With a shortened calendar and a monsoon of awards shows and bodies, we rarely get close races at the Oscars anymore. But we have one on our hands this year in Best Actor that could go either way until the envelope is opened Sunday night. Let's break down the race.
And the nominees are...
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
Wouldn't it be adorable if Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield won Oscars on the same night? In that bittersweet La La Land way? They can mug in the backstage photos and then wistfully stare at each other as they go their separate ways. It writes itself. Sadly, while Stone is a near shoo-in for Best Actress, her ex would need to pull off a major upset. Even if Garfield is not actually in last place, he seems content to just be invited to the party, after missing out on a nod for The Social Network and the early-season concern over if he'd get in for his equally worthy turns in Hacksaw or Silence (actors cannot be nominated multiple times in the same category), or worse, split the vote and not get in for either. Fortunately for him, support coalesced around Mel Gibson's comeback more than Martin Scorsese's passion project, but he knows the buck stops here. Dude didn't even bother attending the SAGs. Yes, he was in rehearsals in London for a production of Angels in America, but if you/your people really cared and/or thought you had a shot, you'd make it work — Brie Larson, who albeit was the frontrunner, accrued a gazillion miles flying back and forth between L.A. and Australia, where she was shooting Kong: Skull Island, this time last year.
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Speaking of La La Land, Gosling has been the Joaquin Phoenix to Stone's Reese Witherspoon. They both easily won the comedy/musical Globe (Phoenix for Walk the Line), but then had to sit on the sidelines while their onscreen other halves dominated the rest of the season. But unlike Phoenix, Gosling has the benefit of being in the 14-time nominee Best Picture front-runner. If voters are really that obsessed with La La Land, there's a small chance he gets swept up with the love — you know there are definitely people who voted for it straight down the ballot — and become the first Mouseketeer to win an acting Oscar (Justin Timberlake is nominated in song for "Can't Stop the Feeling!").
Now we come to three very different and excellent portrayals of fathers. Mortensen's thoughtfully fierce patriarch of a family reintegrating into society after living in the wilderness is a pure passion vote for anyone who loves the movie, whose cast earned a surprising ensemble nod at SAG. It's really a shame Matt Ross' fantastic (no pun intended) script didn't make the original screenplay cut, but perhaps that helps Mortensen since voters can funnel all their support to him. If he somehow wins, he'd be the first Best Actor winner as his film's only nomination since Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) 10 years ago.
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But this is really a battle between Washington and Affleck, the former of whom made a huge surge when he won the SAG (his first ever), and he could ride that all the way to the Dolby stage. (Plus, he's Denzel.) Actors make up the largest voting body in the Academy, and SAG and Oscar have only mismatched four times in SAG's 22-year history (ironically, Washington was the beneficiary one of those times, when his Training Day turn beat Russell Crowe's in A Beautiful Mind 15 years ago). His furious, blustery Troy Maxson, which earned him a Tony in 2010, is the loudest and biggest performance of the group, which helps since many people equate "most" with "best," not that they're mutually exclusive. He'd be the third person to direct himself to an acting Oscar after Laurence Olivier and Roberto Benigni, but in both previous cases, they also received directing nods. This would also be Washington's third Oscar, which is a big hurdle to clear. Only five other people have three (Katharine Hepburn has four), and two of them — Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis — won their third very recently. For a group that prides itself of the exclusivity of the honor, it'd be pretty insane for three people to win their third Oscar in the past five years, but stranger things have happened.
Honestly, I go back and forth between these two every 49 minutes (yes, I have problems). Affleck was cruising through the season, winning more than two dozen awards for his devastating portrait of a grief-stricken father who "can't beat it," a simmering pot of emotions that refuses to boil over that's subtle acting at its finest. The SAG loss hurts, but it's not a death knell and Affleck can still eke this out, since he's been a dominant frontrunner all season and has won practically everything else, including the BAFTA, where Washington was not nominated (he's actually never received a BAFTA nod). Outside of Kenneth Lonergan's humanistic screenplay, which could very well lose to La La Land's far inferior one, this is the best place to reward Manchester (Fences already has Viola Davis in supporting actress on lock).
Will win: Casey Affleck
Watch out for: Denzel Washington
The 89th Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, airs Sunday, Feb. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT on ABC.