OSCAR CALCULUS: Why Best Actor is a Two-Way Race Between Keaton and Redmayne

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An informal red carpet survey may not be the most accurate way to gauge the Best Actor race for 2015, but this year it does confirm the prevailing insider Hollywood sentiment that it comes down to a two-way tug between veteran Michael Keaton and newcomer Eddie Redmayne from the UK. To understand Academy voter calculus behind this viewpoint, let’s take a quick look at the nominees in Oscar-announced alphabetic order: Steve Carell, for Foxcatcher; Bradley Cooper, for American Sniper; Benedict Cumberbatch, for The Imitation Game; Michael Keaton, for Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); and Eddie Redmayne, for The Theory of Everything.

 STEVE CARELL for FOXCATCHER

Foxcatcher

Steve Carell, Megan Ellison

This is a breathtaking first Academy Award nod for mostly comic Steve Carell. Jennifer Garner recently feted the newly minted dramatic actor at a pre-Oscar celebration with “I don’t name-drop, I ‘Steve’-drop…Nancy and Steve just love the Cape. Steve and Nancy, Nancy and Steve…”

Garner, who starred with Carell in the 2014 release Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, is also wife to Ben Affleck, and friend of George Clooney, who is seen as a major influencer at nod time. “This Mr. Carell is the best leader,” Jennifer attested, “his kids are funny. His wife is funny. This is a performance that can not be ignored, such a unique textured and complicated role. John du Pont was a creepy little man. I’m happy for you, Steve.”

‘Creepy little man’ might be why Foxcatcher, despite the prosthetics that resemble gum disease on Carell’s wayward heir John E. Du Pont, is the only Best Actor picture that did not get Best Picture of the Year as well.

However, Carell’s nomination reflects past successes for producer Megan Ellison (Lawless, The Master) and her Annapurna Pictures banner. In 2013, Megan Ellison made headlines by being Oscar-nominated for two Best Pictures, American Hustle and HER with Joaquin Phoenix who also starred in The Master with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

This one-of-a-kind film backer not only budgeted director Bennett Miller for an unprecedented 10 extra months to complete a final cut of Foxcatcher, but she was responsible for funding Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial film from Kathryn Bigelow. This year Ellison staged a brief appearance at the Egyptian for AFI’s screening of Foxcatcher. Brief not only because her name was recently bruised in the SONY hack, but because the daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison prefers to be behind-the-scenes.

Kristin Scott Thomas once called Megan Ellison “one of the best things to happen to filmmaking.” In 2014, Megan Ellison was among 271 creatives selected to join AMPAS. Although Ellison is eligible to vote for Best Actor, Carell stands slim chance of actually taking home the top prize.

Not only is 2015 one of the toughest fields for male actors, but some voters (read: from the Acting Branch) will “always” see Carell as a comedian. They remember him from TV show The Office, were aware that he hit cinema paydirt on the marquee with 40-Year-Old Virgin, the Anchorman franchise and Crazy, Stupid, Love, but they are reluctant to see one dramatic role as a definer. Prejudices against comedians notwithstanding, Carell has done what Jim Carrey failed to do, convert that comedic magic to sincere dramatic credibility.

They say an Oscar win can add as much as $20 M USD to a picture. In this case, it would almost double Foxcatcher’s box office take so far at $11-million.

Either way, Steve Carell has had an exceptional run this year, from the huge worldwide bank earned from his turn in the Despicable Me franchise to this golden moment in his career.
“I think the first title was ‘Evil Me,” but they had to soften it,” Carell jokes. That was a wise decision.

BRADLEY COOPER for AMERICAN SNIPER

American Sniper

Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood

Philly native Bradley Cooper was a movie fan early. He has a story about a disaster reported on the radio when he was young. Everybody was checking on their relatives. “I remember, as a kid, driving with my father, and my Dad said ‘I wonder where Robert De Niro is?’ That’s when “it hit me that so many people are saying ‘where is Robert De Niro,’” almost like a family member, which is the power of becoming a pop culture icon.

All grown up now and seen as the next Paul Newman-like blue-eyed wonder in Hollywood, Bradley Cooper has become just that, a pop culture icon. On the serious side, including his nomination this year as a Producer of Best Picture nominee American Sniper, this is the fourth Academy Award nomination. In 2013, he was tapped for Supporting for American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook, both from director David O. Russell, in 2012. That year he lost out to Jean Dujardin in The Artist.

