Breaking Down the Oscars: Top Acting Categories

This week we are breaking down some of the top categories for the 2017 Academy Awards based on awards movies have already won, past Oscar voting trends, and some gut instinct. This time, we are looking at the four major acting categories and deciding who should win, and who will win (spoiler alert: they only match up for one category).

Actor in a leading role

And the nominees are: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea; Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic; Denzel Washington, Fences

I have been saying this since my original review; Casey Affleck should run away with this trophy. He dug deep within himself to unearth the beast he portrayed in the film. His character was raw, wounded, limping and affected. In every moment Affleck was able to breathe his character’s entire life story. He is the motor that propels Manchester; it is a straight drama with no complex storyline enhancement, but Affleck’s performance is a crystalline example of what straight drama can be by itself.

If Affleck were to lose the trophy, (which isn’t as sure a bet as, say, La La Land getting Best Picture is) it will be to Denzel Washington. Washington was able to snag the SAG, and has the added bonus of directing the film, Fences. Voters may be inclined to vote for him to make up for lack of a directing nomination. A familiar face to the awards circuit, Washington put forth a raw, angry side in Fences unlike anything we’ve seen from the prolific actor before. It might be enough to bump the trophy from Affleck’s grasp. Either Washington or Affleck win tomorrow, and it is a pretty tight race.

Garfield is one of my personal favorite actors (contrary to what most may say, he was a fantastic Spider-Man). I would love to see him win for Hacksaw Ridge, where he expanded his range playing a war medic who refused to carry a gun to battle. Garfield also put out Silence this year, Martin Scorsese’s harrowing (to put it lightly) exploration of religious faith. He took it hard when he lost his Spidey sense, and he showed up to the 2016 film circuit hungry for redemption. If the Oscars gave out silver and bronze statues, Garfield would be a certain bet. Unfortunately, he is in a shooting battle without a gun against Affleck and Washington.

Poor Gosling has spent most of the awards season clapping for co-star Emma Stone or director Damien Chazelle from his table while they accepted their awards. (Okay, maybe it is a bit fallacious to call one of the best-looking and most beloved men in Hollywood ‘poor.’) Gosling is a large reason why La La Land is such a pleasure, but his singing chops are somewhat underwhelming – a key reason why Stone fairs better in her respective category. Viggo Mortensen is the only nominee whose film is not nominated for Best Picture; in fact, he’s the film’s only nomination. Fantastic has a Little Miss Sunshine indie vibe that voters love to nominate, but not hand trophies to. If Gosling or Mortensen are called up for the trophy, we will be in la la land.

Should win: Casey Affleck

Will win: Casey Affleck

Best Supporting Actor

And the nominees are: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water; Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Dev Patel, Lion; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

This is a simple two horse race. The fact that Dev Patel ran as a supporting actor rather than lead is pretty telling that the film had little faith he could crack into the lead actor category. His role is the lead role. He should not be in this category. Patel has the advantage of basing his performance on a real person (voters love that) and playing it really well (that’s pretty important too). But based on the head scratching fact he is even in this category, I have a hard time throwing him any support for a win. 

Jeff Bridges is also technically his film’s lead, though he shares screen time with co-star Chris Pine much more evenly than Patel does. Bridges kills the role and easily earned his nomination, but nothing about playing a racist cowboy seems to be Oscar bait for the voters. Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals is an interesting case; co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson scooped an upset Golden Globe for the same film, but was not even nominated here. Shannon was undeniably a scene-stealer in the film, but I think it is too far a stretch for him to sneak the win here.

This category comes down to Lucas Hedges and Mahershala Ali, and by that, I mean Ali is going to win. There is no way the Academy will grant Hedges, who at 20 is the youngest nominated actor, a prize on his first try. If Manchester is remembered for anything years down the line, it will be for unearthing Hedges' immense talent. His performance portrayed a maturity and understanding of sorrow way beyond his years. Of the entire movie, one scene sticks out to me in particular, and in that scene Hedges shared the screen with no one. When he is sharing the film with Affleck and Michelle Williams, that is no small feat.

Ali winning is not much of a question though. His role in Moonlight was fantastic and he imparted a lasting impact with around 30 minutes of screen time. That is where my issue with him winning comes. I am no actor, but I am going to extend beyond my realm of expertise and say Hedges’ role was much, much more challenging than Ali’s. Ali beautifully played a nuanced, but easily navigable arc. Intro, rising action, climax. Done. Hedges had to explore emotion far beyond an average 20-year-old’s wealth of experience, and there is no roadmap for that. When they call Ali’s name, I won't be upset at all, because his performance certainly is worthy of recognition. Plus, I have found a new actor whose career I can watch from essentially the start.

