Last Update: October 3, 2019
With awards season now underway, we're taking a look at the leading candidates for Best Actor at the 2020 Oscars. As always, the category is stacked this year, with a number of talented thespians looking to leave their mark on the race. Depending on how things play out, there could even be some surprises in store (more on that in a little bit), with names nobody thought would ever be in contention giving acclaimed performers a run for their money. At this point in the cycle, anything is possible and cinephiles are eager to see where things go.
The Oscar chase really kicks off after the trifecta of the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals. It's there people get a chance to actually see the films in the running and determine if they're legitimate contenders or pretenders. In October, nothing is a guarantee, but the picture is a little clearer than it was back in August at the outset of Venice. So without further ado, here are some of the ones to watch in the Best Actor race this year.
Adam Driver - Marriage Story
As many people have noted, Driver is positioned to have an incredible end to 2019. Reprising his career-changing role as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would be enough, but he's also headlining two smaller films looking to make noise on the Oscar circuit: Marriage Story and The Report. The former, which earned unanimous raves out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto (where it was named a runner-up for the People's Choice Award), looks to be the best chance Driver has at his second Oscar nod. As great as it would be for him to be recognized for Kylo, the Academy is unlikely to go that route. And The Report couldn't hold on to the buzz it garnered following Sundance. The drama's Oscar odds seem dead, leaving Marriage Story.
In Noah Baumbach's latest, Driver plays Charlie, father of a family going through a tumultuous divorce. Critics cited the film's performances among its strongest assets, with Driver characteristically in top form playing a genuinely affecting character. If Marriage Story is indeed the major Best Picture contender many believe it is, then Driver is sitting pretty to score an Oscar nod. At this stage, it's hard to proclaim anyone the frontrunner, but Driver's case is as good as anyone's. Sometimes, the Academy likes to reward an actor having a "moment," which is certainly how one could describe Driver's final few months of 2019. What better way to cap off this year than be on the Oscar stage?
Joaquin Phoenix - Joker
Todd Phillips' Joker is most definitely the most polarizing film of the 2019 awards season, but even those who have mixed feelings about the movie overall will admit Phoenix is remarkable in the lead role. The method actor went to great lengths to get into character, losing weight, driving himself crazy, and fully committing himself to the part. It's a truly transformative and chilling turn that demonstrates Phoenix is one of the best at his craft. He's also a three-time nominee without any wins, so he's building an overdue narrative for himself.
At the same time, there are a few things working against Phoenix. For starters, he has a rather prickly relationship with awards shows, which may or may not come back to haunt him as WB puts together their Joker campaign. Plus, the film's reception may hurt its chances with the Academy in general; Joker winning the Gold Lion at Venice gave it a boost in terms of Oscar prospects, but it isn't a "lock" at this point in time. All the controversy (warranted or not) could tun voters off from the movie, leading them to go in another direction. And since it wasn't too long ago Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing the Joker, it remains to be seen in the Academy will go for this version too.
Robert De Niro - The Irishman
One of cinema's most iconic pairings is Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, who have collaborated on some of the all-time greatest films. That list includes Raging Bull, which won De Niro Best Actor in 1980. The two hadn't worked together since 1995's Casino, but they're reuniting for Netflix's highly-anticipated The Irishman. The cast reads as a who's who of gangster classics, with Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel also starring. In The Irishman, De Niro portrays Frank Sheeran, a mobster who claimed to have been involved with Jimmy Hoffa's murder.
There were lingering questions about The Irishman heading into its New York Film Festival Premiere, namely concerns over the film's extensive use of digital de-aging special effects and the three-and-a-half-hour runtime. But, all reactions point to this being another Scorsese masterpiece, with De Niro carrying the crime epic. Granted, some of De Niro's co-stars might stand out more (Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa, for example), but The Irishman likely doesn't work as well as it does if De Niro isn't doing some of his best work in years. Many have noted The Irishman is different from Goodfellas and Casino in its approach and tone, showing a different side of De Niro. Netflix is going to campaign hard for this one too, so expect lots of nominations.
Leonardo DiCaprio - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Snagging his elusive first Oscar back in 2015 for The Revenant, DiCaprio is back in the race for his turn in Quentin Tarantino's ode to 1960s California. As Rick Dalton, DiCaprio is warranted the opportunity to demonstrate another side of his range, tapping into a washed-up actor's crushing sense of mortality and failure. It's a performance that's extremely heartfelt and humorous, and DiCaprio earned several positive marks for his work. Though early release dates can be a detriment for films at the Oscars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood held strong during the fall festival blitz, and at this point it's hard to see the Academy passing this one up. Outside of World War II, there's nothing they like more than movies about movies.
