Sentiment, to some degree, always plays a factor in Oscar races, no matter the category.
Voters are only human and take everything into consideration, not only what they see up on the screen in that particular year. In a perfect world that shouldn’t be the case, but it is — and that intangible may play a huge factor in determining this year’s lead actor category.
Peter O’Toole has his eighth Oscar nomiation, this time for his role as an aging actor with plenty of libido left in Miramax’s “Venus.” His seven previous defeats have been well-documented (though he did receive the Honorary Award in 2003), and it’s impossible to say whether those previous iconic perfs in films such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “My Favorite Year” will matter here and now.
With that type of cinematic history behind him, many chose O’Toole as an early front-runner. While that might’ve been true at one point, the critical applause for Forest Whitaker’s vision of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Fox Searchlight’s “The Last King of Scotland” soon shook up the conventional wisdom.
Whitaker has long been admired for his work in front of the camera (“Bird,” “The Crying Game,” “Panic Room”), but “Scotland” has put him on a higher pedestal. He’s captured almost every critical award, plus a Golden Globe trophy from the Hollywood Foreign Press. His kudos momentum may be hard to slow down at this point. The way the season has gone so far, it’s certainly shaping up to be his year.
Leonardo DiCaprio had the benefit — though some could argue misfortune, as his kudos chances go — of being terrific in two Warner Bros. films, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Ed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond.”
His role in “Blood Diamond” is clearly lead, as he’s practically in every scene of the pic. Like much of Scorsese’s best work, “Departed” is a true ensemble. DiCaprio couldn’t be as good there as he is if not for the work of Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and supporting actor nom Mark Wahlberg.
But DiCaprio is nommed for “Blood Diamond” instead, and the pic was not as universally embraced as “Departed,” which may hurt his chances. If he doesn’t win this year, there’s little doubt that, at some point in the future, he will have gold statues in his possession.
Will Smith’s likability factor might be higher than almost any actor working today. He smartly uses that to his advantage in Sony’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” making us want to realize how far his character, Chris Gardner, has climbed.
Smith was nominated for “Ali” back in 2002, and it’s films like that and this one than prove his range goes way beyond fighting outer-space bad guys.
Finally, there’s Ryan Gosling. As a drug-addicted teacher in ThinkFilms’ “Half Nelson,” he continues to prove he’s not in this for the swag nor the paycheck, but for the craft itself. His star, it seems, will continue to burn bright.
AND THE NOMINEES ARE…
Oscar pedigree: “Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (nom), “The Aviator” (nom)
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom)
Why he’ll win: For those who couldn’t decide whether he was better here or in “The Departed” (where many considered him the lead as well), now’s a chance to award him the Oscar for the combined effort of both films.
Why he won’t: “Blood Diamond” didn’t have the box office stamina of “Departed,” and voters might want to wait to crown him in a pic that’s better received by the public.
Critical quote: “One wouldn’t have easily guessed that he could look this buff and tough, a believable hard guy with a not-so-secret sensitive streak,” wrote Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune.
Oscar pedigree: None.
Current kudos: National Board of Review (win); Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Indie Spirit Award (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), SAG (nom)
Why he’ll win: As much as the Academy may seem predictable, you just never know. If, after all the hype, “Dreamgirls” can miss out on best picture, then Gosling has a chance as well.
Why he won’t: Despite critical praise, the film may seem too small. And the performance is very internal, which makes it hard to judge against the likes of DiCaprio and Whitaker.
Critical quote: “As he proved in ‘The Believer,’ Gosling has the stuff to be a major actor. Here, he flashes an awful lot of aren’t-I-adorable movie-star grins — except the act meshes perfectly with the character, who uses his adorableness to keep the world at bay,” wrote David Edelstein, New York magazine.
Oscar pedigree: “Lawrence of Arabia” (nom), “Becket” (nom), “The Lion in Winter” (nom), “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (nom), “The Ruling Class” (nom), “The Stunt Man” (nom), “My Favorite Year” (nom) — plus an honorary award
Current kudos: British Independent Film Awards (nom), Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), Online Film Critics (nom), SAG (nom)
Why he’ll win: Here’s seven reasons why: a legendary actor who’s been nommed that many times before without ever winning. “Venus” is a fine film and he’s terrific in it. This wouldn’t be first time the Acad gave an Oscar based on career achievement.
Why he won’t: People thought Gloria Stuart (“Titanic”) and Lauren Bacall (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”) would win based on extraordinarly long careers. Didn’t happen.
Critical quote: “O’Toole, 74, uses a lifetime of talent, craft and simply living to turn the part of an aging actor who forms a connection with a young woman into a master class of lovely and seemingly effortless screen acting,” wrote Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.
‘The Pursuit of Happyness’
Oscar pedigree: “Ali” (nom)
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), Image Awards (nom), SAG (nom)
Why he’ll win: It’s a very earnest and personal role, so much so that Smith works alongside his own son and makes the story feel that much more authentic. Underdog stories always seem to make points with voters, and Smith’s likability factor seems through the roof.
Why he won’t: To the jaded voter, the role may feel too much calculated, too much like Oscar bait. The film’s reviews have generally been good, but not overwhelmingly great. Normally, lead actor and actress winners come from pics that have garnered raves.
Critical quote: “It’s a beautiful and understated performance, one that hums with a richer, quieter music than Smith has mustered before,” wrote Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly.
‘The Last King of Scotland’
Oscar pedigree: None.
Current kudos: Boston Society of Film Critics (win), Broadcast Film Critics (win), Chicago Film Critics (win), Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics (win), Florida Film Critics (win), Golden Globes (win), L.A. Film Critics (win), National Board of Review (win), National Society of Film Critics (win), New York Film Critics Circle (win), Online Film Critics (win), BAFTA (nom), SAG (win); British Independent Film Awards (nom)
Why he’ll win: He’s obviously the choice of critics, and the Globes win cements their opinion. It seems one of those situations where it’s a once-in-a-lifetime role for an actor, portraying a character that allows all to appreciate the talents of a sometimes underrated thesp. The kudo stars have undoubtedly aligned very well for Whitaker.
Why he won’t: An argument can be made that Whitaker isn’t really a lead in “Scotland” (James McAvoy is certainly in more scenes) and that Fox Searchlight submitted him here to get more publicity. That may rub some the wrong way, and there are also those voters who might want to honor O’Toole.
Critical quote: “Forest Whitaker is extraordinary. He makes you see Amin’s charisma and cunning and understand the way in which he could reach out and embrace a younger, more impressionable man,” wrote Stephen Hunter, Washington Post.