Oscar Breakdown: Best Actor in a Leading Role

This article is part of our Oscar Week Series, where you will find breakdowns and predictions for all of the major categories.

If you want to separate the actors who are just good from the ones who are truly great, the best way to do it is to look at the winners of the Best Actor Oscar. Without exception the greats are the ones who win the award, and the ones who don’t are proven to just not be elite level actors. It’s science. Or, probably, none of that is true at all.

The fact is: there are a lot of reasons someone might be nominated for an Academy Award and someone else might not be. And there are even more reasons why one of those nominees goes on to win and the others don’t. Quality of performance is not necessarily the end-all be-all. But the Best Actor award is probably one of the Oscars that has best retained its credibility over the decades. There aren’t a lot of stinker performances that have been wrongly praised muddying up the list. To have your name appear alongside greats like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, and Sir Nicolas Cage is still seen as being a rare honor. So what does the field look like this year?

With my guess highlighted in red, the nominees are…

Javier Bardem, Biutiful

Why He Was Nominated: In Biutiful Javier Bardem plays a character that is all over the page. What’s amazing is that he is able to pull the pieces together into a coherent whole. He appears in pretty much every scene, and he gives a truly lead performance if there ever was one. We see Bardem’s character in moments of cruelty, moments of kindness, moments of strength, moments of weakness.

We live alongside him in moments of joy as well as moments of pain. Disparate glimpses of the same character all feel organic and real when in the hands of Bardem. He is able to make you not only believe in the authenticity of Biutiful’s protagonist, but truly care about him as well.

Why He Might Win: Bardem’s performance is by far the best thing about the film that he is in. The movie is ambitious, overly so, and I can’t imagine it working with any other actor cast in the lead role. Since Bardem won Best Supporting Actor for No Country for Old Men there have been a lot of eyes on his work, and a lot of Academy members might have been very impressed by his Herculean effort here. Plus, he has another goofy haircut in this one, which has got to help his chances.

Why He Might Not Win: Biutiful really was an uneven mess. Not only did it not quite work for a lot of critics, some of them downright hated it. And some people just plain hate everything Alejandro González Iñárritu directs, decrying it as pointless misery porn. There is, no doubt, a contingent of voters out there that don’t want to recognize this film for anything.

Previous Nominations: 2

Previous Wins: 1 (Best Supporting)

Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Why He Was Nominated: When Jeff Bridges takes on a role he really injects as much of himself into the character as he can. The result is something that feels less like a crafted performance and more like a real guy being filmed acting natural. Often it seems like Jeff Bridges’ characters could just be crazy people who have no idea that they’re in a movie. Rooster Cogburn is no exception. Bridges was able to embody this drunk, one eyed, rough ridden US Marshal so well that you could practically see the stink lines coming off of him. And there was no other nominated performance this year that was as much plain old fun to watch.

Why He Might Win: True Grit is the first western to make money in a really long time. Westerns used to not only be financial successes, they used to get represented during awards season as well. John Wayne won his Best Actor Oscar for playing this very same role in the 1969 version of True Grit. To give the award to Bridges for the same role would not only be a nice little bit of poetry, it could also put more eyeballs on this version of True Grit and the story of it possibly revitalizing a genre. A win for Bridges could be good for the finances of the film industry as a whole.

Why He Might Not Win: Bridges just won this award last year. His win for Crazy Heart was viewed as kind of a lifetime achievement thing and a lot of the talk that surrounded the ceremony last year was about Bridges’ long road to an Oscar win. To give him the award this year would feel like a retread.

Previous Nominations: 5

Previous Wins: 1

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Why He Was Nominated: Portraying a real world person who is so current that he appears in our news feeds on a daily basis is a pretty daunting task. How do you approach a character so scrutinized that his every idiosyncratic tick is documented and fresh in the public’s collective consciousness? Many actors would have ended up making this film feel like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Not Jesse Eisenberg. His performance as Mark Zuckerberg did exactly what it needed to do by making us forget about the real person. Eisenberg didn’t do an imitation, he made the character his own, but still managed to maintain the heart of who Zuckerberg is on the page of Aaron Sorkin’s script.

He not only gets you to believe in what he’s selling, he makes you forget that you are watching depictions of relatively current events; and as a viewer you are able to comfortably slip into the mood and ambience of the film.

Why He Might Win: Eisenberg’s career has been on a roll as of late. He’s been turning in strong performance after strong performance and turning a lot of heads. Where as a couple of years ago he had that Jesse Eisenberg vs. Michael Cera stigma following him around, at this point he’s almost completely gotten rid of it. People talk less about how both of these actors can interchangeably play the timid nerd, and more are seeing the unique abilities that Eisenberg can bring to the table. A win here might completely obliterate all of that talk once and for all, and I think a lot of people want to give him that honor. Plus, when you look back over the year, his might just be the most high profile performance in the most high profile film of the year.

Why He Might Not Win: Honestly, it’s pretty hard to come up with reasons why Eisenberg wouldn’t walk away with this thing. The Social Network has been predicted to win a lot of these awards, and it makes sense that Best Actor would be one of them. The only real reason I can think of why Eisenberg won’t win is that he isn’t Colin Firth.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Why He Was Nominated: The King’s Speech is a British period drama. Colin Firth plays the King. He plays a man with a stammer. These are things that traditionally guarantee that someone is going to walk away with an acting Oscar. As we were all famously taught in Tropic Thunder, playing someone with an affliction is a surefire way to get awards recognition, but you never go full retard.

Firth skirts that line expertly by playing a stammerer, and the fact that there is much ado about the authenticity of his portrayal of stammering only adds to his chances. Firth’s character struggles, he represses emotion, he expresses emotion, he grows, he triumphs; if there is anything that looks like a classic Oscar winning performance this year, then this is it.

Why He Might Win: He has already won a lot of awards for this performance and has the momentum rolling into the ceremony. Also, a lot of people feel like he should have won last year for A Single Man, and the Oscars are famous for handing out make up awards once someone has been perceived to be snubbed. Firth may have deserved an Oscar last year, but no worries; he’s going to get it this year.

Why He Might Not Win: You got me. If somebody has a reason why this award isn’t going to Firth, then I would like to hear it.

Previous Nominations: 1

Previous Wins: 0

James Franco, 127 Hours

Why He Was Nominated: If you want to talk about inherent difficulty in a film role, then playing a guy who is trapped under a rock for 95% of a film has got to be mentioned. Franco had to find a way to keep an audience engaged in the same location for the entirety of 127 Hour’s runtime.

He had to make you not only like his character, but also deeply empathize with him, or you would never be willing to spend that much time with him trapped down in a hole. You would never bother to squirm through all of the horrific things that he endures. With charisma and acting chops Franco is able to pull the role off and actually make it look easy. Recognition for what he accomplished here is a no brainer.

Why He Might Win: There is a lot of James Franco in the media right now. Every day there seems to be a new story about what film role he’s taking, what soap opera he’s appearing in, what college course he’s enrolled in, what classic novel he’s going to direct as a film, what awards show he’s hosting, etc… He could definitely get a bump in the voting for being the current It boy.

Why He Might Not Win: He’s hosting the show. There is probably a lot of sentiment out there that giving an Oscar to the host would be a tacky conflict of interest. Plus some of that media saturation that Franco is currently enjoying might just be ready to turn into burnout. We might be on the verge of borderline backlash. And the award is going to Colin Firth anyway.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actress

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actress

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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