Posted by · 10:07 am · February 10th, 2010

Morgan Freeman in InvictusThe Best Actor category solidified pretty early on this year. I imagine the eventual line-up had slid into place as early as November, and after the Screen Actors Guild made things more official, the predictable race unfolded from there. What we have now is a typical mixture of seasoned veterans, solid industry players and newcomers to the awards season.

But things weren’t always so clear. Before a last-minute decision to release what, from afar, always appeared to be a potential awards vehicle for a respected star, things could have gone a number of ways. Sometimes jumping in late can be a boost, and sometimes it just seems like the obvious play.

The nominees are:

Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth, “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman, “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”

Most lead actor staples seem to be represented: the redemption tale, the biopic, the star vehicle, the art-house favorite, etc. But the writing has most certainly been on the wall in this category since, oh, November 4th.

The odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor this year is one of Hollywood’s favorite sons. Jeff Bridges cranked out one of his best performances in Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” a lived-in portrayal of an alcoholic country crooner that exhibited everything the consistent actor has to offer. That certainly goes a long way toward dispelling any thoughts that the award would be a makeup honor. This is the fifth nomination for Bridges, whose career has spanned six decades (if you could the 1951 on-screen debut as an infant). He has been called a national treasure and with good reason. Bridges’s work is woven into the very fabric of American cinema, and his performance here is a wonderful tip of the hat to that legacy. I wouldn’t spend too much time wrapping my head around a potential upset.

George Clooney received some of the best notices of his career for some brave work in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.” I say brave because, as a disconnected, single-and-loving it business elite, the actor was met with the opportunity to stare certain parallels to his own life right in the eye. The performance has reaped a number of the accolades the category’s frontrunner missed along the way and Clooney has also been front and center in the public eye, arranging a successful Haiti telethon and being tapped “the industry’s new class president,” as writer Mark Harris recently put it in a thorough study of the season in the pages of New York Magazine. Perhaps the only thing holding Clooney back from a more competitive angle on this race is the fact that he just received an Oscar four years ago.

Much like Jeff Bridges (though for a much shorter period of time), Colin Firth has always been a dependable actor who has forged lovable characters, generally within the context of ensemble films. But in Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” the actor is out front and in the spotlight, giving a beautiful performance of nuance and introspection, the signs of emotional wreckage painted subtly on his face throughout. Without a last-minute entry from Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company may have drummed up enough good will for Firth to really compete for the award. He was, after all, the only performer from the studio’s trio of hopefuls left standing in the category. Firth will be honored in Santa Barbara later this week with the “Outstanding Performance of the Year” award.

As Nelson Mandela in the incredibly underwhelming “Invictus,” Morgan Freeman kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in this category. The performance was, to put it mildly, phoned-in work that didn’t do much to illuminate the personality of one of the world’s most recognizable figures. Furthermore, the nomination rather stinks of lazy consideration from the actors branch. Freeman fades in and out of an already dubious accent while building on little more than his physicality to flesh out the character. It’s bottom-tier work by anyone’s measure (save for the, uh, NBR). Had the film made a real impact, or had the work stood out amongst Freeman’s competition, there might have been a play for him to win his first lead actor honor from the Academy. As it stands, this is the very definition of an also-ran.

The only actor in the category that I feel has any angle on upsetting the agreed-upon flow is Jeremy Renner. In Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama “The Hurt Locker,” Renner exhibited a wide range of acting chops, gracefully handling both internalized emotions and tense outbursts. In the film, he makes for a strong yet unpredictable anchor for the audience. He’s also one of only two actors in the category whose film also had enough support to land a Best Picture nomination. In most instances, that is something worth pointing out, but it’s unlikely that such a thing will greatly handicap the year’s frontrunner. Still, Renner makes a handsome runner-up. This is his first nomination, but he’s finally hit the leading man big time after a string of capable supporting performances, so, he’ll be back.

Will win: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
Could win: Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”
Should win: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”

Should have been here: Sharlto Copley, “District 9”

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

Who do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Actor? Have your say in the sidebar poll!

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64 responses so far

  • 1 2-10-2010 at 11:48 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ Ellen: Uh, actually you don’t, at least as far that discrimination infringes on the people whose behavior “you don’t approve of” (didn’t realize you were the sole authority on personal lives).

    Oh, and by the way, you ARE a bigot. At least have the courage to stand by what kind of person you are.

