Christoph Waltz elevated to the Best Actor race for 'Django Unchained'

Posted by · 11:30 am · November 8th, 2012

The Best Actor field is already sufficiently crowded — with a couple of nominees seemingly glued in place — that you wouldn’t envy any newcomer to the race. Yet The Weinstein Company, which is hardly short of a serious contender in the category, is reportedly sufficiently high on Christoph Waltz in the still-unseen “Django Unchained” to campaign him in the lead category.

Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil quotes an unspecified “insider” as saying Waltz’s performance as a dentist-cum-bounty-hunter, who joins Jamie Foxx’s title character in a rescue mission, “towers over the whole movie.” That’s the kind of claim many had assumed would be made for Leonardo DiCaprio’s villainous supporting turn. Is Waltz really the film’s MVP — just as he was, to Oscar-winning effect, in Quentin Tarantino’s last effort — or is he being elevated to declutter DiCaprio’s Best Supporting Actor campaign?  

Either way, it’s a bold move, considering he’ll now be competing for Best Actor traction with Foxx, who was previously presumed to be the film’s sole play, if not a particularly threatening one, in the category. Is Foxx’s performance a non-factor for awards, or will they be competing with each other for votes? It’s a long time since a major film ran a campaign for two Best Actor candidates — indeed, no film has managed a double nod in the category since “Amadeus” in 1984.

Interestingly enough, the Weinsteins had the opportunity to take this very approach with another of their 2012 hopefuls. Many would argue that “The Master” is a two-lead film, yet the company has opted to split the difference by campaigning Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor and Philip Seymour Hoffman in supporting — a tactic that could well wind up snaring gold for both actors. The Weinstein Company is canny about such matters, so they wouldn’t be promoting Waltz if they thought a lead campaign was detrimental to his chances: if he and DiCaprio each have a lot to chew on, after all, a dual supporting campaign wouldn’t be in either man’s best interests.

The question now, of course, is whether Waltz can really unseat any of the presumed frontrunners in the lead category. The Weinsteins are already aiming to get both Phoenix — likely to be a force in the year-end critics’ awards — and “Silver Linings Playbook” star Bradley Cooper into the top five. With Daniel Day-Lewis, John Hawkes and Denzel Washington currently riding high, Anthony Hopkins lurking just outside the top tier, and Hugh Jackman’s potentially forceful Jean Valjean yet to be unveiled, can the company really muscle three of their guys into the field?    

On-paper instinct says no, but then again, “Django Unchained” as a whole is no more than an on-paper Oscar prospect right now. It may not turn out to be an awards player at all, or it may please critics and audiences enough to emerge as a late-breaking spoiler in more categories than just Best Actor. Given Tarantino’s Academy strike rate, there’s no way of guessing until we actually lay eyes on the thing. Either way, as someone who believes Waltz’s turn in “Inglourious Basterds” actually deserved a crack at the Best Actor Oscar in 2009, it’s nice to see him playing with the big boys.

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