While the likes of Best Picture and Best Director are still being hotly debated one of the closest, and most talked about, races in this year’s Oscars is that of Best Leading Actor. The day before the nominations are announced, here’s a look at the two figures who are believed to have the best chances of winning.
The Best Leading Actor race as part of this year’s Oscars has had two clear leads from almost the very start of the season. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Two very different performances. And while initially Driver was the clear favourite to win the award after winning the Golden Globe, and Joker’s success at other awards ceremonies, Phoenix has managed to inch his way into becoming the favourite to win.
In the past the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have shown what type of performances they prefer to award very clearly. Physical performances where the toll a character has had on an actor can clearly be seen, such as Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. This alongside transformative performances, and often ones where the actor goes through a physical change, as seen when Meryl Streep won Leading Actress for taking on Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, or even Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour.
However, a clear love has also been shown for more natural, emotional and dramatic performances. Seen through the likes of Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea), Viola Davis (Fences) and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) all picking up awards in the last decade. When such performances are present voters tend to lean towards them more than they would a physical performance of transformation. Favouring the more natural less ‘visible’ acting over the visible energy and movement of the more bodily performances and transformations that some actors go through, as is the case with Joaquin Phoenix in Joker,
Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story is one of those rare performances in which you can ‘see’ the emotional impact of events in the film on the character while their behaviour still remains natural and realistic – something which voters may be more likely to lean towards for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way that they can ‘see’ the extent of a performance such as this. As they can with one where the actor clearly goes the extra mile for the role, such as going through harsh conditions or losing or gaining weight, or simply capturing the details of disabilities and life-changing/ altering events, as Julianne Moore showed in Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice. Secondly, the fact that some voters might be able to simply recognise, and possibly identify, with Driver’s character in Marriage Story. They may have gone through similar events themselves, or experienced a stressful divorce as the figures in Marriage Story do. Connecting with the film and perhaps finding it somewhat recognisable?
Therefore, by sympathising with the central character, instead of pitying them (as some have claimed has been the case with the lead figure in Joker, for part of the run-time anyway), the more personal connection is formed. When heightened by the naturalistic tone of the film, and the performance as a whole, voters may be more inclined to vote for the person who captured how they felt a specific time in their lives, capturing the feeling so well. That is, of course, if they do manage to identify and connect with Driver’s performance.
One of the most notable, and memorable, scenes in Marriage Story is the viral moment when Driver’s character, Charlie, passionately belts out a rendition of Sondheim’s Being Alive. It’s arguably one of the best moments in a film from last year. The scene alone could be enough to win Driver the award on the big night. And it’s undeniably his performance that makes it as strong and powerful as it is, making the viewer want to clap and cheer if they aren’t in stunned silence from what they’ve just seen. The fact that this moment is so close to the very end of the film could be a further reason for a vote for Driver. It’s the memorable moment that could very well leave the lasting flavour of his performance in the minds of the viewer. Sealing the vote and decision of the voter because of the power of this sequence. However, this all depends on whether voters make their way through the entire film, or even watch it. They’re minds may already be made up, or they simply just might not reach this point in the film and lend their vote to someone else. That someone else could very well be Joaquin Phoenix.
Throughout the entire campaign for Phoenix to be nominated for, and win, the Best Leading Actor award this year a number of people have mentioned that the actor is long overdue an Oscar. It’s surprising to think that he’s only been nominated three times in the past, for Gladiator (Supporting Actor), Walk The Line and The Master (Leading Actor). In fact the latter film held the performance that many thought could win Phoenix the Oscar, although it ultimately went to Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. The nature of Phoenix’s overdue win is pushed further by the fact that many believe that his turns in the likes of You Were Never Really Here, Her and, for some, Inherent Vice were equally snubbed. The nature of such a long-due award could be what pushes Phoenix to the win, it’s not unknown that Academy voters often reward people across all categories who are said to have not got the awards recognition they perhaps deserve. In the past couple of years Roger Deakins won Best Cinematography on his 14th nomination. It took Scorsese up until 2007 to win Best Director, and have one of his films win Best Picture, for The Departed, and Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t win until his 6th acting nod. However, this idea may be beginning to wear thin. After all Glenn Close was the favourite to win in the Leading Actress category last year, on her seventh nomination, and the award went to Olivia Colman; while deserved it was certainly one of the biggest surprises of the night. Plus, Amy Adams has received six nominations and is yet to have a win. Although this could simply be an anomaly in the run of awarding overdue awards, or Oscars after multiple nominations with no wins.
