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411 Oscar Preview 2.26.14: Best Actor & Actress
Posted by Ben Piper on 02.26.2014

Hello, and welcome back to day two of 411's Oscar coverage. I am still your host of these festivities, Ben Piper.

The Best Actor and Actress categories this year have a lot of genuine movie star A- listers to consistent big screen performers that have begun to have a knack for getting nominated to underrated character actors. And then you have the most nominated actor or actress in Oscar history. Quite a heady mix to be sure.

To consider that all of these great talents have all been singled out by the Academy of Movie Art and Sciences continues to be a testament that as much as we complain about how the movies that come out nowadays aren't very good, if you seek it out, there is quality to be found. So let us have a look at each of the nominees in the leading acting categories.

Best Actor

Christian Bale, American Hustle
By Michael Weyer

Previous Nominations: 1- The Fighter (Won)

The first time we see Christian Bale in American Hustle, he's showing off a large belly while adjusting his balding plate into a bad comb-over. Even for an actor as well known for changing his physicality as Bale, it's amazing to see him taking on such a character as Irving Rosenfeld. A cleaning-store chain owner/con artist, this is a man balancing a life of lies on multiple levels, chasing scores in various ways, satisfied being a small guy. It's his new-found attraction for the feisty Sydney (Amy Adams) that urges him to take on a bigger score that lands him in hot water with the FBI. To add to his troubles, he has to handle his marriage to a highly unstable young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who he basically sticks with because of the love for her son. It's a major role that Bale handles with amazing skill. He can be cool at times in the cons but breaks the number one rule by becoming friends with his mark (Jeremy Renner) and not liking how Sydney and their FBI contact (Bradley Cooper) are getting closer. Bale carries a believable world-weariness to himself, hating how he got into this but unable to get out. The scenes with Lawrence are fun, Bale just wondering what happened to get him in this and he comes more alive with Sydney. Yet, he still has a streak of brilliance that comes to the fore at the movie's climax pulling off the ultimate con. Bale manages the trick of getting you to truly care for this man who sins so much and yet has more pride than you'd expect and you have to love how, in the end, he gets the life he wanted despite all the fuss it took to get there. For a Briton, Bale shows once more how he handles the American life very well.

Bruce Dern. Nebraska
By Chad Webb

Previous Nominations: 1-Coming Home

Director Alexander Payne initially approached Gene Hackman to portray Woody Grant in Nebraska, but he is retired and therefore declined. As a matter of fact, Robert Forster, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Duvall were all considered, but the part ended up going to Bruce Dern, who proved that even though he is not as legendary as those other names, he could still knock the ball out of the park when he wants to.

Dern embraces what could easily be a career-defining role as Woody. This is a fully encompassing performance as Dern fleshes out the expressions, mannerisms, and overall attitude of this man, who just wants the prize-money he was promised by a sweepstakes letter, with subtlety and precision. He is a joy to watch. This is Dern's second Oscar nomination in his near 55 years as a performer. The first was 35 years ago, for Coming Home. His resume is a mixed bag to say the least, but what has always made him stand out is his versatility. Dern can play just about anything.

His depiction is not as showy or intense as Chiewetel Ejiofor or Leonardo DiCaprio, but it is every bit as remarkable. His chances of walking home with a gold statue are not very high, but his getting recognized hopefully will prompt people to seek out Nebraska and admire his wonderful work.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf Of Wall Street
By Jeremy Thomas

Previous Nominations: 3-What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond

One of the big stories coming into this year's Academy Awards is "Is it finally Leo's time?" Many people consider DiCaprio one of the finest actors currently working in Hollywood that doesn't have an Oscar to his name. And you can count me in among those people. DiCaprio has been denied not only wins, but even nominations for deserving performances and the three nominations that he has received saw him denied, with both of his Best Actor losses coming against actors who won their first awards (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker). And this year it could well be the same, as he's up against the astonishing work by Chiwotel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer's Club. One could easily argue that this simply isn't DiCaprio's year. Again.

