From flawed tech pioneers to embattled immigrant doctors, this year’s lead actor Oscar race is a fascinating study of heroism in all of its nuances.
For a change, the competition is currently without a runaway favorite, but if anyone could be considered a front-runner, it’s Michael Fassbender. As the eponymous computer titan of Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” he embodies a number of the man’s less desirable characteristics, yes. But they combine to reveal a quality suggested by Aaron Sorkin’s script as demonstrative of what drove Jobs to seek perfection in his work. “Your products are better than you are, brother,” is the barb Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak sends his way in the third act. “That’s the idea, brother,” is Jobs’ retort. In him, we have almost an antihero, but a hero nonetheless for what he created in his time, in his way.
In “The Danish Girl,” Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, plays another courageous real-life figure. Lili Elbe was an undeniable heroine to the transgender cause, a community that has been increasingly represented in filmed entertainment as of late (from TV’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” to Sundance festival hit “Tangerine”). Redmayne conveys Lili’s pained journey with an empathy sure to connect with many voters.
And who would argue that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wasn’t a hero, standing up to those promulgating an institutional witch hunt, and managing to secure work not just for himself but for many other writers during one of Hollywood’s darkest chapters? Bryan Cranston embodies that integrity with grit and gusto in Jay Roach’s “Trumbo,” a film that drew mixed critical response, but could nevertheless register strongly with the actors’ branch of the Academy.
In “Bridge of Spies,” integrity is the embossed characteristic of lawyer James B. Donovan, played by two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Director Steven Spielberg expertly taps into the actor’s wholesome disposition to convey a man of principle willing to risk his neck both in the courtroom and behind enemy lines.
Many eyes this season also will be on four-time nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, looking for his first Oscar. As explorer and fur trapper Hugh Glass in “The Revenant,” he embodies heroism of a different sort — a wronged man left for dead, seeking revenge and maintaining his own sense of integrity in the wilderness. In one of the most physically demanding roles in the race, DiCaprio spends large amounts of time alone, silent, expressing himself with his body and eyes.
The well-worn hero trope of whistleblower is present this year as well: In “Concussion,” Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian who immigrated to the U.S. to be the best version of himself, as he says in the film. And if that means holding a corporate giant’s feet to the flame — in this case, the monolithic National Football League — then that’s what he’ll do. Upon discovering empirical data linking the sport to a degenerative brain disease, he weathers pressure from the league as well as from a Pittsburgh community that has football pumping through its veins, but he remains unbowed.
Jake Gyllenhaal (“Southpaw”), Géza Röhrig (“Son of Saul”) and Andrew Garfield (“99 Homes”) play different variations of gallant fathers. Matt Damon portrays a hero of science and exploration in “The Martian.” And in one below-the-radar performance, Cliff Curtis plays a man who shepherds troubled youths via the game of chess in “The Dark Horse.”
Naturally, there are other high-profile performances that don’t quite fit the mold, like Johnny Depp and Tom Hardy’s gangster portraits in “Black Mass” and “Legend,” respectively. Still, it’s heroism that’s framing the lead actor contest this year. The question is: Which hero (or antihero) will get the gold?