Should win: Lucas Hedges

Will win: Mahershala Ali

Actress in a leading role

And the nominees are: Isabelle Huppert, Elle; Ruth Negga, Loving; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Emma Stone, La La Land; Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

This category is interesting because, unlike the male categories, almost none of the actresses are from films that are best picture contenders. It also includes two actresses relatively unknown in America until this year: Huppert and Negga.

I will be blunt; there is no denying Meryl Streep can act, but if the Academy were a classroom, she would be the teacher’s pet. Streep cranking out at least one solid role a year is as reliable as her acceptance speeches veering into political territory (that is to say, it’s a certain bet). But she has been up on that stage more years than not in the past decade. It is time for the Academy to give someone else a turn.

I am not a fan of Natalie Portman. When I watch Portman act, I don’t see a character. I see Portman playing a character. Jackie feels jarringly out of context with the 2016 film culture – why exactly was the biopic necessary now? Biopics are already a hard sell for me – it is much easier to be more critical than usual in analyzing performances because the actor has such a strict guideline to follow. Ruth Negga also played a historical figure – she embodied Mildred Loving of the Loving v. Virginia case. I enjoyed her much more than Portman. Perhaps she had the advantage of playing a lesser known historical figure, and thus had more creative freedom. Overall, though, I am going to rank the two women who played original characters over the three who played historical figures.

Isabelle Huppert winning would be a breath of fresh air. The French actress has appeared in more than 100 films throughout her career, but this is her first tour of the Academy. In Elle, she plays a woman plotting revenge against her rapist. It is not often we get a psychological thriller told solely from a woman’s perspective. It is even rarer an actor is able to transcend the film through the sheer force of their performance; Casey Affleck is this year’s only comparable showing. Add the fact that she has already taken home the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Huppert looks fierce in this category. After gaining years of experience, she gave us the strongest performance of her career at 63 years old. 

The Matterhorn of the category is Emma Stone’s turn in La La Land. High heels have not stopped Stone from tap dancing her way through the awards circuit, scooping up the SAG and Globe on her way. Stone has transitioned from young and growing talent to leading woman seamlessly. Just two years ago she was nominated for playing a misguided teenager in Birdman – now she’s a leading lady. Stone is already well on her way to being a Streep-level Academy darling. Deservedly so.

Should win: Isabelle Huppert

Will win: Emma Stone

Best Supporting Actress

And the nominees are: Viola Davis, Fences; Naomie Harris, Moonlight; Nicole Kidman, Lion; Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures; Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

I would not be upset at all to find the voters have decided this category is worthy of the show’s first-ever tie, because this is a tough, tough category to predict. It is unwise to bet against Viola Davis in any context, but it is also difficult to not simultaneously cheer for the exquisite performances of Naomie Harris and Michelle Williams.

To make it a bit simpler, we will eliminate Nicole Kidman from the running. She is no stranger to the Oscars: in 2002 she took home Best Actress for The Hours. Kidman reinforces Lion with the emotional backbone it needs. Her performance is worthy of the nomination, but she will have to take comfort in pulling a solid fifth out of this stacked category. Octavia Spencer is probably the next least likely winner of the bunch. She is a firecracker in Hidden Figures but does not get to wield the raw intensity her three competitors do.

Naomie Harris is perhaps one of the most unappreciated actresses of our time. She has been in a million films (read: 26) and always delivers excellence, but never seems to get any recognition. Her turn in Moonlight is spellbinding; she plays a mother suffering from addiction in three different stages in her life, advancing her character’s illness, mentality and nuances at each stage. Harris somehow filmed the role in three days without any rehearsals, capturing the turbulent road of this woman’s life in just a matter of days. This is an absolute acting master class.

In Manchester, Michelle Williams is the emotional centerpiece of a film packed with pathos. In her limited screen time, Williams builds and ultimately unleashes a lifetime of regrets with the restraint of a woman who spent her whole life burying these very emotions deep down. Viola Davis does much the same in Fences, playing a wife and mother enshrined in, but empowered by, her own mistakes. Davis must be one of the busiest women alive, also starring in Suicide Squad and How to Get Away With Murder this year, as well as running her own production company. Anything this woman touches is gold. (Except Suicide Squad. That is not golden.)

No matter who wins, I will be thrilled, but also disappointed for the ones who did not.

Should win: Naomie Harris

Will win: Viola Davis

Check out my countdown of the Best Picture nominees and analysis of other categories to watch.