But don't count him out. There are many factors that could come into play here for Leo and let him take home the Oscar in his fourth effort. The first is the number issue: the Academy loves awarding people who are perceived to be "due." It has happened many a time, and with all the speculation around the fact that DiCaprio is due his award it may well come to him. The wave of controversy that The Wolf of Wall Street conjured up could easily help him (although it could hurt him too), as many voters who might not have given it a chance probably checked it out to see what the fuss is about. But first and foremost among the factors in his favor: it is, bar none, his best acting work to date. He juggles drama and comedy with ease here, making us see the depths of this depraved character in a very real fashion but also giving us some sublimely funny moments. The scene in which DiCaprio crawls across a parking area to try to get to his car while zonked out on quaaludes is one of the funniest physical comedy moments in recent history. The Academy does love multi-dimensional performances and that could certainly push DiCaprio into the award he's deserved for some time now.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
By Jeremy Wilson

Previous Nominations: 0

When I first saw 12 Years a Slave, I walked out convinced that Chiwetel Ejiofor's star-making turn as Solomon Northrup was not only the best performance I had seen all year, but was a near-lock to take home the Oscar. Ejiofor-as-Northrup is the heart and soul of Steve McQueen's slavery-era epic and in an immensely talented cast full of powerful performance, it is a testament to Ejiofor that he towers above them. Usually, turning in a much lauded starring performance in the year's most acclaimed film would be enough to get you the Oscar. Unfortunately for Ejiofor, 2013 marks one of the most competitive and deep years for lead actors we've ever seen, and his lack of star power seems to be one of the main reasons he may lose out.

Losing out to a field like this (not to mention who wasn't nominated) isn't anything to be ashamed about. However, it will be puzzling to see if 12 Years takes home other major Oscars such as Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress perhaps even surprise wins for Director or Supporting Actor and yet fails to officially recognize the film's star and beating heart. Ejiofor's performance, a harrowing mix of fury and fright, pain and hope, is literally a tour-de-force, the kind of performance that stands out at the end as one of an actor's handful of seminal roles. The fact that it is coming in the most highly reviewed film of the year with 9 total nominations and is at the very least a co-favorite for Best Picture makes it all the more curious as to why it hasn't been able to garner the same momentum as some of his rivals. Granted, an Ejiofor win may not provide the same kind of story that wins for McConaughey, DiCaprio or Dern would, but he is able to lay claim to being the first black British actor to be nominated for Best Actor and coming in a film such as 12 Years a Slave that may arguably be the best cinematic representation of slavery-era America we've ever seen, that would seem to be a pretty good story. Perhaps there's the sense among some Academy voters that Ejiofor's time may yet come, but that doesn't seem enough of a rationale to not vote for him. Whoever has seen 12 Years a Slave comes away knowing that Chiwetel Ejiofor is exceptionally deserving of this year's Best Actor award.

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
By John Dotson

Previous Nominations: 0

When it came time to write Oscar blurbs, I was super happy to see that Matthew McConaughey had not been claimed. It's absolutely amazing to see how far this guy has climbed on the ladder of artistic integrity, especially when you consider that he was trapped in a rom-com casting hell for many years. Keep in mind, Failure to Launch wasn't even ten years ago. I'm not sure where I heard it, but I recall hearing that McConaughey turned down a major paycheck to star in a Magnum PI film, so he could reboot his entire career. If so, the move was a fantastic one, and now the longtime actor is a major contender in this Oscar category.

This brings me to McConaughey's performance as Ron Woodroof- an electrician and rodeo hustler who finds out the hard way what happens when you live recklessly. We see McConaughey not only attempt to depict a quite selfish man, but one who also finds himself amidst a battle with the AIDS/ HIV virus. This carries him into acting territory we haven't quite seen before. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey evolves from a homophobic redneck to a man that becomes selfless and befriends a gay man named Rayon. Through McConaughey and Leto's portrayals of Ron and Rayon, we get a true sense of the lengths people would strive to treat the symptoms of AIDS/HIV. It's incredible to witness McConaughey characterize such a disgusting man who you find yourself rooting for by the near finish.

