Lead Actor Three-Horse Race

The Best Actor race is without question the hardest of the above the line categories to predict. The nominees in the category are Austin Butler for his performance as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Colin Farrell for his performance as Pádraic Súilleabháin in Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees Of Inisherin, Brendan Fraser for his performance as Charlie in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Paul Mescal as Calum Paterson in Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, and Bill Nighy as Rodney Williams in Oliver Hermanus’s Living.

Now I think I speak for most (if not all) other pundits and prognosticators when I say that, as amazing as they were, for Mescal and Nighy, the nomination was the end of the road this season. That leaves us with a tight race between Butler, Farrell and Fraser.

What I find so fascinating about this actor race as opposed to previous years in the category is that there’s no consensus frontrunner. One could look at the popularity of Elvis and the fact that he’s playing Elvis Presley and say Butler’s the frontrunner. Another could look at the year he’s had and the fact that The Banshees of Inisherin is a Best Picture frontrunner and say Farrell’s the frontrunner. Meanwhile, someone else entirely will look at the comeback narrative and near-unanimous groundswell of support and say Fraser’s the frontrunner.

Those obvious pros also come with pretty big cons as well. Butler’s still a relative newcomer, as opposed to Farrell and Fraser who have much more industry longevity and respect. Farrell’s performance is much more subdued than Butler and Fraser’s transformations. Fraser’s movie was not nominated for Best Picture as opposed to Butler and Farrell’s movies. And to make things more complicated, right now, each of them have one major precursor. Farrell won the Golden Globe for Lead Actor in a Comedy/Musical, Butler beat Fraser for the Lead Actor in a Drama Globe, and then Fraser beat both at the Critics Choice. All three of those voting bodies have no Academy overlap, but all three of them had their moments to shine.

Brendan Fraser, The Whale

Let’s start off with probably the elephant in the room in this category: Brendan Fraser. Ask anybody who is on the outside looking in on the awards race, they’ll probably tell you that Fraser has this locked up, which could come with its own set of problems. Maybe we can see some voters say, “Fraser’s winning so I’m gonna vote for…” similarly to what we saw with the Anthony Hopkins and Chadwick Boseman race (more on that in a bit).

But no matter where you stand on The Whale or even Fraser’s performance, you can’t deny that Fraser has more positive attention and individual support than anybody in this race. Since The Whale’s premiere back in September, we’ve seen countless moments of celebrities celebrating his comeback, articles about him, and seemingly weekly viral videos of him receiving long standing ovations after screenings of the movie and his tearful response. Just recently, his emotional Critics Choice speech went viral, a speech that got a standing ovation before and after. I don’t even need to explain the narrative, I guarantee you’ve all heard about what happened to him multiple times already.

One argument I keep hearing is that narrative may not be strong enough to get him the win, and with that, now we must talk about the performance itself. It is the type of performance that the Academy does typically go for, given that it’s a transformation and has plenty of “Oscar moments” to sway a voter over. It’s the kind of performance that most people who have voiced criticism for the movie itself have gone out of their way to praise.

However, it’s really worth mentioning that The Whale missed some key nominations, namely Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Yes, it is true that in the expanded era of the Academy, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart is the only actor who won this category for a movie not nominated for Best Picture. And most will probably look at how the Chadwick Boseman/Anthony Hopkins race panned out as evidence, which I do understand; everything did seem to be going in Boseman’s favour before Hopkins took it at the last second.

While I do think Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom missing Best Picture played a part in Boseman’s loss, I think it’s worth looking at the way The Father started surging at the perfect moment and just how much people preferred Hopkins’s performance. But one key difference between Boseman and Fraser is that, yes, there was definitely an incentive to reward Boseman to honour him after his tragic passing, but people are rooting for Fraser overall going forward. People want to see Fraser succeed, so when I hear, “Is his narrative strong enough?” my answer to that would be, maybe not on it’s own. It’s enough that The Whale missing picture is not the kiss of death some make it out to be. 

Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin

The Banshees of Inisherin is quite the beloved movie, picking up nine nominations, and could even go as far as to win Best Picture. 2022 was arguably the best year of Farrell’s career, with After Yang, The Batman, and Thirteen Lives all coming out alongside The Banshees of Inisherin, which is his first Oscar nomination for his whole career.

What Farrell has on his side is likability. While Fraser and Butler might be the talk of the town right now, Farrell knows how to charm an audience and a room full of voters, as we saw with his charming and infectious Globes speech. While the performance itself might not be as showy as Butler and Fraser’s, it’s still a memorable performance, one that’s subdued for sure, but certainly has his moments where he gets to really show off a little. Fraser picked up a fair share as well, but in terms of critic awards, Farrell was the runaway favourite in the Best Actor category with critic circles.

Here’s where the problem with Farrell arises: his performance just didn’t receive the attention that Butler and Fraser’s got. He received near-unanimous praise for his performance, don’t get me wrong, but the praise for the movie has mainly gone towards writer/director Martin McDonagh. If Farrell does win – which he absolutely could, of course – it feels like that win would be more tied to the passion for the movie overall, which doesn’t actually happen in this category as much as one would think.

Like I said, the wins in this category have been all Best Picture winners in the expanded era, with one exception; however, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Academy didn’t like Manchester By The Sea more than La La Land, or Bohemian Rhapsody more than Green Book, or The Theory Of Everything more than Birdman. It’s also really worth mentioning that, while Banshees is centred on Farrell’s character, it’s really about him and Brendan Gleeson’s character, but I’ll discuss that in more depth when I get to Butler. All that said though, Farrell has the stuff for him to win here, especially if he takes BAFTA, SAG, or both, which nothing is stopping him from doing. 

Austin Butler, Elvis

When Elvis came out, nobody could stop talking about Austin Butler. Elvis has its naysayers, myself being one of them, but even most who disliked the movie were blown away by Butler. I think the most glaring and obvious thing on Butler’s side is that he transformed into Elvis Presley. He was so dedicated to the role that he now infamously still speaks like Presley; I know a lot of people think he’s faking it, but I’m certain it’s real.

The Academy obviously has a soft spot for awarding actors who transform into real people. Eight out of thirteen Best Actor winners in the expanded era portrayed real people, and playing a figure like Elvis Presley in a movie that the Academy did like is sure to appeal to voters. His performance also got public praise and recognition from such actors like Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio.

I’ve seen some point out Butler being young as a factor against him. He’s 31, and while history shows people at his age don’t typically win, I don’t think the reason is the Academy has it out for younger people. I think the reason younger people have a hard time winning Oscars is because voters are more inclined to vote for people who are more established in the industry, which is something Butler will suffer from. He has broken out in a huge way after Elvis, but he still doesn’t have the longevity and love that Farrell and Fraser have.

I believe it needs to be addressed that Elvis is a two-hander between Butler and Tom Hanks. Best Actor doesn’t tend to go to people who share the spotlight with another actor; think Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born or Ryan Gosling in La La Land or even the aforementioned Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While Elvis is more centred on Butler, he still has to share the spotlight for the most part with Hanks, something that Fraser doesn’t suffer from. Thankfully for Butler, Warner Bros have done a great job of keeping the focus on Butler and away from Hanks, so I would not be surprised if Butler does wind up surviving this. 

With BAFTA less than a week away and SAG a week after, we won’t have any closure on this race and unless one person wins both SAG and BAFTA, we won’t know for quite some time. But until then, the best thing to do is to not consider this race anything more than a three-horse race. You can predict one to win and another at three, but you should be keeping as open a mind a possible. This year is not like most years in this category, which is certainly refreshing after years of obvious winners and sweeps. To end on a positive note, whether it’s Butler, Farrell or Fraser who wins, it’ll be one of the better winners we’ve gotten in the past decade.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: