In today’s post, I will review the Best Leading Actor category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!
Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
In legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film Pain and Glory (nominated this year for Best International Feature), Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, an aging filmmaker battling health issues and nostalgia as he reflects upon important memories and relationships throughout his past and how they’ve shaped his present. I have not seen an immense amount of Banderas’s films, but from what I have seen, his performance in Pain and Glory is certainly his best. This movie has a lot of drama and a lot of heart, all while sprinkling in some clever humor. And although the film features some wonderful supporting performances (including Penélope Cruz as Mallo’s mother and Asier Etxeandia as his former collaborator Alberto), Pain and Glory thrives most prominently because of this stunning performance by Banderas. Whether it’s the humorous moments where Mallo is, for the first time in his life, trying heroin with Alberto, or the emotional reunion with a lover from days gone by, Banderas sinks his teeth into the role and delivers a masterful performance. It is no wonder Banderas took home the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Quentin Tarantino’s newest masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in Los Angeles in 1969 and tells the story of aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they work to find their place in the industry during the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In my Best Supporting Actor post, I waxed poetic about the glorious reunion between Tarantino and Brad Pitt following their collaboration in my favorite film of all time, Inglourious Basterds. But Once Upon a Time also marks a spectacular reunion for Tarantino and DiCaprio, who previously joined forces to bring us one of the most well-acted, but despicable villains of all time, slave owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. As much as I loved Brad Pitt here as Cliff Booth, my favorite aspect of the film (aside from the brilliance of Tarantino’s storytelling as a whole) was DiCaprio. Rick Dalton is by far the funniest character DiCaprio has ever portrayed (yes, even more so than the real-life Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street), and he delivers a performance that, in a year where Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t play the Joker, surely would be my top pick to take home the Oscar. This performance exhibits much of DiCaprio’s range, equal parts comical and earnest. The moments that will live on in my memory forever include the Basterds-esque “anyone order fried sauerkraut?” scene; the “Easy Breezy” conversation with Julia Butters’s character; yelling at the Manson hippies with a pitcher of margaritas in his hand; and most of all, that infamous trailer argument with himself on the set of Lancer.
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story follows a couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), as they cope with a contentious coast-to-coast divorce that involves a bitter custody dispute over their eight-year-old son. Despite the sad and depressing nature of Marriage Story as a whole, it is hard to argue with the fact that the film features two utterly tremendous performances from its leading actors. I have already discussed Johansson’s performance in my Best Leading Actress post, but with respect to Driver, his portrayal of New York-based theater director Charlie is one of the most emotionally shattering acting performances of 2019. Although the film follows both Charlie and Nicole through their separation and divorce, Marriage Story eventually homes in more distinctly on Charlie’s struggles. (The character arc of Nicole is vital to the story, but given Baumbach’s own divorce history with ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, the self-reflection through via Charlie is unsurprising.) Although the scene has been turned into a bit of a meme via Twitter, the argument between Charlie and Nicole in Charlie’s LA apartment (wherein Driver angrily proclaims “Every day I wake up and hope you’re dead”) is etched in my memory forever, and it certainly provided Driver his “Oscar moment.”
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Joker, co-written and directed by Todd Phillips, is an origin story for the infamous Joker villain from the DC Comics. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian with severe emotional instability who, over the course of the story, spirals down into a dangerous and violent state of madness. Upon release, Joker polarized audiences for its depiction of mental illness and gun violence. But regardless of your take on the ethics of the film, Joaquin Phoenix’s staggering transformation into the famed super-villain is a sight to behold and deserves all the critical acclaim you can throw at him. One of the most obvious parts of Phoenix’s transformation is physical in nature, as he lost a significant amount of weight to give Fleck a disturbingly gaunt figure. Although impressive, the weight loss hardly compares to the haunting genius of Phoenix’s acting performance as a whole. Phoenix had massive shoes to fill with his portrayal of the future Joker, as Heath Ledger already gave the world one of the greatest performances in film history as the character in The Dark Knight (for which Ledger posthumously received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Phoenix’s performance is incredible, but it’s also different from Ledger’s, as Phoenix only becomes the Joker during the climax of the film. As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix is chilling and terrifying, slowly creeping toward complete derangement throughout the movie. One of the major standpoint parts of Phoenix’s performances is the variety of maniacal laughs in Fleck’s repertoire—those things will haunt my ears forever. Phoenix’s embodiment of such a mentally ill character must have been taxing, both physically and emotionally, but his acceptance of the challenge provided cinematic history with one of its better performances. I expect Phoenix to take home the gold in a few days!
Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)
Netflix’s The Two Popes is about Pope Benedict’s shocking decision to resign the papacy (the first to do so in over 700 years) amidst controversy and the unlikely journey of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) to the Chair of Saint Peter as his successor. With the exception of a couple of stray scenes, this film is comprised nearly entirely of one-on-one conversations between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Although that does not seem like a recipe for an entertaining movie, I was thoroughly surprised in the result being just that. The two characters are both Catholic, and that is really where their similarities stop. Pope Benedict is staunchly conservative, while Pope Francis is more liberal and progressive. This dichotomy of ideologies makes for some very interesting conversations and debates throughout the film as the two discuss the future of the Church, and Pryce subtly, but quietly, steals the show, turning in a wonderfully inspired performance.
Snubs and Other Performances
This category was always going to be a bit crowded this year, as 2019 was packed with wonderful performances. In addition to the five nominees, though, there were a handful of other actors that turned in noteworthy performances this year that deserve some appreciation. First, despite the fact that both Al Pacino and Joe Pesci earned Best Supporting Actor nods this year, The Irishman’s lead, Robert De Niro, missed out on a nomination, despite giving us another very memorable performance as the titular Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Second, Daniel Craig was marvelous in Rian Johnson’s whodunit Knives Out as private detective Benoit Blanc—this was by far the most fun role I’ve ever seen Craig in and he killed it. Third, Eddie Murphy was absolutely hilarious in his R-rated comedy comeback Dolemite Is My Name (his first R-rated film since Life in 1999), a film about the real-life comedian and legendary blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Murphy would have been a worthy nominee for the Oscar, as he received nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. Additionally, Christian Bale was remarkable in Ford v Ferrari as British racecar driver Ken Miles. When I first saw the trailer for Ford v Ferrari, I thought it looked like a very paint-by-number Disney-style biopic—I was wrong. The film is fast-paced, electrifying, and extraordinarily fun, and Bale carries the film gloriously across the finish line with one of my favorite performances of his storied career.
The five nominees all gave very strong performances, but I really think the Academy made a mistake by not nominating Adam Sandler for his portrayal of jeweler and gambling addict Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. (I guess Pryce would have to lose his spot to grant a nomination to Sandler.) This was one of my very favorite movies of the year, and although it’s great for so many reasons (including, but not limited to, the raw and frenetic pace masterfully crafted by the Safdie brothers, as well as the stellar supporting performances from Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, and Julia Fox), it is a notch better on the strength of the single greatest acting performance of Adam Sandler’s career. On paper, Howard Ratner is incredibly unlikable. Throughout the entire film, he proves to be a bit of a sleazebag who incessantly makes bad decisions at every turn. And yet, because of Sandler’s career-defining performance, it’s impossible not to root for Howard during the movie’s thrilling twists and turns. Sandler obviously has more career ahead of him, but it’s hard not to imagine this being his masterpiece—the Academy should have rewarded that.
Who Could Win: Adam Driver
Just like his Marriage Story co-star Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver is currently getting +1400 odds to pull off an upset in the Best Leading Actor category. Please read the “Who Will Win” section below for proof as to why this upset isn’t happening, though. (Yes, I know I listed Driver as someone who “could” win, but I feel obligated to at least list the second best odds amongs the other nominees no matter what, even though the odds don’t suggest Driver will be winning on Sunday.)
Who Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix
Think what you want about Joker as a film, but it is patently undeniable that Joaquin Phoenix turned in one of the greatest acting performances of all time. He deserves this win more than ever before.
Who Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix is currently getting the second best odds of any nominee in any category to win an Oscar this year. (Phoenix’s -5000 odds are second only to Parasite’s odds to win Best International Feature, which currently stand at an astounding -10000.) With the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award, SAG Award, and BAFTA already under his belt, I fully expect Phoenix to be the actor giving his acceptance speech in this category come Sunday night. If When he wins, it will be his first Oscar win.