Oscar Picks: Variety Critics on Who Should Win Best Actor/Actress

In the second of three spirited Oscar debates, Variety's critics agree that Leonardo DiCaprio should finally win best actor.

Wolf of Wall Street Golden globes


JUSTIN CHANG: Scott, I know it will come as little surprise to you that when Peter Debruge and I sat down to discuss this year’s Oscar nominees for best supporting actor and supporting actress, we spent almost as much time talking about the performances that should have been nominated as we did talking about the ones that actually were. This is hardly a new ax for any critic to grind, but it bears repeating: Those who vote on the Academy Awards are largely in the business of making movies — not seeing them, thinking about them and writing about them week in and week out. No wonder this organization’s choices often strike us as so pedestrian and provincial, less engaged by the boundary-expanding possibilities of cinema than beholden to the power of hometown hype.

SEE ALSO: Oscars Picks: Variety Critics on Who Should Win Best Supporting Actor/Actress

Given this sorry state of affairs, is there even any point in my grousing that, by any fair-minded standard, the Chinese star Zhang Ziyi clearly deserved a best-actress nomination this year for her physically staggering, emotionally wrenching work in Wong Kar-wai’s magisterial martial-arts epic “The Grandmaster” — a performance that, on a scale of sheer difficulty, outstrips any of this year’s nominated performances by a factor of 100? I’m probably the umpteenth person to ask this question, but did Meryl Streep really need an umpteenth Oscar nomination for her predictably fine, showy embodiment of monstrous motherhood in “August: Osage County,” seizing a slot in the race that might more productively have gone to the brilliant French newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos for her star-making (and Palme d’Or-winning!) turn in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”?

It’s impossible not to type the next sentence without feeling like I’ve just kicked my grandmother in the face, but I have to admit: Judi Dench isn’t exactly my cup of Irish tea in “Philomena,” in which her moving, fine-grained performance is straitjacketed somewhat by a script that treats her character with undue condescension when it’s not milking her plight for tears. I’ll let you speak up for Amy Adams, whose supremely dexterous turn in “American Hustle” strikes me as the most underrated performance in both that film and this category. As for Sandra Bullock, her turn in “Gravity” has been a bit overshadowed, I fear, by the movie’s astounding visual and technical brio. Leaving aside the fact that it’s her subtlest, most accomplished work ever, I’m simply transfixed by how beautiful Bullock looks in the film, and how magnificently Emmanuel Lubezki lights her; I could have watched her float — swim, really — through that space station for hours, looking for all the world like some luminous cross between Ripley and Joan of Arc as she enacts a wondrous zero-gravity ballet.

But at the risk of promoting the same boring industry consensus I decried a few paragraphs earlier, I can’t deny that I think Cate Blanchett deserves this, by a mile, for her towering performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” The role of Jasmine French, as some have noted with misplaced derision, is quite deliberately modeled on Blanche DuBois, a role that Blanchett herself played — to the hilt, by all accounts — in Liv Ullmann’s touring production. It was good practice: In “Blue Jasmine” she gives a star turn for the ages, fully equal in its emotional impact and mercurial intensity to Vivian Leigh’s own Oscar-winning Blanche in Elia Kazan’s film of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Risking sacrilege, I’d say Blanchett’s achievement is in some ways even more impressive — not least because she seems, at every moment, to be pushing back against Allen’s own less generous conception of the character, deepening and complicating his sense, and ours, of a woman who would otherwise beg the audience’s contempt. Scene for scene, there’s a tense, productive dissonance at work in “Blue Jasmine” that makes this collaboration a high point for two great film artists — one of whom, I’m guessing, will walk off with an Oscar on Sunday night.​

