Oscars Spotlight: The 2021 Nominees for Best Actor

The first time a deceased person was nominated for an Oscar was in 1929, the very first year of the ceremony. Poor Gerald Duffy, who wrote the titles for the silent film The Private Life of Helen of Troy, died last June. Not only was Duffy gone, his job was dying too – talkies had arrived and the Best Title Letter Award (won by Joseph Farnham) was suspended the next year. It wasn’t until 1940 that Sidhum Howard, the screenwriter of “Gone With the Wind”, won an Oscar posthumously. Over the decades, Peter Finch (“Network”), lyricist Howard Ashman (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) belonged to this group. That is far from certain Chadwick Boseman will be honored on April 25th for his incandescent performance in “Ma Rainey’s black bottom. ”

Boseman’s death in August tragically dwarfed this year’s best actor race and at the same time made the competition as good as controversial. The supporting actor category is now fuller. Daniel Kaluuya might have screwed up for his fiery twist as Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah” had it not been for an unexpected twist: the branch of actors nominated co-star LaKeith Stanfield in the same category. It’s not uncommon for castmates to compete against each other – last year it was Al Pacino and Joe Pesci from “The Irishman” – and the effect is often that the votes are split. What was surprising this year is that Stanfield, who plays FBI informant William O’Neal, is clearly the movie’s protagonist and his producers have positioned him as best actor for the race. Even if both men were considered the main characters, it would have made more sense – after all, both of the title characters are playing. Stanfield is not lacking in star power, but would a bigger name have landed in the leading actor race? Is there an unconscious racial bias at work? Or is it just weird academy math? Whatever the reason, the matchup has given Oscar predictors something to puzzle over and could create an opening for Sacha Baron Cohen of all people. Below is a look at both actor races.


Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”

The thirty-eight year old Ahmed is a multi-hyphenated talent: he starred in “Nightcrawler” and “The Night Of”; released hip-hop albums as a solo artist and as part of the Swet Shop Boys duo; and played “The Long Goodbye”, his musical break-up album with his native England, as a one-man show. He is now the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor. In Darius Marders film he plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer and convalescent who suddenly loses his hearing as if he were submerged underwater and has to learn how to lead a new life. Ahmed’s Ruben is less panicked than restless: his eyes remain large but calm, even when Ruben’s navigation through the world is completely confused. He is a man besieged by silence who does not find a moment of calm in himself.

Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Butt”

In 2016, two years before playing the title role in “Black Panther,” Boseman was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. He kept his illness private even though his fame went global and he became an icon of black heroism. All of which would have made his death at forty-three a harrowing cultural event. But by chance, his crowning dramatic performance was released after he left, one final hint of a shortened career. As Levee, a cocky jazz-age trumpeter with big dreams and a hair-raising temperament, Boseman delivers August Wilson’s arias of self-implosion with hypnotizing finesse. Knowing that his mortality was coming to an end in the off-screen realm only adds weight to that bravado. His performance is alive more than anything.

Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”

It feels like half a decade has passed since Hopkins’ most recent Oscar nomination for “The Two Popes”. But no, that was last year. Time and its ravages are at the center of Florian Zeller’s filmWhere Hopkins, now eighty-three, plays a man at war with his own deteriorating mind. The character, also known as Anthony, is an indescribable species, but a late scene where he regresses into childhood stands alongside the highlights of Hopkins’ long film career. His six Oscar-nominated roles include John Quincy Adams, Richard Nixon and Pope Benedict XVI, but his role in The Father as King Lear, whose kingdom is a humble London apartment, is one of his greatest. What if he insists? No action was required?

Gary Oldman, “Mank”

Oldman won this award while gambling three years ago Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” and here he plays a warrior of a different kind. As screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Oldman spends a lot David Fincher’s film Bedridden and dazed, sort of writing the script for “Citizen Kane”. His most indelible scene comes late when Mankiewicz, in a flashback, crashes a dinner party at Hearst Castle and winds his way through an indictment against the well-heeled guests. There is probably no shorter way to winning an Oscar than playing a real light fixture – an Oscar winner, nothing less! – but Oldman’s casting just hit a strange one repulsiveIn part because the movie’s Mankiewicz was two or three decades younger than Oldman.

Steven Yeun, “Minari”

Photo courtesy of A24

Yeun was born in Seoul and brought his family to Saskatchewan as a child. As an adult, he moved to Los Angeles and became famous overnight in the zombie series “The Walking Dead”. It is a common and extraordinary story of immigration: the American dream meets the Hollywood myth. In Lee Isaac Chungs semi-autobiographical dramaYeun is putting up a more representative version of what it will take to claim your own little part of America. He plays Jacob, based on Chung’s father, a hardworking patriarch who opens a farm in Arkansas. Yeun shows Jacob’s sweat and sacrifice, but also his stubbornness and folly – a lived portrait of someone else’s father, rendered with the charisma of a movie star.

Bottom line: If there was any doubt about Boseman’s victory, his widow’s speech brought him to the Golden Globes. Rarely has there been a choice that is so obvious and deserved. Hopkins’ Tour de Force would have a good chance of a later career in another year. As for Ahmed and Yeun, their arrival as formidable men of color is undeniable. So let’s hope Hollywood no longer gives them roles worthy of their talents.


Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Photo by Nico Tavernise / Netflix

Aaron Sorkins Movie is a real ensemble piece, and any number of its male stars (were there women in the film?) could have filled this category: Frank Langella as the confused but contemptuous judge Julius Hoffman; Michael Keaton as cool authoritative Ramsey Clark; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as defiant Bobby Seale; and the list goes on. So why Cohen? On the one hand, he also gave us in 2020 “Borat Follow-up movie film, “A much-needed sequel to bring the Trump era to a close. On the other hand, he plays Abbie Hoffman, the yippie activist who, like Cohen, was a scene stealer and a rogue who laughed at Kaiser without clothes. Perhaps more than anyone else, Cohen could show what made Hoffman both heroic and annoying.

Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

It has been four years since most moviegoers were introduced to Kaluuya as the meek friend banished to the sunken place.Get out. “As Fred Hampton, the unquestionable leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, in the late 1960s, Kaluuya is neither mild nor polite: his speech is dull, electrifying and, as the title suggests, messianic. Kaluuya captures the actor, Hampton, who could lead an army into battle, but he also has some nice, intimate moments with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Hampton’s friend and co-revolutionary. It is a performance full of power and self-assurance, the perfect foil for Stanfield’s William O’Neal double crossing.

LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

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