2014 Academy Awards Best Actor Nominees. With our analyses of the Supporting categories of the 86th Annual Academy Awards behind us, we’ll now shift gears and offer our thoughts on the lead performances of the nominated actors. This year was especially competitive, leaving Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Robert Redford (All is Lost) snubbed when nominations were announced on January 16th. Four of the five nominated performances are portrayals of real people and represent the cream that has risen to the top in the eyes of the Academy’s acting branch, which determines the acting nominations. (For a detailed analysis of the Academy’s “ranked-choice voting system”, visit this page.)
Christian Bale (American Hustle) –
Who He Plays: Reuniting with director David O. Russell after winning Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter in 2011, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist enlisted by the FBI to entrap other con artists in order to secure freedom from prosecution for his own crimes.
Why He Deserves To Win: In a film with four Oscar-nominated performances, Bale has the least showy (and most underrated) role. His reactionary character is responsible for a great deal of expository dialogue, but one would hardly notice due to Bale’s skilled and entertaining delivery. Having gained forty pounds for the role, Bale proves once again his mastery of any physical challenge or transformation required for a role.
Key Scene: Bale’s performance is best in his scenes with Jennifer Lawrence, who plays his wife, Rosalyn, and his character’s frustrations are most entertaining when he watches with exasperation her manipulations after he confronts her about her divulgence of confidences to a gangster. What a doozy, indeed.
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) –
Who He Plays: Nominated for an Oscar for the first time since 1979, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a mentally-deteriorating alcoholic who sets out on foot from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar marketing sweepstakes “prize”.
Why He Deserves To Win: Dern’s performance is the most understated of the five nominated performances in this category, proving that one need not play to typical Oscar stereotypes in order to secure voters’ respect and admiration. His Woody is stubbornly consistent, providing endless opportunities for dry humor that ought to crack a smile on even the most resistant audience members’ faces.
Key Scene: Dern’s anger and caustic wit are on prominent display when he is confronted by his son, David (Will Forte), about his alcoholism in a bar during a stop on their road trip to Nebraska.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) –
Who He Plays: Nominated for a fourth time over a span of twenty years, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, depraved white-collar criminal extraordinaire, endlessly fueling himself with a diet of perverse sex, “enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month”, and the greatest drug of all: the almighty dollar.
Why He Deserves To Win: DiCaprio’s performance is one of the most unrestrained in cinematic history. His unrelenting energy persists for the duration of the three-hour opus, leaving the audience exhausted from the wild ride. While the film is incredibly graphic and controversial, even the most turned-off fans admit their admiration for DiCaprio’s gusto and truly unmatched dedication to his role.
Key Scene: In The-Scene-everyone-is-talking-about, after popping several old Quaaludes the always-serious DiCaprio collapses in an acute attack of atony, drooling as he crawls his way out of a country club with unexpected slapstick comedic skill and timing.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) –
Who He Plays: In the most iconic role of the year, Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in the North who is held against his will and sold into slavery overnight.
Why He Deserves To Win: Ejiofor subtly alludes to some troubling character traits that Solomon possesses (especially his sense of elitism), building up to an especially moving scene when Solomon finally breaks down after losing hope that he’ll never escape his newfound fate. His performance inspires and reassures.
Key Scene: Solomon’s horror is palpable when he is brutally beaten into submission for the first time after unexpectedly waking in chains. Ejiofor’s performance sears.
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) –
Who He Plays: First-time nominee McConaughey plays reckless hothead Ron Woodroof who, after being diagnosed with HIV, schemes to deliver non-FDA approved HIV medications to other patients after he finds approved remedies to be too toxic.
Why He Deserves To Win: By nearly all measures, Woodroof should be an unlikable character. McConaughey, however, somehow not only makes him likable, but he has the audience rooting for his character before the movie is over. Like Bale, McConaughey undergoes a drastic physical transformation for his role, losing thirty-eight pounds and looking legitimately ill. Filmed in twenty-five days, McConaughey’s performance and convincing emotional arc render his performance even more impressive.
Key Scene: After being diagnosed with HIV, given thirty days to live, and returning to a vandalized home and an eviction notice, McConaughey defiantly sets out on the road to Mexico only to have an emotional breakdown consume his entire being.
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