Oscar 2012 Predictions: Best Actor

Each year, there’s a certain group of people who bemoan the Oscars (and pretty much every other organization’s awards) for being nothing but a popularity contest. They’re right, of course, but the Oscars also helps set the standard for quality films… at least quality films from those who are popular in the industry.

However, when it comes to the Academy Award for Best Actor, it’s probably the biggest popularity contest out there (only to be matched by the battle for the Best Actress Oscar, of course). It’s not just about who gave the most solid performance in a motion picture, but also who schmoozes the best at parties and on the red carpet. These awards are also often sewn up early and are less unpredictable than the lower profile awards for Costume Design and Sound Editing (Jane Eyre and Transformers represent, yo!).

Still, as one of the “big six” awards, Best Actor is an important one. A nomination alone can breathe new life into a career. Just look at what it did for John Travolta in the mid-90s. Likewise, winning an award can help make you a superstar, like it did for Nicolas Cage around the same time. (Of course, now the Academy claims no responsibility for Cage’s more recent career choices.)

In any respect, this year’s race for Best Actor presents a slate of great performances from newcomers and veterans alike, even if it’ll all be a popularity contest in the end.

Read on for the nominations and my predicted winner in red

Demián Bichir, A Better Life

Why He Was Nominated

Although the accolades for Bichir seemed to come out of nowhere this year, they are very well deserved. In A Better Life, Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant struggling to give his son a good life. Chasing the American dream, Carlos sinks all his money into a truck that will allow him to get more work. When that truck is stolen, he tries to recover it with his son, simultaneously finding a bond with his child and exposing both of them to greater dangers.

A small movie that, for the most part, flew under the radar in 2011, A Better Life was a piece that allowed Bichir to give a deep performance. However, it wasn’t made simply to show the world that Bichir could act. He offered leveled empathy to a character that could have easily become a pawn in a political statement, and the film was much more than that.

Why He Might Win

There’s no denying that the Academy responds to political messages in their films. And while recent months have focused on different social issues in the American political realm, the subject of illegal immigration is still a hot topic. Like the other nominees, Bichir’s performance is extremely powerful, but he has the added advantage of allowing the voters to make a political statement as well as reward fantastic acting.

Why He Might Not Win

Even though Bichir has been an actor for many years, first in Mexico and later breaking into Hollywood films in the early 2000s, he’s a newcomer to the awards circuit. His portrayal of Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che got a modicum of positive buzz, but to most moviegoers, he’s the new kid on the block. Add to the fact that few people actually saw A Better Life, and he’s got an uphill battle towards Oscar gold.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

George Clooney, The Descendants

Why He Was Nominated

The easy answer to this question is: “Because he’s George Clooney.” Similar to his contemporaries like Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, Clooney has been showing up each year in an award bait movie for the better part of a decade. It worked two years ago with Up in the Air and four years ago with Michael Clayton (though not so much with The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Good German). Though The Descendants is more than just an acting vehicle for Clooney, it’s definitely directed with the aim of winning some awards. Clooney plays a little outside of his wheelhouse here, being the jilted and grieving husband rather than the cool cat playboy. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that his excellent chemistry with snubbed co-star Shailene Woodley was spot-on in the film.

Why He Might Win

Again, the easy answer is: “Because he’s George Clooney.” Here’s where the popularity contest really comes into play. The media loves Clooney. The ladies love Clooney. The Academy loves Clooney. Starring in an acclaimed film helps him out a lot, but even more so, his competition isn’t as fierce as it has been the last times he’s been up for the Best Actor award. Two years ago, his performance in Up in the Air was eclipsed by Jeff Bridges’ sure-bet performance in Crazy Heart. Similarly, four years ago, his turn in Michael Clayton couldn’t beat out Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. While the Best Actor field is still strong this year, Clooney is the clear front-runner partially for his performance but also because of how much the industry loves this guy.

Why He Might Not Win

While odds are on Clooney for this year, he’s not out of the woods. Each of the other candidates have something over him, whether it be the popularity of his buddy Brad Pitt or the momentum of Jean Dujardin in The Artist. You never know the outcome of the race until the card is read on stage, and Academy voters can be fickle, so even if this is Clooney’s award to lose, that could actually happen.

Previous Nominations: 2 for Best Actor; 1 for Best Supporting Actor

Previous Wins: 1 for Best Supporting Actor

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Why He Was Nominated

Some actors are nominated for awards not just because they gave a fantastic performance but for other reasons. It could be their time because they’ve had such a great career (like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets). It could be because the movie they’re in hits a political hot button (like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia). It could also be because the movie they starred in is so beloved that they’re riding its wave of popularity. This is the case with The Artist, in which Jean Dujardin was lucky enough to star. Not to downplay his performance in the least, but the attention and focus that the players in this film get are bolstered by the fact that the industry has been buzzing about the movie since before it was officially released in December.