  • 2 2-10-2010 at 11:52 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Ellen: And others have the right to call you a bigot when that’s plainly what you’re being.

    big⋅ot/ˈbɪgət/ [big-uht] – noun – a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.

  • 3 2-11-2010 at 4:09 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “I am not a bigot. I have every right to discriminate against a behavior I do not approve of.”

    That’s actually one of the most hilarious sentence pairings I’ve seen in some some time. Thanks, Ellen.

    As for the Best Actor suggestions, I’m still surprised by abundant love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “(500) Days of Summer” — and it’s not as if I’m incapable of recognizing a strong performance in a film I don’t like. But by his high standards, I thought he was glazed and glib there — can someone explain what I’m missing about the performance without simply tying it into the apparent magic of a film I don’t get?

  • 4 2-11-2010 at 4:23 am

    Michael W. said...

    I haven’t seen Jeff Bridges’ performance yet, so I can’t really say who I think should win. But I would love to see Bridges get an Oscar. I would also love to see Clooney win for Up in the Air. It’s a wonderful, old fasioned “movie star” performance. So I’m all for one of those two.

    And Michael Stuhlbarg should have been there instead of Freeman.

  • 5 2-11-2010 at 7:34 am

    Joey said...

    Guy, for me regarding Gordon-Levitt, I thought his performance was lovelorn without being pathetic. I think he tapped into the feelings of everyone who felt their love got away. Or maybe it’s because I loved the movie so much…

  • 6 2-11-2010 at 7:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    That’s fair.

  • 7 2-11-2010 at 8:23 am

    Duke said...

    1. Viggo Mortensen, The Road
    2. Colin Firth, A Single Man
    3. Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
    4. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man
    5. Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine

    6. Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
    7. George Clooney, Up In The Air

    83. Morgan Freeman, Invictus (super overrated performance)

  • 8 2-11-2010 at 9:49 am

    JJ said...

    My ranks for 09 were:

    Robert Downey Jr.
    Gyllenhaal (Brothers)

    Renner & Clooney are somewhere in my 11-15, Freeman in my 16-20.

  • 9 2-11-2010 at 3:10 pm

    Patryk said...

    Ellen: Your comments have no place here. Be gone, before someone drops a house on you, too.

  • 10 2-11-2010 at 7:19 pm

    Somebody's turn said...

    I hate the whole “it’s (somebody’s) turn” to win. Who cares? Turn smurn! Jeremy Renner is the best performance. Soul-wrenching. Nobody else had to go to the border of Iraq and put up with insanely hot 120 degree heat in a bomb suit. Nobody else put in that kind of physical performance. One guy played drunk. How hard can that be? One guy played an as-hole who fires people? What a stretch. Two words. JEREMY RENNER. AMPAS to Renner (three more words) : Wait your turn!

    How sad! How about rewarding the best performance this year in the best picture? Not the best performance by somebody who’s turn it is, in a picture that isn’t even nominated.

  • 11 2-11-2010 at 7:21 pm

    Jesse said...

    somebody’s turn — I LOVE YOU, if only the academy would listen. Nothing remarkable about Bridges Turn at all and i’m all for somebody’s turn but they gotta pull in the performance, which I think Bridges does not. All you bridges fans tell me one scene that stands out or is an oscar scene that makes him worthy.

  • 12 2-12-2010 at 6:36 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    My “Best” Actor of 2009 are:

    Colin Firth – A Single Man
    Brad Pitt – Inglourious Basterds
    Sotigui Kouyate – London River
    Ben Foster – The Messenger
    Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker
    Andrew Garfield – Boy A

    RU: Tahar Rahim – Un Prophete

    I have a feeling, that the Academy will give the Oscar to Jeff Bridges! But in my opinion Colin Firth should win, because he gave the best performance by an Actor in 2009! Colin Firth i pray for you!

  • 13 2-12-2010 at 8:56 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Ellen — Wow…I read your comments with utter disbelief and a fair amount of horror that people like still exist out there — not a bigot you say? I beg to differ lady. Your comments were among the most closed minded I have ever read…period.

  • 14 2-17-2010 at 2:03 pm

    movieman said...

    Will win: Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”
    Could win: Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”
    Should win: Colin Firth in “A Single Man”
    Should have been here: Brad Pitt in “Inglourious Basterds”

    Note: I have not seen Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” I can neither comment nor replace.