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Your complaint about a certain homogeneity to the nominee gene pool reminds me of Mark Harris’ excellent recent Grantland column, in which he points out how, ever since the Academy increased the best picture category from five to a possible 10 nominees, the total number of movies being nominated for Oscars has actually shrunk. This year, that means that if you look at the top eight Oscar races, a mere dozen films account for all 44 nominations. Jump back a decade to the 2004 Oscars and there were 22 films in the running for those same eight awards, nearly double the amount. That year, all five actress nominees came from films that weren’t also nominated for best picture — including the eventual winner, Charlize Theron for “Monster” — as did three of the actor nominees. Indeed, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, it was common for such tiny films to land a major nomination or two. Julie Christie was nominated twice for best actress in those years for movies that grossed less than $5 million: “Afterglow” in 1998 and “Away From Her” in 2008. Amy Adams earned the first of her five Oscar nods for “Junebug” (also $2.6 million) in 2005, and Janet McTeer landed in the actress race for “Tumbleweeds” ($1.3 million) in 1999.

To be sure, one can find similar exceptions even since the best picture field expanded, like the nominations for the little-seen “Biutiful,” “Rabbit Hole” and “Albert Nobbs,” but those were star-driven projects with marquee names attached, making Academy voters more inclined to look at them than, say, a “Half Nelson” or a “Junebug” — or, to put it in 2014 terms, a “Grandmaster” or a “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Or, for that matter, Ralph Fiennes’ superb “The Invisible Woman,” with a central performance from Felicity Jones, as the teenage mistress of Charles Dickens, that I called “revelatory” in my review, and which seemed to me at the time a shoo-in for a best actress nomination. But as the season played out, Fiennes’ film ended up looking like “The Invisible Movie,” completely overshadowed by higher-profile films with bigger marketing budgets, including more than a few handled by its own distributor, Sony Pictures Classics.

But going back to Amy Adams, I know I’m not alone in thinking she’s one of the best things going in American movies today, and with five nominations already under her belt at age 39, she’s starting to look like her generation’s Meryl Streep where Oscar is concerned. She’s terrific in “American Hustle” as Sydney, the former Cosmo girl turned grifter who reinvents herself as the British “Lady Edith Greensly” and goes so deep into the character that she starts to lose sight of the surface. In a movie that’s literally and figuratively all about acting, it’s Adams who really shows you what a great actor puts herself through to become someone else, culminating in that extraordinary moment when “Edith” drops all her layers of artifice and stands before the two men in her life, emotionally stripped to the bone, waiting for direction.

I can’t argue with a word of your assessment of Cate Blanchett’s equally remarkable work in “Blue Jasmine,” and if I give Adams the edge on my imaginary Oscar ballot, it’s partly because Blanchett already has one of these little gold statuettes to call her own. But I must disagree with your take on another past winner, Judi Dench, who I think does some of her best work of her career in “Philomena,” which also strikes me as the most vital work its director, Stephen Frears has done since “The Queen” in 2006 (and there have been a lot of movies in between). We’re so used to seeing Dench play royals and other upper-crust dames that at first I almost didn’t even recognize her as this simple but by no means simple-minded, God-fearing Irish woman searching for her long-lost son. Does the movie play cute? Sometimes, but not nearly as much as it might have, and never at the expense of Philomena Lee’s quiet yet rock-hard dignity.

CHANG: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
FOUNDAS: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”


CHANG: That astute Mark Harris piece you cited applies in spades to this set of nominees, all of whom starred in films nominated for best picture — and at least one of them, I think, can be chucked away right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong, Scott: I loved Christian Bale’s big-hearted, slyly underplayed turn in “American Hustle” — if Adams is the film’s secret weapon, then Bale is the emotional Krazy Glue that holds the whole damn thing together. But I simply wouldn’t have nominated him ahead of, say, Oscar Isaac, who really deserved a shot at his namesake prize for taking assholery to soulful new depths in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (while singing like an angel, to boot). Or, for that matter, Tom Hanks, whose shattering title turn in “Captain Phillips” proved there is life after “Larry Crowne,” and Robert Redford, who held the screen with just one F-bomb and a look of increasingly clenched determination in the thrillingly minimalist “All Is Lost.” (Between Hanks and Redford, what does the Academy have against taciturn, traumatized seafarers, anyway?)