And with the multiple wins that Black Panther had last year, although in the technical categories, and its inclusion amongst the Best Picture nominees, helped by the diversification of voters over the past few years tradition is definitely changing. Something which could work both in and against Phoenix’s favour.
If Joker does as well at gaining nominations as it has at other awards ceremonies, most notably its 11 BAFTA nominations, the most of all the nominees this year, a win for Phoenix seems even more likely. Add to that the already mentioned diversified, and introduction of younger, voters. Plus, the straying away from ‘conventional winners’ with genre films such as Get Out and Black Panther, and even the likes of Moonlight and The Shape Of Water, you could very easily say that this year’s Leading Actor award is firmly locked in. The golden statue could already have an engraved plaque reading along the lines of ‘Best Leading Actor 2020. Joaquin Phoenix. Joker’. And let’s not forget that an actor has previously won an Oscar for portraying not just a character in a comic-book movie, but also the Joker before. Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor in 2009 when taking on the role in The Dark Knight. And while we haven’t quite seen a nomination like this since then with the changing face of the Academy and nominees there could be a wider change sparking, and that could start; or rather continue, with another win for an actor playing The Joker. Not to mention mental decline, depravity, and physicality, being favourite themes of voters across the board. Things which are strong themes within Joker, and Phoenix’s portrayal of the character.
Phoenix and Driver are very possibly the only two ‘certain’ nominees in this year’s Best Leading Actor category. And it’s highly likely that the winner out of the two could come down to whoever the nominees are. Other potential names that could be included in the batch of nominees are; Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes), Antonio Banderas (Pain And Glory), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) and Robert De Niro (The Irishman).
If Egerton appears then his physical performance, and take on real-life figure Elton John, could very well take away some votes from Phoenix – especially with his recent re-rise in popularity due to attention from other awards ceremonies, and a Golden Globe win in the Best Leading Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy category. Banderas could possibly affect Driver’s vote count or, like Pryce is presumed to do if nominated, could be a slight outsider with not much impact on voting.
When it comes to Leonardo DiCaprio his chances seem to have slightly declined in recent weeks, but still stand strong enough for him to receive a nomination. While he could get some votes it seems unlikely that he could win, although his true impact on voting isn’t properly known by anyone. He could very well have the same chances as Phoenix or Driver, so could any of the other nominees. Plus, Brad Pitt is currently the favourite to win in the Best Supporting Actor category, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is amongst the top picks to win Best Picture. Although Best Picture is voted for via a preferential ballot, whereas all other categories are done so via a first past the post system. And, of course, this is all before the nominees are actually announced.
Finally, if nominated De Niro could be the dark horse of the category, and could very well ‘take away’ votes from the two suspected leaders of this apparent race. His performance of someone deeply holding down, limiting and restricting their emotions admittedly doesn’t often win awards however there are factors that do work in his favour. The gradual ageing of his character in The Irishman over the course of the film shows a mild transformation, although one assisted by VFX. There’s also the fact that he’s Robert De Niro and his star power alone could very well be enough to earn him a nomination. The fact that The Irishman is rather good, and a Scorsese film, might also help. And the chances of Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, with some believing a potential win for Pesci, in the Best Supporting Actor category for the same film are very high.