Both McConaughey and Jared Leto have already won several awards leading up to this occasion, and I cannot see how the Oscars will be any different. Not only has McConaughey earned it with his performance, but he has reinvented his career in the process. If he doesn't take home the prize, I can only hope whatever bug has entered this man's acting system remains hungry, because I want this nomination to be the first of many.

And The Oscar will (Presumably) go to: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Potential Spoiler: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave.

Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle
By Michael Weyer

Previous Nominations: 4- Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master

This is Amy Adams' fifth Oscar nomination in just eight years, a fantastic achievement for any actress. While she's known for her bright and cheerful roles, Adams can play darker and deeper and does so here with Sydney Prosser, a woman who has an instant connection with con artist Irving (Christian Bale). When he confesses his true nature, she leaves but then comes right back to join in, affecting a British accent to help him along. Adams shows great skill, keeping that accent up as she tangles with Bradley Cooper's FBI agent and dealing with how Irving has a young wife (the showdown between herself and Jennifer Lawrence is quite charged) and it's great seeing into this woman who seems to be caught in her own con. Sydney wants more of her life and hopes Irving is it but isn't about to let herself be used, she fights back as hard as she can, no matter who she has to claw to get there. It's easy to be distracted by her 1970's fashions but Adams allows you to see Sydney as a woman caught between not just two men but two lives and trying her best to survive this complicated situation. After four runs in Supporting, it would be fitting for Adams to finally gain her Oscar for a leading role that nicely showcases just how wonderful an actress she is and that it's the more adult roles that let her shine.

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
By Tony Farinella

Previous Nominations: 5- Elizabeth, The Aviator(Won), Notes On A Scandal, I'm Not There, Elizabeth: The Golden Age

After watching the Blu-Ray of Blue Jasmine , I knew that in my mind I had seen the best female performance of 2013. It is raw, unflinching, ragged, and intense, to say the least. Cate Blanchett is asked to hit many notes, both in flashbacks and in real time, and she does it so effortlessly. You believe her as the woman who lives a high priced, fancy lifestyle and you also believe her as the medicated, talking to herself woman who needs severe help. The film really asks her to go back and forth between the two, and it is done with relative ease. Cate also uses her face to really portray the torment, the betrayal, and the pain that her character's going through. She has wicked comedic timing when she delivers lines such as, "Can you please not fight in here? I don't think I can take it. For some reason my Xanax isn't kicking in."

What I admired the most about her performance was her willingness to put herself completely out there. It's a fearless performance and she lays it all on the line for the audience and for the betterment of the film. This is a film with a talented cast, no question, but she is the shining star. Make no mistake about it, it is her film. She goes to places that I wasn't sure she had in her. The ending of the film is so heartbreaking and so sad and she just nails it. I've seen the film three times now, and every time I watch it, I find new and interesting things about her performance. This is a wounded yet still somewhat prideful woman. I loved this film and I loved her performance in it. I would be quite shocked and saddened if she doesn't walk away with the Academy Award for this performance on Oscar night. It's simply incredible and a must see.

Sandra Bullock, Gravity
By Bryan Kristopowitz

Previous Nominations: 1- The Blind Side (Won)

Sandra Bullock's performance in Gravity, at least at first, didn't seem all that special. To me, it just seemed weird. I couldn't get beyond the idea that NASA would actually allow someone like Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone into space. She has obvious emotional issues, she's suffering through some sort of spiritual crisis, and she doesn't seem all that comfortable in space. Why the hell would she be sent into space? Wouldn't she be a serious liability to everyone else involved in the mission? But as I thought about it, the plausibility of Stone's presence on the space mission is irrelevant. The reality, if you want to call it that, is that she's up in space, she's on a mission, and the poop hits the fan. What does she do?

And so we see Stone rely on her training as a sort of instinct. Even when she's trying to stay away from the developing fire, work the radio, or figure out how to get out of the dying space vehicle, she's still a person with serious, serious problems. She never really gets over them by the end of the movie, but she still manages to persevere anyway. That seems to be what her story is all about at the end of the movie, when she walks on the beach after crashing back to Earth.