In this stranger-than-fiction tale, the true story of American Sniper chronicles events leading to the murder of the US Military’s ‘most lethal sniper.’ Right now the verdict in the actual criminal case is pending, and the fictionalized depiction of Kyle’s life and death is controversial. Kyle’s widow Taya Kyle has strongly vocalized her support for the movie, all but saying that its realism nearly brings back her husband’s ghost. In fact, this week she testified in tears about Chris Kyle’s last day before his last fated departure to the gun range where he was murdered. You might say that American Sniper is loaded with baggage, including the ongoing litigation and divisive debate about ISIS, whose early incarnation was present in the first wave of terrorism in-country in Iraq, according to Vincent Bugliosi, who penned a book on the rise of this new current kind of barbarism/terrorism.

Baggage is never a good thing for Best Picture, or a Best Actor nod. In a sense, the film’s high profile as a polarizer among US citizens and around the globe, is a huge distraction from its cinematic merits. Is it pro-war, anti-war, pro-military families? Does it point a finger or pull a trigger? The answer is, American Sniper is pure Eastwood, who leads Cooper on a military regimen of personal transformation that has become the actor’s latest brilliant star turn, from “the guy from the Hangover,” as cast member Kevin Lacz called him.

Lacz, a real-life professional sniper who served with Kyle and was enlisted for the movie by Cooper, says he figured out pretty quickly that this “wasn’t the guy from The Hangover, which shocked me.”

Eastwood, being Hollywood’s most famous UnApologist and Obama heckler, just received his 11th Academy Award nomination for American Sniper. Cooper is also one of the producers, along with Eastwood, his longtime associate Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, and Peter Morgan.  Morgan is the one who brought the project to Cooper. Incidentally, Morgan met Chris Kyle at a shooting range around the time he was instructing Dan Loeb, the SONY inestor whose battle with George Clooney over the studio’s direction hit the trades in a rare on the record tit-for-tat. Loeb then withdrew his investment, a mere month before SONY’s catastrophic hack that resulted in the ouster of Amy Pascal and co-chair Michael Lynton’s relocation to New York, ostensibly to lower his profile and possible exit/lateral move. The Hollywood politics tied up with this film are only slightly less incendiary than the blogosphere being lit up with pro- and anti-war sentiments attached to this picture.

After this year, Cooper will have been nominated four times without a win, unless he picks up Best Picture with Clint Eastwood and the other producers. Meanwhile, win or lose, Cooper et al are on a quick march past what he calls an “unexpected” barn-burner at the box office. So far, American Sniper has clocked in over $360 M USD, beaten only by The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water at #1 earner, after this weekend’s totals.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH for THE IMITATION GAME

CumerbatchIGWhile this is the first Academy Award nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch, and these are first-time Academy Award nominations for Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman for Best Picture for The Imitation Game, the odds are slim on the film taking golden statuettes. And this takes into account the cruel calculations in the zeitgeist that undermine a Best Oscar win, because the last day of voting for AMPAS, for all 7000-member voters, is Feb. 17, a mere week before the big day. This means that news events can push the needle for all nominees.

On Jan. 26th heartache for the UK star nominee hit w hen news rag “The Daily Mail” ran these headlines: “Benedict Cumberbatch in race storm: 12 Years A Slave star says he was an ‘idiot’ for calling black people ‘coloured’ on US show (Tavis Smiley). He was hitting out at lack of opportunities for black British actors in UK. His use of ‘outmoded’ racial terminology sparked outrage among viewers. The 38-year-old Oscar nominee said: ‘I’m devastated to have caused offense.’” And so goes the Award, say many insiders. Make that both awards, Best Actor and Best Picture, sadly. It seems that Cumberbatch has committed what is, in math terms, an “unrecoverable error” for the Hollywood of right now, where the term diversity is being thrown like a dagger.

Cumberbatch aside, all eyes are watching closely to see if the so-called “British Invasion” of Hollywood this year can be converted into an Oscar statuette sweep with Redmayne, Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, and Best Picture to The Theory of Everything. Note that Imitation Game has grossed nearly $75 M USD, far outperforming most Best Picture nominees except American Sniper. But, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to chalk 2015 as the year he learned the importance of imitating the politically correct game in Hollywood.

MICHAEL KEATON for BIRDMAN (OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

Birdman

Birdman’s Director with Michael Keaton

Birdman is, remarkably, the first Academy Award nomination for veteran Michael Keaton. For years, he has toiled in decades of iconic pictures ranging from The Other Guys (2010) to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) to Clean & Sober (1988) to his debut in Ron Howard’s Night Shift (1982), opposite Henry Winkler.