DiCaprio should be safe to land another nomination, but he may struggle to win unless he does very well in the precursors. He no longer has the overdue narrative hanging over his head, so voters could feel less-inclined to vote for him this year (regardless of the strength of performance, this is always part of the Oscar process). Another strike against DiCaprio is that many consider Brad Pitt (a top choice in Best Supporting Actor) to be the film's MVP. That's not to say DiCaprio gets outshined in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - he and Pitt complement each other very well - but if either are going to win, Pitt probably has the bette shot.
Adam Sandler - Uncut Gems
The Safdie brothers helped redeem Robert Pattinson's reputation as an actor a couple of years ago with Good Time, and they're in the process of doing the same thing in 2019 for Sandler. Following a stretch of lowbrow, generic comedies, many were delighted to report Sandler is arguably at his best in Uncut Gems. This isn't the first time Sandler's appeared in auteur-driven fare to excellent results (Punch-Drunk Love is the go-to example), but Uncut Gems feels different in the sense there's real Oscar buzz surrounding Sandler. And he may actually be able to crack the field.
Sandler is in the midst of a career renaissance, receiving Emmy nominations this year for hosting SNL and his Netflix comedy special, 100% Fresh. He's having a comeback and people are rooting for him, which may be too good for Oscar voters to resist. Plus, Uncut Gems distributor A24 arguably doesn't have any major contenders to push; The Farewell and Waves might be in the running, but they aren't threats to win Best Picture (at least, right now). That means A24 has more resources to dedicate towards the Sandler campaign, giving him a slight edge over some of the other names we're about to mention.
Jonathan Pryce - The Two Popes
The Two Popes was one of the more pleasant surprises of the festival season, announcing itself as a possible awards contender to keep an eye on. Critics praised the performances of Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, who are essentially co-leads in the film. From the looks of things, Pryce will be in the Best Actor race, while Hopkins goes Supporting. And since Pryce has never been nominated in his career (despite a long and esteemed filmography), there will certainly be a big push to get him to Oscar Sunday. Every so often, the Academy can't resist giving love to a veteran.
The issue here is that The Two Popes is a Netflix release, and the streaming giant already has their hands full with Marriage Story and The Irishman, two surefire Best Picture candidates with powerful Lead Actor performances at their center. If Drive and De Niro get in, it seems unlikely Netflix will be able to secure a third Best Actor slot. Pryce will likely need one of the other two to slip during the season to stand a chance. Otherwise, he might be on the outside looking in.
Christian Bale - Ford v Ferrari
Even though Bale is co-lead alongside Matt Damon in James Mangold's racing drama, there's a chance Fox campaigns for him in the Best Supporting Actor category. Until the studio's plans are revealed, Bale remains a possibility in Lead Actor, where he was nominated just last year for Vice. Once again, Bale displays his chameleon-like abilities to play Ken Miles, the fiery race car driver Carroll Shelby (Damon) recruits to drive at Les Mans. Out of the two stars, Bale is said to have the showier role, at times channeling the energy that made his Dicky Eklund (The Fighter) an Oscar-winning part back in 2010. If Ford v Ferrari is to score an acting nod, Bale is the best bet.
But unlike last year, when Bale was a favorite (ultimately losing to Rami Malek), here the odds seem stacked against him. Besides the fact he could go in Supporting (where he arguably stands a better chance at getting a nomination), Ford v Ferrari isn't seen as one of the bigger Oscar films on the circuit. Though the movie received positive reviews, the buzz around it is quite tame, meaning it isn't a sure thing to crack the lineup. Ford v Ferrari is more of a lock for some technical categories, so it'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Fox is excited about the film, so maybe that enthusiasm can sweep Bale in.
Eddie Murphy - Dolemite is My Name
Like Adam Sandler, Murphy is a comedy icon having a nice bounce back year in 2019. He's making an anticipated return to SNL as a host in December, and he's enjoying some of his best reviews in recent memory with Dolemite is My Name. In the film, Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, who turned Hollywood on its head by making the Dolemite character an icon of 1970s Blaxploitaion cinema. Murphy is obviously a gifted performer and has one Oscar nomination under his belt for his turn in Dreamgirls. The Academy is a fan when Murphy works magic with the right material, and there'll likely be excitement to get him a second nomination.
However, Murphy is in the same boat as Jonathan Pryce. Dolemite is My Name is part of Netflix's stacked fall lineup, and right now it isn't positioned as the distributor's top priority. Murphy may get left behind if the feeling is Driver and De Niro are surer things. That isn't to say it's impossible for Netflix to score three Best Actors, but chances are they'll max out at two. There's only so much one company's campaigns can handle.