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Film Critics Weigh In on the Year's Best Individual Performances

Film Critics Weigh In on the Year's Best Individual Performances
Photo Source: David James/DreamWorks

In the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, no one has taken home three Oscars for best performance by an actor in a leading role. (Only two male actors are three-time honorees at all: Jack Nicholson has split his trio of awards between lead and supporting parts, while Walter Brennan is alone in receiving three supporting actor trophies.) But leading film critics say that Daniel Day-Lewis, who won the award for “There Will Be Blood” (2008) and “My Left Foot” (1990), has a good chance to break that barrier this year with his portrayal of our 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

“I think it’s one of those unequivocal performances,” says Sasha Stone, a critic and the editor of Likening Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” to Helen Mirren’s awards-sweeping embodiment of another political figure, Queen Elizabeth II, in 2006’s “The Queen,” she says, “No one else had a chance.”

Until the nominees are announced and the winners anointed, though, anything can happen. Backstage spoke to four expert prognosticators—Leonard Maltin, film critic and author of “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide”; Christopher Rosen, film critic and editor for Huffington Post Entertainment; Chris Beachum, senior editor for awards-season prediction site; and Stone—to evaluate the lead and supporting performances that could score at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will be held Jan. 27 and have become a leading predictor of who will be honored on Oscar night. (One film not eligible for SAG Awards is Fox Searchlight’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which will likely still figure into the Oscar race for stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry.)

Playing Lincoln in the final days of his presidency and life, Day-Lewis is the obvious front-runner among these critics. “That’s a tough act to follow,” muses Maltin, who says the actor disappears into his role. “Moments into the film, I forgot I was watching an actor and I just felt I was watching Abraham Lincoln come to life.” Rosen adds, “His transformation is really incredible, and I think actors are going to appreciate that. I don’t see any way he doesn’t win.”

But who can challenge Day-Lewis for the throne? The critics’ consensus is that Joaquin Phoenix as an unhinged World War II veteran, Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot, and John Hawkes as a physically disabled 40-year-old virgin will compete this year. “Denzel Washington gives a master class in screen acting in ‘Flight,’ ” says Maltin. He calls the character of Whip Whitaker, a complex and challenging portrait of a man in a moral and ethical crisis, “a juicy role that he gets every last drop out of.” Washington, himself a two-time Academy Award winner, has never won a SAG Award, but Beachum believes “this might be his shot.”

Even more likely to steal some statues is Phoenix, who after a self-imposed exile returns to the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

“Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is also a towering achievement in acting, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying because he’s such a distant character who’s kind of weird and off-putting,” Rosen says. He describes Phoenix’s portrayal of Naval veteran Freddie Quell as “very hard and not very likable,” similar in many respects to Day-Lewis’ role in Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Maltin adds that Phoenix displays “a great mastery of the craft” but says that the film is not a favorite among voters.

After earning nominations from both SAG and the Oscars in 2011 for his supporting role in “Winter’s Bone,” John Hawkes is back in awards contention in “The Sessions,” starring as a paralyzed polio survivor living in an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity. Beachum says that Hawkes is an actor’s actor who is firmly on the SAG membership’s radar, and Maltin praises him for “doing everything imaginable to not call attention to John Hawkes but simply to serve the character,” who is based on a real person.

Other contenders in the lead actor category include Anthony Hopkins as the titular film director in “Hitchcock” and Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s movie-musical adaptation of “Les Misérables.” Although “Les Miz” had not screened for critics at the time of our interviews, the film has been generating awards buzz for months. “He’s so well-regarded in the industry, and he’s got a Tony Award and an Emmy Award,” Beachum says of Jackman. “This could be his year as well. It’s a very weighty role, if the movie’s as good as expected.”

Bradley Cooper is receiving praise for his lead turn in director David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” as a former teacher who is trying to put his life back together after a stint in a mental institution. “I don’t think he can win, but it’s interesting to see if he’ll even get nominated,” Stone says. “He’s kind of still considered the guy from ‘The Hangover,’ so it’ll be interesting to see if they take him seriously as an actor this year.”

Cooper’s “Silver Linings” co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, is considered the early front-runner among female leads. The 22-year-old Oscar and SAG nominee’s moving performance as an unstable widow named Tiffany, paired with her ability to carry a blockbuster like “The Hunger Games” in the same year, has dominated the conversation so far. But the critics say she’s only a big fish because of this year’s shallow pool of other potential female nominees. “She’s really good in that film, but it doesn’t feel like anywhere near as good as the best actress performances we’ve seen in the past,” Rosen says of Lawrence.

Instead, Rosen and other critics believe that Jessica Chastain will contend for the title once “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow’s chronicle of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is released later this year. The film is surrounded by secrecy and had not screened for critics at press time, but the young actor who burst out of nowhere onto screens in several films last year seems ready to maintain her momentum. “In a very short amount of time, she’s really built up a very good reputation as an actress—the kind of actress you just feel should win an Oscar or a SAG Award,” Rosen says.

Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”) and Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”) also belong on the list of leading ladies, but the critics concede that past nominee Cotillard is more likely to be named if only one of these French women can make the cut. Other contenders for lead female are Helen Mirren (who Beachum notes is “very well liked by SAG,” with four wins in eight nominations) as Hitchcock’s wife in “Hitchcock,” Naomi Watts as a tsunami survivor in “The Impossible,” and Keira Knightley in the title role in “Anna Karenina.”

“In mainstream Hollywood, for every four great parts for men there is maybe one for a woman,” says Stone, explaining why she thinks the female actor race is “kind of weak this year.” So if SAG voters look for noteworthy performances in smaller independent films, she thinks newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi could sneak in for her lead role in Ava DuVernay’s festival favorite “Middle of Nowhere.” Says Stone, “She carries that whole movie. She’s great in that part, and it’s a total star-making turn.”

This year’s crop of strong female supporting parts is less limited, according to the critics. While she could be considered a lead actor opposite Hawkes in “The Sessions,” Helen Hunt is their current favorite in the supporting category, returning to big screens after a long absence as a professional—and often nude—sex surrogate. “That’s a very showy role,” Beachum says, “no pun intended.”

Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field is almost assured a nomination as “Lincoln” first lady Mary Todd, as is perennial favorite Amy Adams for playing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wife in “The Master.” Dame Maggie Smith, fresh in viewers’ minds from her scene-stealing role in the BBC series “Downton Abbey,” stands out among many prominent British stars in the surprise hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which shouldn’t be forgotten when the votes are counted. And Beachum believes that Shirley MacLaine might be a dark horse for her performance as a widowed shut-in in “Bernie,” opposite Jack Black. He points out that Smith and MacLaine will be facing off as dueling grandmothers on the upcoming third season of “Downton” when the series airs in the States this winter. Says Beachum, “So wouldn’t it be fun to see them compete against each other at the Oscars or the SAG Awards, too?”

One more front-runner for supporting roles remains a mystery. “My colleagues all think that Anne Hathaway is the one who’s going to win for sure, for ‘Les Miz,’ ” Stone says. “But no one’s seen the movie.” If the film lives up to early hype, Rosen says the role of Fantine “gives her a lot of opportunity. Spoiler alert: She dies, so she’s going to have that big death scene, and she gets to sing ‘I Dreamed a Dream.’ It feels like people really want that to happen.” Beachum says, “I think everything is laid out for her to win. You’ll almost get sick of seeing her onstage, because she’s going to be at the Globes, and the SAG Awards, and the Oscars. But I’ve said that since June.”

The SAG Award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role may be this year’s most crowded category and therefore the most difficult for our critics to predict. Large ensemble films like “Lincoln” and “Argo” could each produce multiple nominees. “Alan Arkin and John Goodman are just so good [in ‘Argo’], and they play those characters with such apparent ease,” Maltin says. “That’s something that only comes from years of experience and extraordinary skill. They nail every last line. Both have a good shot at supporting actor, even though they may be competing against each other.” Beachum adds Bryan Cranston to that conversation.

Tommy Lee Jones is on everyone’s list as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in “Lincoln.” Stone says that he stands out from the rest of the all-star ensemble because “he’s sort of the hero of the story. Lincoln’s the one who pushes [the 13th Amendment] through and is presidential, but he’s not the one who actually says that slavery is wrong.” Maltin says, “You’re keenly aware that it’s Tommy Lee Jones, and it even plays on our image of Tommy Lee Jones as a kind of curmudgeon, which works to the benefit of that character.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a likely candidate for “The Master,” but Beachum says voters might respond negatively to the perceived “category fraud” of calling him a supporting actor rather than a co-lead. And in films that the critics hadn’t seen, all agreed that Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio could get credit for playing the villains in “Les Misérables” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” respectively.

Three decades after winning his second Academy Award, for “Raging Bull,” Robert De Niro has a chance to be at least nominated by both SAG and the Academy this year for his supporting turn as Cooper’s father in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Says Rosen, “He’s actually very good in it, and he hasn’t done a lot of movies in the past decade that people thought were very good. He hasn’t really stretched himself as a performer that much. And I think everybody likes that comeback narrative.”

Except for Maltin, all of the critics call Matthew McConaughey a “wild card” who could earn a nod for the well-received work he did in multiple films in 2012. “He’s had a renaissance-type year, where he was in a lot of different things,” Rosen says. “So that could be a guy that sneaks in.” But he’ll be competing with his own supporting roles in four films—“Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” and “Magic Mike”—and has to gain enough support for one of them to be recognized. “If they have to choose one performance,” Beachum says, “the one I think they’d focus on is ‘Magic Mike.’ He really does chew up the scenery.”

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