The trajectory of this year’s Best Actor race is a familiar one for most award watchers. As various critic groups held their awards, it seemed like anything was possible. Could the eventual winner be Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog? Denzel Washington for The Tragedy of Macbeth? Maybe even Andrew Garfield for Tick, Tick… Boom? Apparently not! Will Smith, while praised for his performance in King Richard, won next to no awards from critics, but he’s swept Best Actor from the Golden Globes onward.
Best Actor, more than any other category, is defined by narrative. More often than not, it rewards A-list actors who are “due” more than those who are generally considered to have given the best performance of the year; if they’re the star of an inspirational biopic, so much the better. But while it’s easy to make fun of calculated ploys for awards gold, there have still been some excellent choices, even the ones that seem like mere Oscar bait. Here are the past ten Best Actor winners at the Academy Awards, ranked from worst to best.
10. Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything (2014)
Yes, Eddie Redmayne is a very good actor. And yes, even those who hate The Theory of Everything concede that he gave a strong, finely observed performance as Stephen Hawking, elevating a film that’s otherwise thuddingly conventional. As a weedy, fresh-faced postgrad at Cambridge, Redmayne lends his character sharp wit and impish charm; he also believably inhabits Hawking’s body as his physical condition deteriorates, never slipping into hammy, tic-driven melodrama. But it’s worth asking: why are fussy, mannered portrayals of real people considered the height of acting? Why is it necessary for an actor to “transform,” “disappear,” or become “unrecognizable?” To put it another way, why should a good performance as Stephen Hawking win an Oscar over a great performance as a fictional character? This was the same year as Michael Keaton’s masterful, career-resurrecting performance in Birdman; movies may be subjective, but come on.
9. Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Rami Malek is undeniably the best part of Bohemian Rhapsody. He looks a great deal like Freddie Mercury, at least when he’s got those prosthetic teeth in, but more importantly, he captures Mercury’s playful sense of theatricality. Even when the film gets mawkish and sentimental (which is often), Malek feels like a visitor from a freer, more exciting universe. But try as he might, he can only do so much with the material: the rest of the movie is choked with the kind of music biopic clichés Walk Hard sent up a decade earlier, and it doesn’t even have strong craftsmanship to tie it together. (The fact that this movie won Best Editing with such slapdash work is an insult.) Of course, none of that is Malek’s fault, but no performance exists in a vacuum; if Brian May were replaced by a fourteen-year-old Guitar Center clerk, even Freddie Mercury might struggle to stay on key. Malek lends glitter to the good times and pathos to the bad, but treacle still tastes like treacle.
8. Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour (2017)
Gary Oldman is at his most compelling when playing characters of dubious morality, from prickly anti-heroes to outright villains. Oldman playing a man as complicated and tormented as Winston Churchill should have been electrifying. But while Darkest Hour aims for a warts-and-all approach, it can only timidly venture that perhaps Churchill was a bit brusque with his secretary. The screenplay, written by middlebrow schlockmeister Anthony McCarten (who also wrote the previous two movies on this list), mostly calls for Oldman to put on prosthetic jowls and rasp his way through various quips and monologues. He does so, and with some panache, but he’s limited by basic material. There are moments that suggest what might have been, such as a furious outburst upon hearing the word “Gallipoli”; other times, it feels as if Disney had a Churchill animatronic in the Hall of Presidents.
7. Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
After a decade spent wasting his sun-baked charisma in lousy romantic comedies, Matthew McConaughey enjoyed a “McConaissance,” a wave of goodwill for dramatic roles that resulted in an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. Dallas Buyers Club may have stretched the truth of Ron Woodroof’s story (for starters, he was bisexual in real life), but McConaughey gives a performance that feels true. He doesn’t sugarcoat what an asshole Woodroof is at the start of the movie, but he carries himself with fierce pride and self-assurance. When he’s told he has thirty days to live, he sneers “there ain’t nothin’ in this world that can kill Ron Woodroof in thirty days,” and McConaughey makes those words feel more than empty bravado. He even makes the clumsy redeemed-homophobe arc a little poignant. It wasn’t the best performance of the year (a certain someone further down the list should have won instead), but it’s hard to be mad at Matthew McConaughey.
6. Jean Dujardin – The Artist (2011)
Pop quiz: Which Best Picture winner of the past ten years won the most Oscars? 12 Years a Slave? Parasite, maybe? No, it was The Artist, a charming throwback to silent movies that won five Oscars, including Best Actor for Jean Dujardin. Some have dismissed The Artist as a lightweight trifle that benefited from weak competition, but that does the film, and Dujardin’s performance, a disservice. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film star in danger of being left behind by the advent of “talkies.” As George the actor, he’s an effortlessly charismatic presence – it’s very easy to believe that he would become a beloved film star. As George the person, he’s stubborn, vain, and proud, and he’s excellent at playing it for comedy as well as drama. Primarily a comic actor in his native France, Dujardin brings expressiveness, intuition, and heart to this role – all without saying a word. (Well, he says a couple at the end, but nevertheless.)
5. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant (2015)
When Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar for The Revenant, it was the culmination of a decades-long narrative that overshadowed the film itself. Even at the time, much of the conversation was centered around the masochistic extremes DiCaprio went to during filming, like wading through freezing water and sleeping inside a horse carcass. But while it shouldn’t have been his first Oscar, DiCaprio’s performance as Hugh Glass really did deserve the gold. Playing a frontiersman out for revenge after being left for dead in the wilderness, DiCaprio is asked to embody two contradictory ideas. He must come across as an unstoppable, almost supernatural force of nature, while also expressing the agonizing toll his life-or-death struggle has taken on his body and spirit; he succeeds on both counts. Self-destructive method acting is usually an exercise in vanity, but there are some things that just can’t be faked. (Being mauled by a bear, thankfully, isn’t one of them.) And while the script admittedly doesn’t give him much of a character to work with, DiCaprio leans into Glass’ inhuman determination, giving him a grim, single-minded intensity that likely mirrored his own.
4. Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (2019)
It’s debatable whether Joaquin Phoenix gave the best performance of 2019, but he was certainly the most valuable to his movie’s success. Joker’s central thesis is that a cold, uncaring society can turn a harmless man into the murderous Clown Prince of Crime. In order for that to work, Arthur Fleck must be convincingly gentle while suggesting latent violence. Although the writing did him no favors, Phoenix rose to the occasion. He imbues Arthur with an impressive physicality, timidly shrinking his body language and making his episodes of uncontrollable laughter look rib-crackingly painful. As he becomes the Joker, he’s lighter on his feet, almost balletic, enjoying a freedom he never knew was possible. Even at his most violent, Phoenix never loses sight of the central tragedy: no matter what happens, there’s always the sense that he’d much rather be left alone at birthday parties and comedy clubs.
3. Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Lee Chandler will never get better. After a drunken mistake causes an unspeakable tragedy, he shuffles listlessly through life, working menial jobs and losing bar fights. He lives in an apartment that’s as spare as a prison. He drinks – less than he used to, but he drinks. By the end of Manchester by the Sea, he’s marginally more well-adjusted, but he hasn’t overcome his grief; his grief isn’t the kind that can be overcome. In his performance as Lee, Casey Affleck, like Manchester as a whole, rejects melodrama. He does not play Lee as a man in constant pain, because Lee has gone so far beyond pain; rather, he plays him like a dead tree, standing upright but hollow inside. Affleck’s usual mumbling, self-effacing demeanor is perfect for a man who barely seems to have the strength to get words out, and the subtlest inflection in his tone can break a viewer’s heart. But while Lee doesn’t expect (or even want) redemption, Affleck conveys the weight on his shoulders so effectively that it makes him almost admirable. Sometimes, getting out of bed is enough.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (2012)
The idea of Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln in a movie by Steven Spielberg is so obviously Oscar catnip that it’s worth keeping in mind what kind of movie Lincoln might have been. It could have easily been the kind of pompous prestige film that exists so an actor can strap on prosthetics, recite the Gettysburg Address, and rake in awards. But just as Spielberg made Lincoln an engrossing political drama, Day-Lewis gave the kind of rich, fully-realized performance that transcends phrases like “Oscar bait.” Some of his choices are unexpected, but ring with verisimilitude: like the real Lincoln apparently did, Day-Lewis speaks in a high, tremulous voice, quite unlike the gruff commander-in-chief some might have expected. And while Lincoln exhibits great bravery and ingenuity over the course of the film, Day-Lewis never lets the audience forget that Lincoln was an exhausted, elderly man whose spirit carried him when his body was weak. Every gesture, every line reading, every word – it all feels true. Day-Lewis, like Lincoln, is “clothed in immense power.”
1. Anthony Hopkins – The Father (2020)
In 2020, the late Chadwick Boseman appeared certain to win Best Actor for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; the Academy was so certain, in fact, that they presented Best Actor last that year, only to be surprised when the envelope read Anthony Hopkins’ name. It was an embarrassment for the showrunners, but a credit to the voters. Hopkins’ performance in The Father is not just the finest Best Actor winner of the past decade; it may be the best winner of the past two decades, neck and neck with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. It’s a performance that uses every inch of the legendary actor’s range, playing on the image established over the course of his storied career to convey the cruelty of dementia.
Playing an elderly man who’s also named Anthony, Hopkins begins the film as the audience recognizes him: confident, dignified, and in full control. When he insists a past caregiver stole a beloved watch, he speaks with stormy, Shakespearean gravitas. But as the film goes on, he grows more and more confused, frightened by things not appearing as they should. He’s angry, then terrified, then melancholy, then lost. Gradually, Hopkins strips away everything familiar and comforting about his onscreen persona, until he’s in a nursing home bedroom feebly calling for his mother. Logically, the audience knows it’s just acting, but Hopkins is so skilled and plays on his own persona so well, that the horrible truth sinks in: if it can happen to Anthony Hopkins, it can happen to any of us.
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Joe Hoeffner (22 Articles Published)