In contrast to the lead actress competition, a list of this year’s lead actor Oscar hopefuls runs out of home run contenders pretty quickly. But at the very top, just like their female counterparts, the leading men are led by a trio of front-runners in what may well amount to the eventual race for the gold.
Bradley Cooper’s career-best work comes in his own “A Star Is Born,” taking on a classic character that has longed for an empathetic rendering across the ages and finally gets one in the best version of the tale to date. An addict with a heart of gold — a talent facing twilight — the role of Jackson Maine was a showcase opportunity for Cooper and he seized it.
Curiously enough, Cooper and his “American Hustle” co-star Christian Bale highlight the race, with Bale delivering an uncanny rendering of former Vice President Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s “Vice.” The film is an immersive character study that has the actor front and center throughout, peeling back the layers of a true enigma.
In the shadow of that towering duo is Viggo Mortensen, quietly cranking out one of his best performances in Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” (Mortensen’s co-star Mahershala Ali will compete in the supporting actor category). But it’s a campaign facing a few challenges. Mortensen’s recent N-word gaffe will obviously do him no favors — particularly so with a film has been criticized as “corny” and “misguided” in its feel-good grasp of American race relations in the 1960s. Regardless, he’s overdue for an Oscar, and “Green Book” has far more champions than not.
After that, the category feels like a bit of a free-for-all. Every other contender seems notably vulnerable. Take Ryan Gosling, whose portrayal of Neil Armstrong in “First Man” was precisely what it needed to be: an emotionally clenched well of grief and determination. But it comes across as passive compared with other, more outward displays. Hugh Jackman faces a similar challenge with “The Front Runner,” and like Gosling, his work comes in a film that has underwhelmed at the box office.
As Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rami Malek is probably in a better position than Jackman or Gosling. Critics savaged “Rhapsody,” but audiences arrived in droves, and Malek’s work has been singled out even by the movie’s detractors.
Perhaps the critics groups can help shed some light on the race. “First Reformed” star Ethan Hawke seems assured of a few notices in the coming weeks for his portrayal of a tormented priest. Willem Dafoe could be due a second wind after winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival for his depiction of Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate.” A personal favorite is Joaquin Phoenix’s moody hit man in “You Were Never Really Here,” which recently picked up a Spirit Award nomination for the actor.
There are a pair of New Hollywood legends to consider in Robert Redford, supposedly calling it quits after “The Old Man & the Gun,” and Clint Eastwood, still unseen in “The Mule” but faced with a great opportunity to finally win an Academy Award for on-screen work. Either name would be a distinguished addition to the lineup.
From there, you end up just rattling off a list of qualifying competitors in films still angling for the Academy’s attention: Ben Foster is flawless in the critically adored “Leave No Trace”; Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly bring humor and Hollywood history as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in “Stan & Ollie”; Lucas Hedges has two drastically different shots with “Ben Is Back” and “Boy Erased”; and Kenneth Branagh is quite good as an aging William Shakespeare in his own “All Is True,” a last-minute hopeful from Sony Classics.
If you’re keeping score at home, you’ve noticed that this list of names could put the category on pace to be the first lineup lacking a person of color since the 2015 slate helped give birth to the #OscarsSoWhite movement. There are options — Malek, Chadwick Boseman in “Black Panther,” Spirit nominee Daveed Diggs in “Blindspotting,” Stephan James in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Michael B. Jordan in “Creed II,” Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Mary Poppins Returns,” John David Washington in “BlacKkKlansman” — but no one is a slam dunk for a nod. Keep an eye on that.
The Screen Actors Guild will soon give the first real indication of where the actor race is going. Nominations for the group’s 25th annual awards will be announced Dec. 12.