Oscars: Best Actor is a Race to Lose to Gary Oldman… Or is It?

Compared with this year’s lead actress Oscar race — a wide-open contest packed with serious contenders and no clear winner in their midst — the lead actor competition is a little less exciting. The list of viable players ends a bit more quickly, and they all might well be vying for the right to lose to a towering Oscar bait performance.

Gary Oldman is a force of nature as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” gnawing the scenery, wonderfully comfortable in the famed Briton’s skin. He has felt like the one to beat seemingly since the first production stills arrived showing off his physical transformation. Long admired for his efforts in movies like “Sid and Nancy,” “State of Grace,” “True Romance” and “Léon: The Professional,” among others, the actor finally landed his first Oscar nomination just six years ago, for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” But despite missing some early precursor prizes, everything seems to be aligned for him this time: prestige production, meaty role, towering portrayal.

Oldman’s performance also comes in that tried-and-true Oscar genre: the biopic. A number of other lead actor contenders this year have portrayed real-life characters as well, and there’s quite a wide range. On one end of the spectrum, for instance, is two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” It’s a gruff portrait of a newsman, a “pirate” as he’s called in the film, willing to do whatever it takes to get the story. On the other end is James Franco as wannabe filmmaker Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist,” offering a committed portrayal of an enigma, a dreamer, a madman, an obsessive — a mixture that fellow artists will no doubt recognize.

In David Gordon Green’s “Stronger,” Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Boston marathon bombing survivor and amputee Jeff Bauman. He’ll be angling for his first nomination since “Brokeback Mountain” after turning out excellent work in films like “Prisoners,” “Enemy” and “Nightcrawler” in recent years. And Kumail Nanjiani basically plays himself in Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick.” A nomination there would be a remarkable first; the closest anyone has come to such recognition was John Malkovich’s bid for playing himself in “Being John Malkovich.”

Other names to watch from biopics include Jamie Bell as actor Peter Turner in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” Andrew Garfield as polio-stricken responaut and activist Robin Cavendish in “Breathe,” Chadwick Boseman as a young Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” and Hugh Jackman as famed entertainer P.T. Barnum in “The Greatest Showman” (also worth considering for “Logan”).

Leading the charge in the breakthrough ranks (and coming on strong as Oldman’s biggest competition) is “Call Me by Your Name” star Timothée Chalamet, as a 17-year-old boy exploring his homosexuality in 1980s Italy. He has picked up lead actor honors from both the New York and Los Angeles film critics groups, quite the impressive one-two punch. Also in the mix is Daniel Kaluuya from “Get Out,” a sleeper contender who delivered one of the most complex performances of the year.

“Everything seems to be aligned for Oldman this time: prestige production, meaty role, towering portrayal.”

You certainly can’t count out actors held in the highest regard by their peers, such as Daniel Day-Lewis (a low-key delight in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”) and Christian Bale (a smoldering furnace in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles”). Denzel Washington also turns in the kind of work that draws fellow actors’ eyes in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” but will he be eager to hustle the circuit once again after all the work that went into a nomination (and loss) for his role in “Fences” last year?

The indie fringe contains quality work that could find the spotlight. Robert Pattinson delivers a career-best performance in “Good Time,” for example, while Adam Sandler — a likely Golden Globe nominee — reminds audiences what he’s capable of in “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” Jeremy Renner is strong in “Wind River,” a movie dusting itself off and jumping back into the fight after being pried away from the toxic Weinstein Co.; and the late Harry Dean Stanton will no doubt have supporters for his performance in “Lucky.”

In the end, though, the four nominees who aren’t Oldman may well want to get comfortable in their seats on Oscar night.

Best Actor Frontrunners
Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
James Franco, “The Disaster Artist”
Jake Gyllenhaal, “Stronger”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour

On the Bubble
Christian Bale, “Hostiles”
Andrew Garfield, “Breathe”
Tom Hanks, “The Post”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Dark Horses
Jamie Bell, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”
Hugh Jackman, “The Greatest Showman” or “Logan”
Kumail Nanjiani, “The Big Sick”
Robert Pattinson, “Good Time”
Adam Sandler, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”

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