This year’s Actor in a Leading Role is the hardest category for me. The Academy often gets this one wrong, but thankfully there’s no wrong choice this year. So here goes.
Christian Bale (American Hustle). Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout Matthew McConaughey’s transformation, but with Bale, a picture is worth 1,000 pounds. On the right is him with the 40 pounds he gained for American Hustle. At left is him a decade ago, in 2004’s cultish The Machinist.
This Welsh-born Brit won his first Oscar for 2010’s The Fighter (supporting actor), again unrecognizable. Being a chameleon seems to be the hallmark of a great actor these days. Wasn’t Philip Seymour Hoffman among the best? Such a dichotomy that actors strive to make a name for themselves, while striving to not be recognized. Here is Bale disappearing again into his Bob Dylan persona in I’m Not There (Bale is also a song-and-dance man from way back):
Unfortunately, we mustn’t award this Oscar based on body of work. He’s flawless, terrific but the standout moments of Bale’s performance as grifter Irving Rosenfeld are searing and subtle and small, such as when he regrets duping his friend Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Don’t have a clip of that, but here is Bale talking about the role — and other than the accent, his gestures and manner as Bale suddenly seem a LOT like Rosenfeld’s (trailer follows). Not sure he deserves the Oscar on this one against such a superlative field of contenders. Interesting, though, how Amy Adams’ con is being high-class British and Bale’s con with this character is being a crass American. We’ve all been hustled!
Bruce Dern (Nebraska). Folks say this is 77-year-old Dern’s last major role, so there’s the lifetime achievement aspect to consider. He has never won an Oscar, and has received only one previous nomination — for a supporting role in 1978’s Coming Home. Moreover, he admits director Alexander Payne stretched him for this role. He wasn’t simply “doing a Dernsie,” he told Rolling Stone; he was given a character to play and played it well. His walk alone is a revelation.
But is it a stretch? Does that matter? Maybe it’s enough to be cast well and directed well. I hear Ringo singing “All ya gotta do is act naturally.” … Here is a revealing (but long) interview that shows he walks and talks like that in real life, and includes the news that Gene Hackman was also considered for the role. Drat, woulda loved that.
As much as I loved Dern as wandering Woody, I must agree with him that it was Will Forte’s performance (and directing and screenplay and cinematography) that made the movie so great. Still, Academy voters may be feeling soft for papa Dern. (Robert Redford is also 77, and he carried an entire movie himself. Hmmm. For that snub alone, I may have to choose someone else.) I only wish I’d known Laura Dern had a cameo in Nebraska, near the end, before I saw it, reinforcing the family message. Onward.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). Oh, Leo, Leo, wherefore art thou, Leo? I’ve always been a sucker for DiCaprio’s work. This is his fourth Oscar nomination and he has never won. What?! A look at his Oscar history:
In Wolf, Leo is a beast in that Quaalude scene … this is physical comedy in the vein of Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis. True art: DiCaprio is like a Salvador Dali painting come to life (only the roll down the stairs is a stunt man). And he told Ellen DeGeneres that he and Jonah Hill did 70 takes of the subsequent ham scene. Talk about hams.
I have to admit, the rest of this role was not a huge departure for pretty boy Leo. He did win the Golden Globe for this role, but Americans somehow don’t take him seriously enough. Maybe a comedic turn will do the trick … or maybe we wait until he’s 77.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Every year there’s the newcomer who steals the show. This could be Englishman Ejiofor’s year. I’ve told many people that 12 Years a Slave struck me more as live theater than film — it was as if they were performing Shakespeare. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think Ejiofor’s regal forbearance and sense of dignity for his character is what touched me so deeply. The one languorous shot (above) in which we stare at Ejiofor’s face for a minute or more was as profound as anything I’ve seen on film.
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club). Not only did he wow us as a cowboy with AIDS, he was hilarious as Leo’s creepy mentor in The Wolf of Wall Street.
What’s brilliant about McConaughey as Ron Woodroof is he manages to imply duality in the real-life figure — some claim Woodroof wasn’t homophobic at all, rather a closeted bisexual. McConaughey manages to leave his angry, agonized, opportunistic character open to interpretation.
It was a true labor of love for McConaughey, with no trace of the work involved (except maybe the weight loss, which is work in itself). He gets my vote.
My pick & prediction: Matthew McConaughey
(although some days I think it could go to Ejiofor or Bale. Ask me in a week, ha.)