And as to not downplay Dujardin’s acting, he does a fantastic job in the role. He brings the look and feel of Hollywood’s golden era, all without uttering any dialogue (well, almost without uttering any dialogue). No one even notices that Dujardin’s a French national because he exudes the early Hollywood star so well, and it’s such a charming film.

Why He Might Win

The biggest asset for Dujardin is the movie in which he stars. The Artist has been riding a wave of popularity for months, and in spite of some haters out there, it’s sweeping up plenty of awards. In fact, there are few films in the awards race this year that have been garnering large numbers of multiple wins, and The Artist is one of them. Plus, Dujardin has done well so far in award season, winning a BAFTA and the Golden Globe, among others.

Why He Might Not Win

Like Demián Bichir, the biggest problem that Dujardin faces is his newness to Hollywood. Again, a foreign movie star for years, Dujardin is an unknown in the states, and fresh faces have a really tough time bringing home Best Actor awards. Plus, his Golden Globe win was for a Comedy/Musical rather than the entire field. The Drama Golden Globe went to Clooney this year for The Descendants, and traditionally dramas have fared much better in wins than comedies and musicals at the Oscars.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Why He Was Nominated

Even though the nuances of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were lost on many Americans who saw the film, few will argue that Gary Oldman wasn’t fantastic in it. Though a subdued film that showed the true nature of spying (that is, sitting around in poorly lit rooms, listening to things), there was a power behind the movie. A dud with American audiences, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did better overseas, particularly in the UK, the home country of its source material. Oldman played the legendary literary character of George Smiley, a retired spy who uses his wits to uncover a mole in British intelligence. Oldman’s performance was powerful enough to make him stand out over other great actors in the cast, like John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and last year’s Best Actor Oscar winner Colin Firth.

Why He Might Win

Of all the actors competing for this award, Oldman has the veteran quality that the Academy loves so much. Going against two newcomers (Bichir and Dujardin) and two blockbuster hounds (Clooney and Pitt), Oldman has age and respect on his side. He also benefits from the concept that it might be his time, even though he has plenty of years left in him. After coming on strong with Sid and Nancy in 1986, Oldman has had a colorful and rich career in film, playing a wide range of characters. With no previous Oscar nominations, the Academy might just feel it’s time to give Gary Oldman what’s due to him.

Why He Might Not Win

The richness of Oldman’s career and the reserved popularity of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are his biggest enemies in this Oscar race. The Academy gets starstruck a lot, and even though he’s a very recognizable actor, Oldman just isn’t the movie star type to compete with George Clooney. His versatility can be perceived as “A-list character actor” to the more fickle and superficial voters. Add to this the fact that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wasn’t a monster hit in the U.S., and a lot of the people who did see it didn’t love it, things don’t look so good for Oldman to win.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Why He Was Nominated

Like his pal George Clooney, Brad Pitt has star power on his side. Over the better part of the last two decades, Pitt has been able to balance his blockbuster vehicles with critically-acclaimed films. He’s a darling of the press, and he’s very popular in the industry. Moneyball comes from a good pedigree, and there’s a lot of love from the Academy for that film (which explains the rather inexplicable Best Supporting Actor nomination for Pitt’s co-star Jonah Hill). Hollywood loves a good, inspirational sports movie, and it also loves an actor who can sizzle through Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue. Pitt handled this part with expertise, playing a cool guy whose back was against the wall, offering a level of empathy and sexiness to a role that could have easily had none.

Why He Might Win

Pitt’s biggest advantage here is his star power. He has been in the game about as long as Clooney has, though he will always be perceived as the little brother. If the Academy has tired of Clooney’s yearly bid for Oscar gold, they might fall back on the other popular choice, which would be Pitt.

Why He Might Not Win

While Pitt has the star power and popularity to justify a Best Actor win, this simply isn’t his best performance. It’s not that he didn’t do a good job, but rather this role demanded less of him than his previous nominations (i.e., a man aging in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and a manic mental patient in 12 Monkeys). Additionally, while he has been nominated quite a bit for this film, he’s only won smaller regional awards. The big wins for Moneyball have been for its script and not its stars.

Previous Nominations: 1 for Best Supporting Actor, 1 for Best Actor

Previous Wins: 0

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