Once upon a time, I thought Redford — who has received a directing award and an honorary Oscar from the Academy, but who has never been recognized for his work in front of the camera — would be the best actor to beat this season. But if voters were looking to honor a career-defining turn by a 77-year-old veteran with only one prior Oscar nomination for acting, they clearly decided to cast their lot with Bruce Dern in “Nebraska.” It’s an unassailable choice: This is a performance of great subtlety in a deliberately constricted range, and rare indeed is the viewer who can’t recognize some trace of an older loved one, however fleeting, in the actor’s dyspeptic scowl. Dern’s late-career triumph is a terrific comeback story, and a win would fit the historical narrative of this particular award, which, as the hardy spirits of John Wayne and Henry Fonda can attest, has often been bestowed as a sort of belated career recognition for overdue screen veterans.

Recent history, of course, is full of actors who have won on their first nomination, including Jean Dujardin, Forest Whitaker and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. That trend doesn’t seem likely to pan out for Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose powerfully restrained turn in “12 Years a Slave” feels like the Hollywood showcase this superb British actor has long deserved. Amid the accolades for Steve McQueen’s direction, John Ridley’s adaptation and Lupita Nyong’o’s breakout turn, Ejiofor’s work has been given somewhat short shrift by awards voters this season, which in some ways reinforces my sense that the widespread admiration for McQueen’s film — as well as the antipathy toward it in some quarters — has perhaps made too much of its undeniable racial-historical-political significance, at the expense of its simple virtues as a piece of storytelling. If “12 Years a Slave” has any claim to cultural resonance, it starts with the horror and agony we see etched in Ejiofor’s face.

First-timer status seems far more likely to favor Matthew McConaughey, whose warts-and-all work in “Dallas Buyers Club” would have seemed mighty impressive even if it hadn’t been preceded by his astonishing career turnaround with “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “Mud” and “Magic Mike.” It’s a streak any actor would be proud of; coming from the actor who had become little more than a walking punchline after “Fool’s Gold” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” it’s off-the-charts extraordinary. In some ways, McConaughey’s journey to the podium couldn’t be more different from that of his fellow nominee and (I suspect) closest rival for the honor, Leonardo DiCaprio. Now here’s a Hollywood golden boy who showed his promise early and never relinquished it: DiCaprio earned his first Oscar nomination at the age of 19, and since then he’s racked up three more, worked steadily with some of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors (repeatedly, in the case of Martin Scorsese), and in picture after picture he has been unflaggingly, reliably excellent without quite hitting it out of the park — all of which has conspired to turn him into one of the most underrated yet consistently bankable faces in American movies.

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he hits it out of the park. I know we’re in agreement on this one, Scott, and it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, which is not something I could say about the performance itself. Whether he’s holding court with his stockbroker acolytes like a monetary Mussolini, or crawling on all fours in perhaps the most unhinged, go-for-broke O.D. comedy sequence since Uma Thurman took a needle to the heart in “Pulp Fiction,” DiCaprio throws caution utterly to the wind — but crucially, not technique, timing or smoldering charisma. That preternaturally boyish quality DiCaprio has, which marred his worthy attempts at biographical impersonation in films like “The Aviator” and “J. Edgar,” could not be more effectively suited to the role of Jordan Belfort: In a performance whose supple dramatic progression has been largely overlooked amid all the coke-snorting, wife-punching antics, we see this talented but untested young trader begin to make a name for himself, we see him swindle and seduce his way to the top, and finally, we see the ferocious, borderline-irredeemable monster he becomes. This might not have been such an easy call for me if Redford were in the race, but DiCaprio’s work is simply smashing — and no less career-crowning.

