Looking over this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Actor in a Leading Role, we see four previous nominees, three of them in this category, and two previous wins for one of them. Denzel Washington has a towering acting, and this seventh nomination for his performance in Fences, fourth for Actor in a Leading Role, could lead to a third win after previous gongs for Supporting Actor for Glory and Leading Actor for Training Day. Viggo Mortensen for Captain Fantastic and Ryan Gosling for La La Land are previous nominees for Lead Actor, for Eastern Promises and Half Nelson, respectively, while Casey Affleck, up for Manchester by the Sea, was previously nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge is therefore the only first time nominee, and at 33 the youngest of the nominees. The average age for the Best Actor winner over the last twenty years has been 44, so Garfield is unlikely to win this time. Similarly, the attention paid to Mortensen has been minimal, so if he were to win, it would be something of an upset. Therefore, this appears to be a three horse race.
The three performances are as different as the films they are in, but all have elements in their favour. The Academy often rewards those who develop new skills for roles (see Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant), and Gosling did learn to play the piano and perform his own dance numbers in La La Land. Plus, he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Washington’s performance is more varied, including at times moving with the caution of an aged man. At 62, Washington is the oldest nominee and the Academy often rewards older performers – in the past two decades, only seven Best Actor winners have been under the age of 40. In addition, Washington won the Screen Actors Guild award so clearly impressed his peers. Affleck’s performance is the more insular: hunched, mumbled, expressing through his eyes and minimal body language, his performance reminiscent of Marlon Brando in his prime, but without the physically imposing form. This makes Affleck’s utter domination of the screen in Manchester by the Sea all the more impressive, as he draws the viewer’s attention through the tiniest of gestures and the quietest of sounds. Plus, he is 41, making him the most average age nominee (like Garfield, Gosling is younger than the typical winner). Not that there is anything average about Affleck’s performance, and it does not hurt his chances that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama,and the BAFTA for Best Actor. Come Oscar night, I anticipate Ben’s little brother will be delivering another heartfelt if somewhat stumbling acceptance speech.