Often viewed more as a lifetime achievement award than for truly recognizing a single important performance, the Best Actor Oscar is usually one of the more hotly-contested Academy Awards. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this year's nod is something of a slam dunk.
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Sure, the movie’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Broken-down country music singer, career and personal life on the rocks, gets one last shot at redemption with a lovin’ gal by his side. But Bridges somehow elevates the material (even if his actual singing isn’t, you know, all that great), and as someone who’s been pretty consistently terrific throughout what’s now, somehow, a 40-year career, this finally looks like the one to win him the Oscar.
PROS: It’s the age-old “he really deserves it” angle, a la Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman or, more recently, Denzel Washington for Training Day – that is, recognition for an impressive career more than for a particularly outstanding performance. (Of course, the Academy could have already addressed this situation by handing Bridges the award for Fearless or The Fisher King – but then again, he wasn’t even nominated for those.) Throw in the Golden Globe and SAG awards he’s already won and he’s clearly the one to beat.
CONS: As noted, Crazy Heart isn’t his best work, but with the possible exception of Clooney it’s the best nominated performance this year.
ODDS OF WINNING: Even.
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Cary Grant, the classic actor Clooney’s most often compared with for his elan and ease, never won an Oscar. Clooney has, for supporting, in Syriana. Then again, Clooney never won the Golden Apple Award for “Most Cooperative Actor,” while Grant did, in 1942. What does that have to do with this year’s Best Actor? Not much. But early word had it that this was King George’s ticket for a return trip to the winners’ circle; then the movie opened. He’s still got a shot, but Bridges seems inevitable.
PROS: Has that “women want to be with him, men want to be him” vibe that comes along once in awhile. Self-deprecating to a fault. Quiet about his humanitarian efforts, at least when compared to the Angelinas and Madonnas of the world. A shoo-in for that Cooperative Actor award, if it still existed.
CONS: Syriana wasn’t that long ago. The Ocean’s franchise still reeks of smugness. And if he makes one more crack about how awful Batman & Robin was, we’ll scream.
ODDS: 5 to 1.
Colin Firth, A Single Man
After a career of mostly playing a third wheel type (the Bridget Jones films; Shakespeare in Love) or part of an ensemble (Love, Actually; Mamma Mia!) Firth moved center stage at last and delivered a heartfelt, emotionally effective lead performance in a period piece partly about keeping one’s emotions (and sexual identity) in check. He’s never been less than a welcome screen presence; the reception for this film will, with luck, lead to ever greater glories onscreen.
PROS: The thinking viewer’s sex symbol: good-looking, smart, apparently witty, without making a big deal about it. A talent that’s rarely been well-served on the big screen; rewarding him for this, as well as for all the Accidental Husbands and Easy Virtues he’s had to suffer through feels right.
CONS: Skepticism at anything associated with fashion designer-turned-film director Tom Ford is still pervasive among certain cognoscenti, who view giving Firth this award as tantamount to endorsing Ford.
ODDS: 10 to 1.
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Freeman was famously suggested by Nelson Mandela himself to portray him onscreen. (Then again, who were the alternatives? James Earl Jones? Denzel? Chris Rock?) Lending dignity to even the most inane parts (Wanted, anybody?), Freeman’s been so good for so long that it’s sometimes easy to forget just how difficult it is to appear so effortless onscreen.
PROS: Despite his reputation, Invictus represents Freeman’s first lead performance in a bona fide Oscar contender since Se7en, in 1995. How many more opportunities will the Academy have to give this particular prize to the now-72-year-old?
CONS: If Richard Attenborough had directed this in 1985, he’d probably win hands-down. But tastes have changed since that time, even among the staid Academy. Plus Freeman’s already got a (supporting) Oscar for Million Dollar Baby.
ODDS: 35 to 1.
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Renner was pretty much the whole show in The Hurt Locker (although Anthony Mackie really should have pulled down a Supporting nod). His high-wire act -- playing a bomb disposal expert who just may be harboring a death wish – was by turns suspenseful, amusing, and a little scary.
PROS: Due to his being a relatively new face, audiences could never be sure if/when he was going to get blown up, and his devil-may-care attitude was strangely alluring.
CONS: Most of the Locker talk is about the film and director Bigelow, not Renner. Also, his gum-chewing casualness at the Golden Globes took the “so what?” bit a little too far.
ODDS: 50 to 1.