FOUNDAS: Indeed, by the time of “Fool’s Gold,” McConaughey seemed to have gone from golden boy to merely golden — like a walking Coppertone ad given to collecting easy paychecks for frolicking in the sun and surf. (Does anyone even remember the same year’s barely released “Surfer, Dude”?) I like “Dallas Buyers Club” and greatly admire McConaughey’s work in it, though I’m surprised how few (if any) critics have mentioned the extent to which the film is patterned on George Miller’s superior “Lorenzo’s Oil,” another story of renegade civilians taking experimental medical treatments into their own hands and coming face-to-face with the brute force of the American pharma establishment. The movie is smart not to sentimentalize the character of Ron Woodroof too much — his journey is heroic enough that he doesn’t have to always behave heroically (the mistake of a great many biopics), and McConaughey is the kind of actor who’s so innately charismatic that we’ll happily keep watching him even when he’s playing a callous, bigoted asshole.

But I’m with you 100% on DiCaprio, who’s so electrifying in every one of “The Wolf of Wall Street’s” 179 minutes that you can’t conceive of the movie having been made with anyone else. I’ve long been a DiCaprio fan, but you’re right in that he seemed to be trying too hard in some of his adult roles, including his first couple of turns with Scorsese. It’s been very instructive to watch this partnership evolve now over five features: Whereas, at the time of “Gangs of New York,” DiCaprio appeared very much the pupil and Scorsese the master, in “Wolf” they seem on entirely equal footing, much as Scorsese and De Niro did during the peak period of their long-running collaboration. It’s an amazingly inventive, sustained, energetic performance in which DiCaprio gives so much of himself that, when it’s over, you expect him to collapse on his knees and have to be helped offstage, the way James Brown used to do at his concerts. Simply put: This is his “Raging Bull,” and if there’s an upset on Oscar night, it will be in his favor.

That’s bad news for Bruce Dern, who I once thought had this one sewn up for his beautifully nuanced work in “Nebraska,” but who now seems a distant third at best, more Peter Fonda than Henry. Certainly, Dern boasted the most compelling personal narrative of this year’s Oscar season: a major figure of the New Hollywood filmmaking renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s, whose career as a leading man was pretty much over by 1980, and who was more recently toiling away in direct-to-video dreck like a beleaguered-immigrant-farm-workers drama called “Fighting for Freedom” that I reviewed a few months ago. Quentin Tarantino, that master orchestrator of the late-career comeback, did Dern a solid two years ago by giving him a scene-stealing cameo in “Django Unchained.” But it was Alexander Payne who came through with “Nebraska’s” big, juicy lead — a part that was supposedly first offered to the likes of Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson, but which benefited immeasurably from being played by someone who was never as big of a star in the first place, who seemed to understand regret and missed opportunity as well as his onscreen avatar. Like McConaughey, Dern scrupulously avoids playing into the audience’s hands, when it would have been so easy (and perhaps better for the movie’s box office fortunes) to turn Woody Grant into a lovable old geezer. Instead, he’s a coarse old bastard, long on drink and short on affection, who loves his adult son but doesn’t have a clue how to express it. And because Dern is the kind of actor who cuts straight to the emotional truth of every beat of every scene, we can’t take our eyes off him.

As for those omissions, Redford’s was certainly the most shocking, but if the Oscar-season soothsayers are to be believed, “All Is Lost” failed to curry much favor with Academy voters, many of whom reportedly ejected the DVD well before it was over. Even if they’d made it through to the end, though, Redford still might have come up empty-handed. Indeed, for all the comparisons J.C. Chandor’s solo survival drama earned to “Gravity,” in several crucial respects it couldn’t have been more different, offering only old-fashioned wind and rain in place of Imax-sized interstellar vistas, and ambiguity and despair instead of triumphant rebirth. Still, the movie seems to have made enough waves in the zeitgeist for Redford’s chronically undervalued acting career to be sufficiently reappraised. There were lifetime tributes at various festivals, and Redford himself seemed reinvigorated, announcing a slew of new acting projects including the long-gestating “A Walk in the Woods” and “The Old Man and the Gun” for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery. Oscar may have eluded Bob this year, but he may yet have his moment in the Academy’s sun.

CHANG: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
FOUNDAS: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”