Birdman, according to my recent chat with Leonard Maltin during a tribute for the actor, “is unlike any other picture out there. There is no other picture of this ‘ilk,’ as you say. What stands out about this picture is Michael Keaton’s performance.” Maltin recalls when Keaton “burst through the door” in Night Shift. “Birdman is just a reaffirmation of Michael Keaton’s enormous talent. Let’s call it a Renaissance,” instead of a comeback.

Judging by the Keaton support from the chattering class, Maltin is not alone in his bromance and man-crush on this picture. “When I tell people I’m doing a movie with Michael Keaton,” Zach Galifianakis said, “the reaction is ‘Oh I love that guy.’ And then they can’t decide which is their favorite Michael Keaton movie.” Longtime pal Jeff Bridges, an Oscar winner himself, hands down hints that “I think you’re gonna win this one.” “You are damn splendid in Birdman,” Bridges told Keaton via iPhone from a shooting location in NY, during a Keaton tribute.

Counting Directing and Original Screenplay for Birdman, this is the fifth Academy Award nod for Alejandro G. Iñárritu. His 2006 opus Babel also received a lot of Academy love. Yet, these are the first Oscar nominations for producers John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole. Lesher, former President of Paramount who saw his ouster in 2009 sweetened with a production deal, also produced FURY, which has gone mostly unheralded during this awards season.

The voting power behind Keaton’s friends and colleagues in the industry is huge, and yet… the Daniel Day-Lewis-caliber performance of Eddie Redmayne can not be ignored this year, in spite of the inclination on a sentimental vote for the Hollywood veteran.

EDDIE REDMAYNE for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne with Stephen Hawking

Being the first Academy Award nomination for Eddie Redmayne, this is likely the one he will always remember. Largely because he just may win it.

Theory of Everything screenwriter/producer Anthony McCarten, who just won the BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay, commented with a deadpan twist, “the boxes we had to tick” in casting the lead. “Intelligent. Slim. British.” Actually, McCarten admits, “there are only a handful of actors who could do this. We knew Eddie was ‘the one.’” He seemed to have understood that when Hawking “could no longer use math, no longer write numbers, because of his disability, he began to think visually. This brought him to places he might not have gone.” McCarten went on to say that he’s certain “this is a defining role for Eddie.” And, when told of McCarten’s proouncement, Redmayne nearly blushed on the red carpet and asked, “He said that?”

A contemporary and friend of HRH Prince William, having attended the same school before Cambridge, Edward John David Redmayne is so low-key that his self-deprecation is almost an art form, or result of excellent media training for America. He is both professionally charming and humble in the “good sport” way that citizens on this side of the Pond favor. “At the end of the day, I could get up from my chair,” Redmayne says, shaking off any notion that the body contortions required to play Stephen Hawking were an encumbrance. “I spent a lot of time with those who suffer from ALS, and they can not get up. Suffering every day.”

Theory is the fourth Academy Award nomination for Tim Bevan, and fifth for often-paired producing partner Eric Fellner. Their eclectic slate includes their last noms for Les Misérables. Tom Hooper who helmed Les Mis, cast Redmayne as Marius in 2012. Redmayne got a lot of insider traction from his live singing through impossible tears in Les Mis, a hint of what he has to offer audiences.

Ironically, Birdman and Theory were neck-and-neck at the box office with Birdman pulling ahead by just $3-million after the weekend, besting Theory’s $32-million take.

AND THE BEST ACTOR IN A LEAD ROLE GOES TO…

If you had to put your money on one, you should probably hedge your bets on both Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. But in the unsentimental light of day, it is likely that Oscar voters, who include members from around the globe, will look beyond Hollywood’s favorite son in Keaton, and recognize the virtuoso performance of Eddie Redmayne, seated in a chair and bound to the biopic of one of the most tenacious and charismatic scientists the world has ever seen. In fact, Stephen Hawking has gone on the record with a personal note about Redmayne’s performance: “I thought he was me at times,” Hawking mused.

Oscar calculus aside, the Best Actor race is ‘anyone’s to lose,’ as the saying goes. Watch what happens Sunday, Feb. 22, when the Price-Waterhouse voter totals in the sealed envelopes are ripped opened at the 87th Oscars live from The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

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