Numlock Awards: Meet the Best Actor Contenders
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned the men in contention for Best Actor. Similar to Best Supporting Actress, I’d say we have two main tiers here.
Tier One — Nomination More Likely
Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos (streaming on Amazon Prime)
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog (streaming on Netflix)
Andrew Garfield, tick, tick… BOOM! (streaming on Netflix)
Will Smith, King Richard (rent it on Amazon Prime)
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth (streaming on Apple TV+)
Tier Two — Nomination Less Likely
Mahershala Ali, Swan Song (streaming on Apple TV+)
Nicolas Cage, Pig (streaming on Hulu)
Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley (exclusively in theaters)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Don’t Look Up (streaming on Netflix)
Peter Dinklage, Cyrano (not in wide release yet)
We have five spots available, so I think the five men who ended up on SAG’s shortlist will translate over to the Oscars. Of the tier two men, Nicolas Cage is my front-runner to knock someone off. Let’s dive into our main contenders.
From 2003 to 2008, all eight movies Will Smith headlined opened to the number one spot at the box office. Ironically, it was a movie that had some Oscar buzz, Seven Pounds, that ended the streak.
Since then, his movies have been more of a mixed bag. He’s done downright flops like After Earth and Gemini Man, lackluster action spectacles like Suicide Squad and Bright, the utterly indescribable Collateral Beauty, and more traditional Oscar fare like Concussion. Smith’s lack of an Academy Award nomination for Concussion was one of the snubs that led to #OscarsSoWhite.
Now he’s back in a big way with King Richard, playing the father of Venus and Serena Williams. He won the Golden Globe, got the SAG nomination, and has been landing on critics’ lists.
The big hurdle for Will Smith in this race might be his own superstardom. He released a memoir this fall and we, collectively, have learned way too many details about his relationship with wife Jada Pinkett Smith.
But it reminds me of Brad Pitt, who was married to an incredibly famous woman and involved in a super messy divorce/custody battle when he won an Oscar for 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As discussed last week, sometimes immense fame makes people pigeonhole you as more of a celebrity than an actor or more of comedic performer than a serious Oscar contender, but both Pitt and Smith have previous Oscar nominations under their belt and are generally well-regarded for their acting, so their career ebbs and flows might not be as big a hurdle.
In the last five years, nine lead performers have gotten Oscar nominations or wins for playing singers of some sort — a range of talent from Freddie Mercury to Florence Foster Jenkins.
Garfield is playing Jonathan Larson in tick, tick… BOOM! Larson is best known for writing the musical Rent, but he’s not quite as recognizable as Judy Garland or Billie Holliday. So while Andrew may be doing an uncanny impression for theater geeks, most people are probably focused on his singing, which he’s talked a lot about given that this is his first musical performance. (He’s also improved immensely since his days singing the Spider-Man theme on The Tonight Show.)
It’s a straightforward Oscar campaign: I learned this skill and, turns out, I’m pretty decent at it. (Laying my cards on the table, I’m all in on Garfield, but alas my Academy invite has yet to arrive.)
Denzel has received 8 acting nominations at the Oscars over the years, and ever since Fences, it’s felt like he’s going to inevitably win a third. (His first two were for 1989’s Glory and 2001’s Training Day.)
I feel like a similar tide started to turn for Meryl Streep in the mid-2000s. After her second win for 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, she got nomination after nomination. But it was around 2006 with The Devil Wears Prada where the feeling of inevitability started to sink in. She eventually got her third for 2011’s The Iron Lady, playing a power-hungry and ruthless British ruler.
Denzel’s main obstacle here is that the film hasn’t made much of a splash. It’s currently streaming on Apple TV+, so it might be more of a slow burn, and Apple has nearly unlimited resources to push its contenders. The downside is it might be lost in the glut of end-of-the-year movies. Last year, we talked about the importance of release dates vis-a-vis The Father. Sometimes, a late-release strategy works: let Will Smith and Andrew Garfield do a lot of press throughout the fall and burn through the buzz, while Denzel quietly builds his own momentum. But The Father had the benefit of being exclusively in theaters, whereas The Tragedy of Macbeth will have to break through Apple’s growing streaming library.
Meryl also got nominations for Doubt and Julie & Julia before her third, and Denzel has only had one intervening nomination for a movie that arguably doesn’t exist, Roman J. Israel, Esq. So the drum beat may have to continue a bit longer before he nabs his third.
Benedict Cumberbatch & Javier Bardem
We’re running a bit long but my quick thoughts here are: Benedict Cumberbatch might need some big wins if he’s going to be a serious contender, as his co-star Kodi Smit-McPhee and director Jane Campion seem to be drawing most of the awards for The Power of the Dog. The Oscars do not frequently reward co-stars, so Benedict’s own competition may be internal in a sense.
Javier Bardem, on the other hand, is probably firmly in the It’s An Honor to be Nominated category. Winning an Oscar for Best Actor in the Lucille Ball biopic as Desi Arnaz is a bit of a stretch. Almost like winning an Oscar for Best Actress in the Johnny Cash biopic as June Carter. Oh, wait.