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  • Sheldon Gaskell

2020 Oscar Predictions: Best Actor in a Leading Role

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

Nominees: Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Runners-up: Adam Driver (Marriage Story)

Should Win: Adam Driver (Marriage Story)

Runners-up: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)

My Choice: Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)

My Nominees: Adam Driver (Marriage Story), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Robert DeNiro (The Irishman), Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Runners-up: Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name), Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari), Jimmie Fails (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), George MacKay (1917), Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

It is a pity that viewers, critics, and Academy voters alike need the overdone trope of a cartoon clown in makeup to appreciate Joaquin Phoenix’s raw, unparalleled talent as an actor. In Joker, Phoenix perhaps delivers one of the top five performances of his career (not the best, however) as the Batman villain—the same role that already won Heath Ledger the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2009—with excruciating precision and painful introspection. Where Ledger played a chaos-driven maniac who sadistically shapes society for his own sick entertainment, Phoenix plays a sensitive and soft-spoken wannabe comedian who is ostracized for his mental illness, ridiculed, severely bullied and beaten, and eventually molded by society into a villainous killer and icon for crazies everywhere. Phoenix utilizes method acting through the internal performative complexity he has practiced in masterful roles including country music icon Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), shell-shocked alcoholic Freddie Quell—he should have won for this performance, yes even over Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Lincoln—in The Master (2012), lonely letter writer and computer-lover Theodore in Her (2013), mentally unstable hit-man Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2017), among others. The Joker performance in many ways resembles a conglomeration and accumulation of Phoenix’s past talents, which the Academy is just now recognizing him for while at the same time sidelining 2019 pop culture rock-star Adam Driver who delivers the greatest performance of his career as a father and husband whose obsession and knack for directing theatrical drama drives the final blow in his marriage with his wife. In addition to Marriage Story, Driver’s stellar 2019 resume includes leading roles in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, The Dead Don’t Die, and The Report. Though his outbursts as Kylo Ren in Star Wars can feel overblown, his raw, contemplative energy in Marriage Story is measured, heartbreaking, and consistently in-tune with the thoughts and motivations of his character. His chemistry with co-star Scarlett Johansson is remarkable, and his performance of broken love is the catalyst behind why so many critics have called this film the greatest depiction of divorce ever put to screen.

2019 was a year of comebacks. Eddie Murphy delivered comedic acting gold in his role as “the grandfather of hip-hop” Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name (just falling short of my runners-up list). Robert DeNiro is the lens through which The Irishman is experienced, lending a complex layering of quiet distance and masculine fury to his aging gangster Frank Sheeran (a large critique of The Irishman is its portrayal of women as objects in Frank’s life—it is DeNiro’s distant ego and macho energy coupled with Scorsese’s directing of the film through Frank’s perspective that makes this treatment of women not only acceptable, but necessary to paint the complex and flawed life of the gangster). Even more impressively, Twilight (2008) heartthrob Robert Pattinson delivered three stellar performances this past year in sci-fi thriller High Life, speculative horror The Lighthouse, and historical drama The King. In The Lighthouse, Pattinson encompasses a young man’s decline into madness with gritty and chaotic rage in a dramatic fashion that rivals that of Phoenix’s Joker.

Perhaps the greatest comeback and acting debut of the year, however, is Adam Sandler for his role as sleazy diamond seller and addictive gambler Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. Sandler, most known for his cheesy over-acting in mindless comedies like Happy Gilmour (1996) and The Waterboy (1998), exudes the very essence of sleaze-bag in Uncut Gems through the slippery, seamless delivery of salesmanship in dialogue coupled with a complex sense of sympathy for his pathetic tragic persona. His persuasive use of language hangs like honey from the ears of viewers, seducing them to accept his ploys even as we know his intentions are ill-conceived. The complexity of Sandler’s performance is further refined by his ability to manage so many stressful scenarios so tactfully. Where a less refined actor would give in to screams of terror when kidnapped and forced to strip naked by ruthless gangsters, Sandler remains cool and collected, consistent with this character's perception that all is well with his gambles and he will emerge safe and victorious in the situation beyond all odds. Sandler's subtle body movements and fiery outbursts in moments of familial love and peril also reveal the soft flesh within Ratner’s outer deceptive shell, which gives his character an inherent likability despite his criminal exploits. This acting complexity is rare and offers viewers the opportunity to not only see a character performing in time, but feel his thrills and anguish echoing in their quickly beating hearts as well.

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