Unlike the supporting categories that have come before it, the race for Best Actor and Best Actress is anything but a slam dunk. Last year, I went 1-1 in these two categories, but should have gone 2-0. Sure, I had a feeling that I might get it wrong with the Best Actor award going to Casey Affleck, but still hoped the Academy would get it right and reward Denzel Washington for one hell of a job with “Fences,” a film he wore two hats for. What a shame, but I almost predicted it given how many times Denzel has been passed over in his career. Yes he won in 2001 for “Training Day,” but it was at the expense of Russell Crowe, who actually deserved it more that year for “A Beautiful Mind.” That’s what is crazy, Denzel won the Oscar then, but somehow didn’t win for his roles in “Malcolm X,” “The Hurricane” or last years “Fences.” On top of that, he wasn’t even nominated for his tremendous work in films like “Philadelphia,” “John Q.,” “Antwone Fisher,” and “American Gangster.” In every one of these films, he brought something different to the role, yet somehow the Academy didn’t think it was good enough. No matter how many times I spin it, it makes no sense, leading me to this year and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” What a fantastic film and one that should have probably been among the nominees for Best Picture, mainly because of Denzel. He gained weight for the role and truly acted the part of a misunderstood defense attorney who liked the stir the pot. I loved it and just how easy it was to watch him in a film that writer-director said he wouldn’t have done with him. This according to an EW article that also had Gilroy claiming Denzel’s “instincts are so invariably right and strong.” So true and yet, I doubt he will get his much awaited third Academy Award as his competition is pretty strong this year.
History that has helped fuel the notion that politics play too much of role with these two categories. What use to be a viable task of picking who should win in these categories has transformed into who you expect to win, meaning the best actor/actress may not go home with the gold. What else can explain how Russell Crowe wins for “Gladiator” one year, but then loses for “A Beautiful Mind” the following year? Or in 2003 when Adrien Brody won the Oscar for “The Pianist” while the best actor that year sat in the audience clapping. Anyone that watched “Gangs of New York” will tell you that Daniel Day Lewis was unbelievable as Bill the Butcher, a role to this day that still gives me chills. Don’t worry, the Academy saved face five years later in 2007, rewarding Lewis for his groundbreaking work in “There Will Be Blood.” So guess who happened to pop back up on the ballot this year? That’s right, in what Daniel Day Lewis has said would be his final role for “Phantom Thread,” he once again became the character in ways that are simply hard to put into words. That’s how good he was as Reynolds Woodcock and why I could easily see the Academy giving him one final Oscar as he rides off into the sunset. But, I seriously hope that doesn’t happen considering he really wasn’t “the” best last year. Sure, he was better than Daniel Kaluuya, but that’s not saying much given he should have never been nominated in the first place. Sure, “Get Out” is definitely the surprise nominee this year, but Kaluuya had little to do with that from what I saw. No, last year belonged to the remaining two actors in this category, Gary Oldman and Timothee Chalamet. You have one that is barely 22-years-old and the other in the twilight of a near 40-year career. So take your pick, but as great as Chalamet was in probably the second best film of 2017, this is Oldman’s Oscar to lose. He was just too good playing the infamous Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” a role that I honestly never expected to see on the big screen like this. But, that’s to Oldman’s credit, as he became Churchill in ways that probably even surprised him. Then again, he did spend hours in the makeup chair, leaving him plenty of time to get into character. I just wish it would have been in a different year, as Chalamet truly was remarkable in the coming of age film “Call Me by Your Name.” He helped sell this story and film really with such poise that I honestly still can’t forget.
In what has been a common theme the past few years, the race for Best Actress is not much of a race. In much of the past 20 years, the winner of Best Actress also won the BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG Award. So pretty much if any actress has won all those up to this point, this race is already over. I think the only time that didn’t happen was in 2009 when Sandra Bullock won the Golden Globe, SAG and Oscar, but failed to even be nominated for the BAFTA. Personally, I wouldn’t have given her a Critic’s Choice award for that role in “Blindside,” much less an Oscar, but that argument is for another year. This year we have five women who all made their mark, yet just one actually has a chance at winning. But, before I get into Frances McDormand and why she will win the Academy Award for her work in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” I do want to talk about her competition. There’s no doubt when you glance at the nominees, one name stands out. Yes, I speak of none other than Meryl Streep, who just picked up her 21st Academy Award nomination. That’s on top of her 31 Golden Globe nominations. What a legend and someone that definitely should have more than three Oscars at home. But, maybe not for this role in “The Post” where she played Kay Graham, a Washington Post publisher who had to make the tough decision of whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or not. Great story and cast really, but sadly one that simply never had any steam during this Oscar race.
Other nominees include Sally Hawkins for “The Shape of Water” and Saoirse Ronan for “Lady Bird.” Out of the two, Ronan deserves to be here more, but that’s mostly because of the incredible script and dialogue she had to manage. She really held her own though leading a cast that also included two fellow nominees this year, Laurie Metcalf and Timothee Chalamet. So kudos to her as this won’t be the last time we see her in the mix come Oscar time. As for Hawkins, I commend what she as able to do with saying very little. In fact, she used her face to express quite a bit, but given the odd fairytale story, that was probably a good thing as it wouldn’t had felt right with too many words. It barely felt right with words. I know, not her fault, but I can’t help but think this spot should have been for Carey Mulligan, who really helped carry that story in “Mudbound” to its Best Picture nod. I love Mulligan though and her quiet face she brings to the big screen. It’s just untimely that Frances McDormand had to be so darn good in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” as it could have been Margot Robbie’s year. Sure, playing Tonya Harding in any film will get people talking, but Robbie took it to another level in “I, Tonya” with both her look and words. So kudos to her for earning her first nomination in such a short time since first being noticed in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But, as I teased, this year was all about Frances McDormand and her role as Mildred Hayes in most likely the film that also wins Best Picture. For a role designed for her by writer/director Martin McDonagh, McDormand was everything you would have expected from a grieving and pissed off mother. Sure, it was tough to watch in critical moments, but it was supposed to be given the story involved. So in a year where women are literary taking Hollywood by storm, McDormand serves as a reminder of just how powerful women can be if pushed into a corner, a theme I’m sure will be loud and clear come Sunday.