Who knows what could happen when it comes to the other nominees? We could even end up seeing Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name) and/or Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) nominated. Especially after big pushes from various fronts including For Your Consideration sites and campaigns, the studios behind the films and even audiences, recent diversity rows and audience response to a lack of nominations for some actors in certain films and most importantly the fact that there are fantastic performances!
There’s no real way of properly predicting the winner of this category, and whoever gets nominated could completely change the shape of voting in the category. It’ll all come down to whoever appears in the nominations tomorrow (Monday 13th January), but it’s likely that the leads in the race for this year’s Best Leading Actor Oscar will remain Adam Driver and Joaquin Phoenix. Two very different performances that both have immense weight as to why they could win. Both almost seem to be pure Oscar-bait. And only one can win.
Of course it needs to be remembered that at the time of writing this the nominations are yet to be announced. But, if I were to say there was one leader that could make it to the big win on Sunday 9th February (Monday 10th when it comes to UK time, when the broadcast starts at around 1:00AM) I would say that Adam Driver just has the edge on Joaquin Phoenix. This view could completely change as the Oscar race takes form and the big night of awards season gets ever closer. However, for the moment, the day before nominations are announced, I would say that Adam Driver in Marriage Story lies more within the camp that Oscar voters are potentially likely to go for than Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Partly down to the emotional nature of the performance, the natural state of it and the fact that it’s a realistic performance where the emotion of the character can be ‘seen’ over a more unconventional comic-book adaptation, despite the strong physical performance and dive into crime and mental decline that Oscar voters clearly love. Especially with the themes that the film deals with and the general mannerisms of Arthur Fleck at the centre of Joker. But, Marriage Story represents a figure that can be more easily identified with and understood on a realistic level. However, for Phoenix to bring to life such a twisted and warped character and make them believable that’s possibly a more amazing feat, and therefore a sign of a better performance, something which the acting branch may recognise and want to reward, knowing how difficult that is to do. The acting branch is the biggest branch of the voting members of the Academy and therefore their impact on the winners of many categories, especially in the acting categories where they likely have a vast effect. So, Joaquin Phoenix could end up winning with ease, this is, as with most categories every year, a truly unpredictable race. And again, this pair might not be the real leads in the race, or it could be even or between more names.
But, for the time being as the race is only just going to properly begin from tomorrow, I would say that the award would currently go to Adam Driver in Marriage Story.
The reveal of the Oscar nominations can be watched live on the Oscars YouTube Channel from 13:18 UK time on Monday 13th January. The announcement can also be watched, with nominations listed afterwards, on the official Academy Awards website.
Update (13th January, just after the announcement of the nominees): With the nominations having been announced (Antonio Banderas (Pain And Glory), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)) it appears that the main competition is still between Phoenix and Driver. Banderas and Pryce seem to be the slight outsiders, and DiCaprio could be the quiet threat, after all actors playing actors are often highly commended by Academy voters. However, with the current record of the core two at the centre of the race at other awards ceremonies this season there looks to have been little change to the way the competition stands. Meaning that my money, if I were to bet, would currently still be on Adam Driver to win this year’s Best Leading Actor award.
Update 2 (3rd February, 6 days before the Oscars): In this year’s awards season competition it’s impossible to ignore Joaquin Phoenix’s winning streak at guild awards, specifically the Screen Actors Guild Awards (the acting branch being the biggest out of all Academy voting branches, and the SAG winner matching with the Oscar winner 9 out of 10 times – the Guild decided to award Denzel Washington the award for Fences in 2017 while the Academy gave Casey Affleck the prize for his turn in Manchester By The Sea). Add to this his success at various other awards ceremonies it seems that this year’s Best Leading Actor Oscar is the Joker star’s to lose. While it may have initially seemed as if this award was a two horse race that doesn’t quite seem to be the case anymore. In fact it seems as if all the acting categories are locked in. Laura Dern (Marriage Story) for Supporting Actress, Brad Pitt (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) for Supporting Actor, Renée Zellweger (Judy) for Leading Actress and, of course, Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) for Leading Actor.