Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn in Milk
Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
I'm going to be completely honest. I don't want to write this article. Why? I still have no idea who's going to win this race. I've been going some thinking and have to say this may be the best heavyweight Oscar race I can ever remember. I first started to predict the Oscars in 2000 for my public access show. Though, I started to take my predictions seriously in 2004. So, basically this is my fifth year doing this.
In the last five years, I can't remember a race this intense with two true heavyweights battling it out. Both sides have strong supporters. Both nominees have legit reasons to win and lose. It won't happen, but this should be the last envelope opened on Sunday. That's how good this race has become.
Now, I don't want to discount the other three nominees since they gave great performances as well. For that reason, let's take a look at this race.
Richard Jenkins in The Visitor is one of those great actors everyone has seen, but no one knows his name. Hopefully, after this film that will change. This is his first nomination. This is a small indie film that really packs a punch. It's a bold film about post 9/11 New York. He doesn't stand a chance in this race, but it's a solid performance. I love how the friendship unfolds with Jenkins and the two illegal immigrants. That drumming scene at the end is poignant. For Richard, I hope this opens up more opportunities for him.
Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon delivers quite possibly the best impersonation of Richard Nixon. This is his first nomination even though he is an accomplished theatre actor with three Tonys. Langella really is a spoiler on Sunday. He's playing the third wheel right now. A win here is not completely out of the question. I look at Alan Arkin from a couple years ago. If Langella can gain enough support from the older branch of the Academy, then he could pull it off. A lot of those members lived through the Nixon administration and their downfall. Looking at this performance, Langella is spot on. The interviews with Frost get more and more intense. You see a broken man and it's sad at times. You pity Nixon in this film. That's what makes this a special role.
Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has earned his second nomination ('96 Best Supporting Actor for 12 Monkeys). Pitt has done better work and honestly I don't see him winning this at all. He probably has the worst chance to win, but in reality does it really matter when you sleep in the same bed as Angelina Jolie. This was a bold film and a true technical achievement, but Button will have to look elsewhere win a couple Oscars.
Sean Penn in Milk gives quite possibly his best performance in his amazing career. This is his fifth nomination (won Best Actor in '03 for Mystic River). Penn has more or less been the frontrunner for this Oscar since the beginning. He dominated the critics awards. Then, he won the SAG. He lost the Globe and BAFTA. Now, he's actually behind Rourke. I literally don't think either man is in the lead right now. I'd say they each literally have a 50/50 chance of having their name read. Penn did win this Oscar five years ago. Could that hurt him? Possibly. I look at Hilary Swank, who won Best Actress in '99 and '04. Hell, Tom Hanks won in '93 and '94, so I don't think it's a huge handicap.
When you watch this performance and Rourke's, I honestly feel like Penn's is superior. It's emotional and inspiring. I don't always like to look at the history of the Oscars, but look at this decade. Four out of the last eight winners have been awarded for playing real people. That includes four out of the last six. The recent trend seems to be to award people for playing real people. I've never taken an acting class, but I feel confident to say that I don't think it's easier to play a real person (which is what some people think). There's differences for sure, but the challenges are still there. I can't honestly say which is easier, so I'm not even going to try.
I admire this role so much for the simple reason that Penn really becomes Milk. If you really want to compare his performance to the real Milk, then I recommend you watch The Times of Harvey Milk (won Best Doc Feature in '84). It's amazing how much he nailed this role. Especially when you take into consideration that Penn's personality is nothing like Milk's. Besides looking somewhat like Milk, I would have never thought he could have pulled off playing a flamboyant homosexual. He does it seamlessly.
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is the second half of the heavyweight battle for this Oscar. This is the first nomination for him. You can't deny the fact that Rourke has been on fire lately. Sometimes that is the best thing you want when you're going for the gold. It's better to surge late than early. It's gotten so big that many people think he is now the frontrunner. I'm not ready or will I ever be to say that, but as I previously stated it's 50/50 right now. Rourke is a great comeback story and this film is really emulates his troubled life. It has a lot of heart. I'm as big of a wrestling fan you'll meet and Rourke is a believable wrestler. He really represents the broken down stars of the 80s that refuse to leave. Many wrestlers do have a it tough when they fall from grace and are forced to wrestling in the independents for little money and in front of a few fans. It's a sad existence towards the end.
When I look at Rourke's chances I simply worry about one thing. Is this a role that the Academy will embrace? I look at the older members and this is not a film I feel they will like. Plus, look at it's subject matter: wrestling. That's a turn off for some people. Most people think wrestling is a joke and have no appreciation for the dedication and art these guys perform day in and day out. I also look at Rourke himself. He's not a great image for the Academy. His speeches are funny, but full of f-bombs and inappropriate comments (I don't have a problem with this, but the Academy may). If the Academy can get over all this and don't want to give Penn another Oscar, then Rourke may win the Oscar easily.
I ultimately have a feeling that this will be a very close race. I really wish we could see the vote tally. I have been predicting Penn for a while now and I'm sticking with him. I could be wrong, but I have to make a decision. I won't be mad if Rourke wins, but I feel like Penn can squeak this out. Barely.