Oscars: Is Michael Keaton the Actor to Beat?

It’s only October, yet the predictions have already been rolling out for the next Academy Awards, still five months away. And though it seems to be said every year, 2015 is truly shaping up to be one of the most competitive best actor races ever.

Coming out of the gate from the Cannes Film Festival in May, buzz was heavy on Steve Carell’s transformative performance as John du Pont in “Foxcatcher” and for Timothy Spall, who won the lead actor prize for “Mr. Turner.” The Telluride and Toronto film festivals revealed a couple other contenders in Brits Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything” and Benedict Cumberbatch for “The Imitation Game.”

We’re not even touching on the many films yet to be seen that could bear contenders, from Jack O’Connell in “Unbroken,” Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper,” Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year” and David Oyelowo in “Selma.” Not to mention the films already released, like Bill Murray in “St. Vincent,” Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl,” Brendan Gleeson in “Calvary” and Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Yet it was a performance that burst out of the Telluride Film Festival and hits theaters this week that seems to have moved to the front of the pack: Michael Keaton’s funny, dark, explosive turn in “Birdman” has earned the actor the best reviews of his career and makes him a lock for a nomination in a very tenuous year. I would wager to say the only other locks are Carell and Redmayne — with so many fantastic turns, some great actors are going to be left off.

The only argument against Keaton seems to be that insiders aren’t sure how the offbeat “Birdman” will play at the box office. To which I say, it doesn’t matter. “Dallas Buyers Club” topped out at less than $28 million at the domestic box office, yet walked away with two Oscars for its cast, besting actors from $100 million blockbusters like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle.” For that matter, Cate Blanchett’s “Blue Jasmine” topped out around $33 million yet she still nabbed the gold from Sandra Bullock, whose “Gravity” made over $274 million domestically.

Keaton has many things going for him; at the age of 63, he’s the oldest actor in the race and a true veteran of the industry. He’s done everything from family comedy (“Mr. Mom”) to a superhero franchise (“Batman”) to dark drama (“Clean and Sober”), yet never been nominated for an Oscar. And his role in “Birdman” allows him to display the full spectrum of his talents, to show the raging id of “Beetlejuice” along with the tragedy he played in “My Life.” It’s a tricky tightrope, and he never makes a wrong step.

It’s a role that seems literally made for him, as he plays an actor struggling to make a comeback while living in the shadow of a superhero character he once played.  And let’s not forget the only thing the Academy loves more than a comeback is a movie set in the industry — think “The Artist” or “Argo.”

But perhaps most important, Keaton is beloved. When his name is bandied about, people are flooded with goodwill for his early movies and his reputation as one of the good guys. He’s not hot in the moment, but a proven commodity entrenched in many of our memories. To a whole generation of voters, he’s the first (and only) Batman.

Of course, it could be argued that no one is more likable in Hollywood than Steve Carell. (A producer recently quipped that Carell is so nice, he makes Tom Hanks look like a diva.) And Carell also undergoes a physical transformation — something the Academy loves — to play the murderous, troubled du Pont. With “Foxcatcher” hitting theaters Nov. 14 and many more to be seen, it could be a long road for Keaton and nothing is certain. But for now, Keaton can bask in the glowing reviews and the knowledge that his first Oscar nom is assured.

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