Bullock's performance is quite good considering the character she has to play. It will probably grow in its, well, "goodness" (I can't quite say greatness, at least not right now) over the years. I'm willing to check it out again in a few years, just to see if it's any better. It might be.

Judi Dench, Philomena
By Terry Lewis

Previous Nominations: 6- Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare In Love (Won), Iris, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Notes On A Scandal

I feel sometime like I beat my British drum too much when I write here, but for Philomena, I'm more than happy to knock seven shades out of that drum if it'll make people notice. What's clever about Judi Dench's performance is that it's essentially a tale about a sweet little old lady trying to find out what happened to her lost son, tragically taken away from her by the Catholic Church when she was a teenager. What's special about the story of Philomena Lee is that after all these years in a Magdalene laundry and in her old age, she's still a devout Catholic. When she is challenged through wrong doing by the Church in not letting her find out what happened to her son, it puts her in an uncomfortable position as she doesn't want to betray what her faith has taught her and what she needs to know.

And this is where Dench excels. I'll be the first to admit her Irish accent leaves a lot to be desired but this lovely, doesn't know any better, never left Britain and Ireland, old dear really does look troubled at times. The true story of Philomena Lee is brought to life and made memorable with a natural naivety and innocence in a winning role. Her clashes with the religious faith she's always kept strong to and what happens to her son are insightful & drawing and Dench's reactions alone are worthy of merit. The tragic and downbeat but moving ending is encapsulated by Dench's accepting attitude over the clash between her dealing with one's personal values whilst going up against one's faith.

Given that, Philomena didn't seem to make much of a splash in America, I'm not sure whether Judi Dench will have a shot or not but given all her previous opportunities and no one is disputing the fact she is a damn good actress, perhaps this year will be her year finally, despite some very stiff competition. She has picked up Oscar gold before from her work as Queen Elizabeth the First from Shakespeare In Love, albeit in a Best Supporting Actress capacity so she has pedigree. I just hope she's recognized for the marvelous job in bringing such a sympathetic character to life.

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
By John Dotson

Previous Nominations: 17- The Iron Lady (Won), Julie & Julia, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, Adaption, Music Of The Heart, One True Thing, The Bridges of Madison County, Postcards From The Edge, A Cry In The Dark, Ironweed, Out Of Africa, Silkwood, Sophie's Choice (Won), The French Lieutenant's Woman, Kramer Vs. Kramer (Won), The Deer Hunter

Oh, that Meryl! I honestly cannot think of a stronger actress than this lady. Nor can I picture anyone else making a stronger impact in the role of Violet Weston. I'm serious folks, because of Meryl, I found the tension in August Osage County damn near equal to 12 Years a Slave. Like Heath Ledger's Joker, she commanded every scene she was given and had your attention until she disappeared. We all have a dysfunctional family in some way or another, but after viewing this film, I felt better about my own. Did Meryl Streep play a huge part in that reaction for me? Damn right she did! I'm still scared shitless of her.

A lot can be said for the script as well, which is written by Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe). The combination of Letts' claustrophobic scripting and Streep's ability to embody this force of a character creation is as jolting as a fork connecting to a plug outlet. The only difference is this perfectly connects and Streep lights up the film with a superb amount of dread. You want to hate Violet for how mean she is; you want to support her because she has mouth cancer and she's addicted to pain meds; and you feel sorry for her because she is pushing her family away, making her alone. I honestly cannot remember the last time I've seen Streep deliver such a dark performance.

All that aside, Streep has won a few times before and because of that, I can't confidently say she will take home another Oscar. The nomination is well-deserved though and honors another profound performance from quite possibly the best actress of our time. Her work in August: Osage County shows this wonderful lady still has a place in mainstream cinema and she isn't going anywhere. You can almost guarantee she will return in this category again. We love ya Meryl!

And the Oscar will (presumably) go to: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Potential Spoilers: Amy Adams, American Hustle

Come back tomorrow when we will look at all the Best Picture and Best Director Nominees.


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