The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor in a Leading Role:
WINNER: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
In Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Queen, Rami Malek plays lead singer Freddie Mercury. Like with the Green Book, the controversy surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody is well known and has dominated the headlines for months. However, just like with my pick of Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor in Green Book, the controversy simply cannot take away from the absolutely dazzling acting performance provided by Rami Malek as the notorious singer/songwriter. I always had other issues with the film as a whole outside of just the controversial director, namely the neutering of the true story, which I, like a lot of film fans, felt prevented a more-than-surface-level exploration of Mercury. However, in the end, none of this matters a whole lot, as Malek came to the rescue and saved the day. With every wild outfit worn and with every sexual strut on stage, Malek completely embodied Freddie Mercury’s passion and soul for his music, as well as his ostentatious personality. Malek delivered the performance of a lifetime in Bohemian Rhapsody, and not only is he my personal pick for Best Actor, I wholeheartedly expect him to take home the Oscar this Sunday, following vital victories at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and BAFTAs.
2. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
In his self-directed film A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper portrays Jackson Maine, a prominent country musician who discovers and falls in love with a young, aspiring singer named Ally. As I mentioned in my full review of the film, Cooper is tremendous behind the camera in his directorial debut (which he also co-wrote), but he is just as incredible in front of it, turning in one of the best acting performances of his career (second only to his role in Silver Linings Playbook). Jackson Maine is a deeply complex character, struggling in ongoing battles with pills, alcohol, and personal demons galore. Despite the invigoration that Ally brings to his life in terms of love and music, Jackson never can quite defeat those underlying issues, resorting to self-sabotage at every turn. Cooper’s portrayal is haunting and emotionally packed – he brings the heartbreak on screen to life in such an affecting manner. Cooper definitely gave an unforgettable performance.
3. Christian Bale (Vice)
In Vice, Christian Bale portrays the titular character, former Vice President Dick Cheney. The film tells the story of Cheney’s rise from White House intern during the Nixon years to White House Chief of Staff for President Ford and eventually from CEO of Halliburton to the most powerful second-in-command in United States history. Despite some great supporting performances by Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, all of the buzz has generally centered around Bale’s leading role – and rightfully so. Bale has a much-admired penchant for roles requiring immense transformations (see e.g., The Machinist, The Fighter, and American Hustle), and with the help of a 40-pound weight gain, Bale’s demeanor physically embodies Cheney superbly. However, in my opinion, here the true transformation into Cheney was more due to some amazing makeup work (a category in which the film was deservedly nominated). Bale’s voice tone and mannerisms definitely exemplified the Vice President (and Bale obviously acted his ass off, as he always does), but it was still difficult to separate Bale from the character, something with which I usually don’t struggle – that is the main reason I don’t personally have Bale competing for the Oscar in this category, although I admit he is one of the actual frontrunners to take home the award this Sunday.
4. Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
In Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe portrays the real-life painter Vincent van Gogh during the final years of his life in France. I genuinely didn’t enjoy this film (which sucks, because I really was looking forward to it), as Schnabel’s filmmaking techniques ended up being – although interesting – messy and distracting. However, I can definitely say that if there is any bright spot whatsoever, it is Dafoe’s performance. Depicting those last few years of van Gogh’s life, the movie focuses on the severe mental illness that the Dutch painter suffered from, highlighting his time in Arles, his stint in a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and his final months in Auvers-sur-Oise. Dafoe brilliantly portrayed van Gogh’s severely impaired mental state, offering up a truly emotional and empathy-evoking performance. For all the film’s flaws, Dafoe’s performance was unwavering – he definitely earned this Oscar nomination.
5. Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)
In the film Green Book, Viggo Mortensen portrays the real-life Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from New York who takes a job as a driver for Don Shirley (the real-life African-American jazz pianist) during Shirley’s 1962 concert tour through the Deep South. I previously discussed the controversy surrounding the film in the post about my ballot for Best Supporting Actor, so I won’t rehash that here. But as good as Mahershala Ali is as Don Shirley (regardless of the potential issues with the film’s story), Mortensen just seemed average for me. He is obviously a very talented actor (this is his third nomination for Best Actor), and in the film, he is very convincing in his physical depiction of Tony Lip – he even put on 40–50 pounds for the role. However, as compelling as the real-life Tony Lip may have been, I simply found his character in the film to be lacking a whole lot of depth (which was surprising, considering his own son, Nick Vallelonga, co-wrote the screenplay) – the character is too two-dimensional, simply living from worn-out trope to worn-out trope. Mortensen was good, but this spot in the nominations definitely should have gone to Ethan Hawke for First Reformed.