In this year’s Oscar race for the lead actor prize, two of the front-runners represent a pair of films likely to duke it out for best picture: Leonardo DiCaprio, whose fading Western TV star Rick Dalton is the heart and soul of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and Robert De Niro, who does his best work in years as a mob hitman in Martin Scorsese’s epic “The Irishman.” Both are previous winners in the category.
In addition, Adam Driver, who was nominated last year for supporting actor in “BlacKkKlansman,” seems a likely nominee for his role as a stage director going through an excruciating divorce in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” Joaquin Phoenix is always a contender, and his “Joker” has proven to be a major hit, and Eddie Murphy’s rollicking tribute to performer Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite Is My Name” has the comeback-story lane all to itself.
But nothing is for certain and in making any further predictions, it helps to consider the precedent. Last year, Rami Malek took the prize for his turn as flamboyant Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Dexter Fletcher, who took over as that film’s director when Bryan Singer exited the project, has returned with the Elton John musical “Rocketman,” for which Taron Egerton pulled off a similar transformation. And unlike Malek, who lacks Mercury’s superhuman range, Egerton faced the challenge of singing Elton’s songs in his own voice.
“I felt very proud of doing the singing myself and hope it brings something to the film,” Egerton says.“You can’t become Elton John. There’s an element of me trying to emulate him, but we just hoped that an audience would accept my voice and have an investment in the character, because the character is expressing his voice through song. It’s not a straight biopic. It’s a musical.”
As part of the film’s continued rollout, Egerton has been emphasizing his musical chops by performing with Elton, including in a recent “Rocketman” concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And according to Egerton, the two have become even closer through the experience of promoting the film.
“I can imagine it’s an odd feeling, having your life depicted in that way, because it also might be an introduction [to Elton] for some people in future generations. So there’s a big weight of responsibility, but he seems very pleased with it. He said he felt really understood by me, which is a lovely thing to say. I really would call him one of my closest friends now.”
The Oscars love showmanship, but they also value megastars willing to get down and dirty. Robert Eggers’ 19th century-set, black-and-white two-hander “The Lighthouse” is a deeply irreverent film about extremes, and Robert Pattinson’s performance as a lighthouse keeper required various forms of intense commitment.
Pattinson has already copped to pissing his pants and eating mud for the role, but there were emotional constraints as well. “Robert Eggers likes to shoot these long sequences in one shot,” Pattinson says, “and you have scenes that have to go all over the place emotionally, and involve stunt work, crying, being obliterated drunk, and trying to sustain the energy while also speaking this quite ornate language in a slightly obscure accent.”
The film was shot on location in Nova Scotia, where the crew built sets from scratch and shot on a century-old camera. Pattinson found some of the physical challenges invigorating. “It’s sleeting one minute, then it’s sunny, then it’s snowing, so you experience every season in an hour,” he says. “That would be really irritating if you had to play against it, but that was exactly the environment that the characters were experiencing, so having the environment push back at you and force you to react was just great.”
The interplay between Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s ornery ex-sailor boss makes clear that “The Lighthouse” is actually a pitch-black comedy. “It’s funny on the page, but when you’re experiencing it on set, freezing cold, covered in fake shit, you’re not trying to play it for laughs. You’re making yourself the butt of the joke. It was funny on purpose, but also funny in its audacity. The scene where I’m criticizing Willem’s cooking, there was literally two pages where we were just saying ‘What?’ to each other. It’s a kind of slapstick.”
Pattinson is a known quantity, but the lead actor category often makes room for newcomers. This category could include a youngster such as Roman Griffin Davis, who makes his debut in Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” or Paul Walter Hauser, a veteran character actor whom Clint Eastwood cast as the lead role of his upcoming drama “Richard Jewell.”
Hauser says he was as surprised as anyone when he got the call. He was doing a film with Spike Lee in Thailand, and when someone mentioned that Eastwood was considering him as the lead in his new movie, “It didn’t sound like a real thing to me,” Hauser says. But he could sense a potential big break, and decided to put other offers on hold.
“I voted with my heart instead of my wallet or my brain, and decided to wait and see,” he says. After wrapping in Thailand, he flew back to L.A. and met with Eastwood, who said he wanted Hauser as the eponymous Jewell, the real-life Atlanta security guard who went from hero to potential suspect in the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing.
“It wasn’t an audition so much as it was Clint having an instinct and the support of his casting director,” Hauser says. “He’d barely seen me in anything. Maybe ‘I, Tonya’ and ‘BlackKklansman.’ Maybe a combined total of 25 minutes onscreen.”
There is one stumbling block on Hauser’s potential Oscar path. No one has seen “Richard Jewell” yet, not even Hauser.
But he knows enough about the character, and Eastwood’s directorial track record, to think the film will strike a chord. “I think it will resonate with all people, because we’ve all either been described in a way we wouldn’t agree with, or been accused of something we don’t think we did. I think there’s just something fundamental about wanting justice and not being able to defend yourself.”
Three additional yet-to-be-released films feature marquee actors playing a man fighting an uphill battle against systemic injustice: Michael B. Jordan in “Just Mercy,” Adam Driver in “The Report” and Mark Ruffalo in Todd Haynes’ environmental thriller “Dark Waters.”
Ruffalo produced “Dark Waters,” which is based on the true story of Rob Billott, a corporate defense lawyer who, facing a crisis of conscience, decides to take on a dark secret at the heart of one of the world’s largest corporations.
“We’re earnestly having this discussion about overall systems that are failing us, and I felt like this story really captured it,” Ruffalo says.
In certain ways, this is as concrete a good vs. evil story as you can find. But Ruffalo says he didn’t have to look far to discover the psychological complexity in the role.
“A lot of it was just being as honest as possible to who Rob Billott is,” Ruffalo says. “He’s not someone who grandstands, or puts a lot of emotion into his work. He never allows that to lead him. That dispassionate approach makes it a difficult problem to work out as an actor. The conflict that he had, sacrificing materialism and prestige and family to do this work, in an America that puts materialism above all else, it’s a kind of spiritual journey. To do that in today’s America is deeply psychologically conflicting.”