theron is one of the finest actors of any gender currently working today, and I am a big fan of hers. I thoroughly enjoyed another movie she made last year, LONG SHOT, much more than Bombshell, and, in fact, thought that performance was better than the one she gave as the Fox News host, but the latter is the kind of thing that draws awards attention, and the former is not. Having said all that, what she did might not have been a total impersonation, but it was awfully darn close to it. Either way, this is not her year.
Nor is it Miss Ronan’s. This is her fourth nomination, which is pretty crazy for a young woman who is not yet 26. She is a remarkable talent and she shines as the tomboy Jo in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. She’s very good in the role, but there’s something rote about it, as if any number of actresses could have played it. Maybe it’s because any number of actresses have, and winningly. That this was a particularly good adaptation contributed strongly to her nomination here, but if I’m being totally honest, I would have subbed her out here for Awkwafina, who did something truly terrific in THE FAREWELL. Ronan is going to win an Oscar someday, probably sooner rather than later, but it’s not going to be this year.
Obviously, the frontrunner here is Zellweger, and as someone who has won just about every possible major award leading up to this one, including the SAG, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA, it’s fairly certain she’ll win this, too. The question I know you’re asking, though, is did she do an impersonation of Judy Garland? Or was it an interpretation?
I would argue the latter, because while there are aspects of Garland that she nailed, there was never a time when you didn’t see her playing the part. Her particular kind of charm — on display for over 20 years now, since she first broke out in JERRY MAGUIRE, even if she hasn’t been on screen much these last few years — is clear as day here. It’s her version of Judy, rather than her disappearing into who she thought Judy was. It’s a fine line, I know, but if you watch the movie again (or, y’know, for the first time, if you haven’t seen it yet, which most of you probably haven’t), you’ll understand the difference. Streep disappeared into Thatcher. Zellweger consistently shone through the veneer of Garland.
But even with her as the frontrunner, there is always the chance of an upset, and I think that, in the unlikely event this happens, it will either come from ScarJo or Erivo. As the only person of color among the acting nominees, Erivo certainly stands out from the rest, but her performance does that, too. Hers is a version of Harriet Tubman that is reminiscent of Colman’s Anne, because it’s not like anyone really knows some of the specifics of who she was. Historical records aside, there is only so much research one can do. Erivo carried a flawed, by-the-numbers biopic and was close to electrifying as the freedom fighter. It’s a performance made to be nominated, and she earned her spot here. If not for the flashiness of Zellweger’s performance, I think Erivo would be the frontrunner, but alas, not this year.
Johansson, meanwhile, has two different nominations, and while she is very good in Marriage Story, she is also a bit … I don’t know … cold. That climactic fight she has with Adam Driver’s Charlie in the movie’s third act is incredible, but she spends a fair amount of the film playing it so low key, I sometimes felt like she was being outshined by first Driver, then Laura Dern. The performance clearly has a lot of fans, though, and so there is probably an outside shot that she could sneak past Renée here, but I doubt it.
WHO SHOULD WIN: Honestly, a tossup between Renée Zellweger and Cynthia Erivo.
WHO WILL WIN: Renée Zellweger
Neil Turitz is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and the creator of Six Word Reviews. He has been working in and writing about Hollywood for over two decades, even though he lives in New York.