BY JACOB TRASK
Until November, 2016 was summing up to be an extremely lackluster year for film. Superhero and Pixar films dominated the box office with underwhelming summer blockbusters. Films like Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad got terrible reviews, making fans incredibly skeptical about DC’s cinematic future. Kid’s movies like Finding Dory, Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets were some of the most liked films of the year. The year simply seemed like a bust until the critically acclaimed came to the rescue in the fall. Eight of the nine Academy Award nominees for Best Picture were released in November and December, including favorites Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea and La La Land. The end of the year was littered with stellar films and an abundance of memorable performances, making this year’s race for Best Actor noticeably intriguing.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen little uncertainty of who would win the Oscar for Best Actor. Daniel Day-Lewis won for Lincoln in 2012. Matthew McConaughey beat out Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013 with his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Eddie Redmayne’s depiction of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything deserved the award in 2014 and DiCaprio rightfully got his first win last year for The Revenant. The winners have gone somewhat by the books, but this year, movie lovers find themselves with some interesting competition going down on Oscar night. It’s the classic tale of seasoned, veteran superstar versus the unassuming underdog. It’s the Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed of the film industry. It’s Casey Affleck vs. Denzel Washington.
Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington have had a massive impact in the abrupt turnaround of 2016’s film quality. Affleck’s role in Kenneth Lonergan’s extremely depressing drama, Manchester By The Sea, is easily the best of his career. He haunted audiences with his authenticity and relatability as a single man dealing with the death of his brother. Washington’s role as Troy Maxson in the cinematic recreation of the 1983 Broadway play Fences is equally as powerful. With the help of a fantastic supporting cast, he put on what may be his best performance since Training Day, if not the best of his career.
It seems that the other nominees for Best Actor shouldn’t be much competition. Viggo Mortensen is nominated for an impressive performance in Captain Fantastic and Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge, but neither performance has received near as much attention or acclaim. Hypothetically, Ryan Gosling could sneak up and snag the win for his work with Emma Stone in the widely loved La La Land, but the Oscar should go to one of these two men. They both deserve it, and here’s why.
Casey Affleck’s rise to Best Actor consideration is one of the more humble stories among the Hollywood elites. Since the mid-nineties, Casey has worked under the shadow of his older brother Ben Affleck, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay with Good Will Hunting in 1998 and has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars ever since. Casey stayed under the radar with a handful of roles in the early 2000s, appearing in the American Pie franchise and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve. His biggest success came in 2007 when he played the role of Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine.
Over the next eight years, Affleck saw some action, making his directorial debut with the disputed documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s rap career titled I’m Still Here. He had small roles in movies such as Tower Heist and Interstellar. All the while, his brother was dominating Hollywood. Bottom line; Casey Affleck is the underdog, which is why this was the perfect time for him to make Manchester By The Sea.
Lonergan’s self-written and directed film centers around Lee Chandler, a single man in his late 30s who learns that his brother has died of a lasting heart condition and he must handle the logistics. The movie follows Lee over the next few months as he travels back to his hometown of Manchester, searches for new living arrangements for his nephew, and deals with a mysterious past that haunts him thoroughly. Through interactions with family-friends and his ex-wife Randi, we learn of the horrible tragedy that scarred Lee and pushed him out of the place where he grew up.
The movie is incredibly sad and dark, but its authenticity and endearing characters are absolutely the movie’s redeeming quality. Affleck is simply fantastic. His portrayal of hopelessness in the face of ultimate tragedy is one of the most believable acting performances of the decade. He fits perfectly into the New England culture that is displayed in the movie, and has unbelievable chemistry with his supporting cast, including Lucas Hedges and Michele Williams. Simply put, his performance is one for the ages and is definitely worthy of an Oscar win.
Denzel Washington is one of the most famous actors of all time, and one of the most successful black actors in Hollywood. Since 1988, he’s been nominated for six Academy Awards, winning in ’88 for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Glory, and in 2002 for Best Actor for his role in Training Day. This year marks his fifth nomination for Best Actor in his career, and his role as Troy Maxson may just be his best work yet.
In 2010, Washington starred in a Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play Fences with co-star Viola Davis. The play did incredibly well, receiving nominations for 10 Tony Awards. It won three, including Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Washington) and Best Actress in a Play (Davis). Three years later in an interview with Empire, Washington expressed his desire to star in and direct a film adaptation of the play. In January of last year, production of the film went underway.
Washington made sure that the movie stayed true to August Wilson’s original script, showing Troy Maxson in everyday life in 1957 Pittsburgh. The film acts as a character study, consisting of numerous rants by Troy in which he speaks of stories and life lessons that turned him into the man he is. All around him are his family and friends, who are constantly stuck listening to his babbling. The decisions he makes over the course of a year largely affect his family, and we see how he deals with the consequences.
It’s as if this movie was brought down from the gods for Washington. Its structure is absolutely perfect for him to completely immerse himself in the role, and he does just that. Washington’s portrayal of Maxson is hauntingly on-point, and brings us right back to 1957. His constant enthusiastic monologues seem to go on for minutes on end, but never lose the audience, whether it’s a heated scene between Maxson and his son, or a playful, light-hearted scene with his wife Rose.
The movie takes a hard left turn with its heavily dramatic conflict in the middle, and that is where this performance is solidified as one of Washington’s best ever. When needed, Washington’s poise and sheer talent completely takes over this film, immersing the audience in a powerful display of emotion. At times, his performance is shockingly good, and his development of Maxson’s character is simply a masterpiece.
The film was absolutely a success for Washington, and could serve to be his best film of all time. His performance will be remembered long as one of the best Broadway adaptation performances, and it surely locks him down as one of the two favorites for Best Actor.
As of right now, Hollywood is quite uncertain of who will win the Oscar for Best Actor. The internet has been buzzing with criticism of Affleck, based on allegations of sexual assault in 2010. Apparent incidents occurred on the set of I’m Still Here, but the issue was resolved later on that year after Affleck denied all claims. Some are up in arms about his nomination, and want the Academy to change its policies. Many are comparing his situation to that of Nate Parker, who’s rape allegations are being said to have affected the reception of his film The Birth of a Nation.
The Academy will give the award to the Actor they think had the best performance, as they do every year, regardless of the buzz and controversy that happens on Twitter. The Birth of a Nation was a flop, and Nate Parker’s performance was lackluster, which is why he did not receive a nomination.
If Affleck wins, there may also arise controversy over the recent Hollywood race issues. Many think this year should see more black actors winning awards, and it would make perfect sense with Denzel’s performance. The last few years worth of acting awards have gone mostly to white actors, bringing more attention to the desire for diversity.The thing that is being judged is the performance, not the color of someone’s skin. At the end of the day, the people voting need to look at Lee Chandler and Troy Maxson and decide which character was portrayed better.
Although a Denzel Washington win would be a great for black Hollywood, a Casey Affleck win would be great for the underdog. With two stellar performances, the race will be incredibly tight. We’ll find out Feb. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET who will take the crown as the best actor of 2016.
Jacob Trask can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org