Oscar season is in full force, so it's time to take a look at who the leading candidates are for one of the top categories: Best Actor. While there are still a handful of titles waiting to premiere (such as Clint Eastwood's crime drama The Mule), most of the expected contenders have already had their theatrical runs or screened for critics. As such, the awards race has started to come into clearer focus over the past few months. Of course, there's still plenty of time for things to sort out before the Academy Awards ceremony in February 2019, but cinephiles have a better idea how things could play out, making it somewhat easy to make predictions.
Best Actor is typically a blood bath, and this year is no exception. Currently, there's no "Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour" type of performance that's the clear frontrunner, leaving things wide open as numerous actors jockey for position. The star power on display in the category is truly impressive, and it will be very exciting to see how things play out as the season goes along. Similar to what we did with Best Picture earlier this year, we're listing the biggest contenders for Best Actor here.
Ethan Hawke - First Reformed
Paul Schrader's drama premiered in U.S. theaters as a counter-programming option this summer, but definitely stayed in the minds of awards voters. The film follows Toller (Hawke), a New York minister dealing with questions about faith and morality as he works at a church. First Reformed recently got a much-needed boost when it was named one of the National Board of Review's 10 best films of the year. Schrader (scribe of classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) has already earned multiple accolades for his original screenplay, which impressively deals with complex subject matter. He isn't the only one from First Reformed walking away with hardware, as Hawke is picking up key notices.
Hawke has already won Best Actor trophies from the Gotham Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle, the first necessary steps to building a case for an Oscar nomination. The actor also has a fairly lengthy history with the Academy, picking up four nominations throughout his career. Two of those were for screenwriting, but the actors branch made sure to recognize Hawke's work in Training Day and Boyhood. He's built up an impressive filmography over the years, and Oscar voters may want to nominate him again. And if he keeps doing well in the precursors, Best Actor could be his to lose.
Christian Bale - Vice
Bale already won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dicky Eklund in David O. Russell's The Fighter, and now he could be in line for his first Best Actor win for Adam McKay's Vice. In the upcoming dark comedy, Bale plays former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, and in just the trailer alone, he's deserving of a nomination. As has become typical for Bale, he completely threw himself into his craft, pulling off yet another incredible physical transformation. His Cheney is eerily authentic, nailing the politician's appearance and mannerisms. Even those who know it's Bale in makeup do double-takes at the footage.
Vice opens in theaters on Christmas, and full reviews are embargoed until the premiere gets closer. However, the film has screened for some guild members and critics, and right now the early word is that the film (and Bale's turn) lives up to its on-paper potential. Unsurprisingly, Bale is one of the definite standouts in the loaded ensemble, carrying Vice with one of his best outings. The fact the actor is excellent shouldn't come as a surprise, and at this point, it feels like he's a shoo-in for a nomination. Once other awards bodies start weighing in, he may be able to become the clear favorite.
Viggo Mortensen - Green Book
In Peter Farrelly's real-life dramedy, Mortensen plays Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer who takes a job driving African-American classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through the deep South for a musical tour in the 1960s. Green Book became one of the year's biggest Oscar surprises when it took home the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, basically guaranteeing it a Best Picture nomination. Some critics have taken issue with Green Book's conventional handling of its subject matter and themes, but the general consensus is that it's an entertaining, feel-good story for older moviegoers. It even won the NBR's Best Film prize.
Mortensen was also a winner at NBR, securing the Best Actor award. Indeed, the performances by Mortensen and Ali are a primary reason why Green Book works as well as it does. A larger than life character, Tony Lip easily could have amounted to nothing more than just a walking stereotype, but Mortensen lends his natural skill and gravitas to the role. Balancing the comedic and dramatic aspects of the film with grace, the two-time Oscar nominee never loses sight of Tony Lip's underlying heart and humanity, making him a fun and interesting individual to be around. And like Bale, Mortensen went the extra mile and altered his physical appearance, transforming into the role.
Bradley Cooper - A Star is Born
Cooper's remake of the classic musical drama is one of the darlings of awards season so far, earning widespread critical praise and $191.7 million at the domestic box office. The leading Best Picture contender found tremendous success with NBR, winning Best Director (Cooper), Best Actress (Lady Gaga) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott) and earning a spot on the 10 best list. A Star is Born actually tied the record for most wins in NBR history, matching the cumulative total (four) by Best Picture nominees Up in the Air and The Social Network. This is just the beginning for Star, which is expected to do very well as awards season continues.
With three acting nods to his name already (his last came in 2014 for American Sniper), Cooper should add to his total this year. His gritty turn as country-rocker Jackson Maine was hailed as one of his best, with critics feeling it was appropriately charismatic and sympathetic. Cooper did a fantastic job portraying Jack's self-destructive nature, grounding it in a way that felt honest and genuine. Impressively, the actor also performed his own live vocals for the film's standout concert sequences - a product of 18 months of training. The Oscars have a definite soft spot for old school Hollywood musicals (La La Land earned 14 nominations), so even if Cooper doesn't win Best Actor, he'll most likely be one of the thespians in contention.
Ryan Gosling - First Man
Speaking of La La Land, Gosling received a Best Actor nod under Damien Chazelle's direction for that film, and the two were hoping to work awards magic again with the Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man. Unfortunately, the drama's Oscar prospects have taken a nosedive ever since it opened in theaters. Failing to escape the shadow of blockbusters Venom and A Star is Born, First Man floundered at the box office, totaling just $44.5 million domestically. With Chazelle demonstrating his evolving mastery behind the camera, First Man should do well in the technical categories, but it's no longer the Best Picture threat some thought it might be after the early fall festivals.
How that impacts Gosling in the Best Actor race remains to be seen. His performance as Armstrong is very nuanced and subdued, channeling the astronaut's introverted personality onscreen. This contributed to the common complaint First Man is too cold and emotionally distant to truly connect with wide audiences, and there may not be enough voters onboard with Gosling's turn. It's not the typical "showy" acting the Oscars tend to go for, as there isn't a clear scene where Gosling essentially seals a nomination. His work in First Man is great for the film's purposes, though there's a chance it isn't enough to get him across the finish line. Even if Gosling does get his third nomination, he'll have to settle for the participation award.