Yesterday we surveyed Oscar’s somewhat unsettled supporting races, but as we move on to the leading categories today, things seem comparatively cut and dry. It’s going to be Brie and Leo, right? You’d be a fool to bet against these two awards-season juggernauts? Even so, let’s investigate each of the contenders in Best Actress and Best Actor to determine whether there’s a lurker in waiting who could surprise.
The Long Shot: Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Sight unseen, David O. Russell’s Joy came into Oscar season with a lot of heavy expectations. After all, Russell’s last three movies had all been nominated for Best Picture, and produced quite a few acting winners, too. But the hastily assembled Joy failed to extend Russell’s superlative streak, and in the end, Jennifer Lawrence boasts the film’s only nomination. (Had the Oscar race gone another month, I’m not sure she would have even gotten that.) While J.Law is and always will be an Academy favorite, the movie has basically vanished.
The Recent Winner: Cate Blanchett, Carol
Unless your name is Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Academy can be awfully stingy about giving another Oscar to someone who just won one. Blanchett found this out firsthand: Nearly a decade separated her Oscar-winning roles in The Aviator and Blue Jasmine, and the latter win was so recent that voters will likely pass her over this time. The fact that her immaculately dressed and coiffed characters in Blue Jasmine and Carol bear a superficial resemblance could hurt her, too.
The Crippled Contender: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Whenever it looks like the Oscar will go to an ingenue, there is always a contrarian contingent that gets behind a veteran actress instead. (Just ask Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva, who became the mature alternative when it looked like Jennifer Lawrence would win for Silver Linings Playbook.) That’s the kind of thinking that boosted Rampling in the early going this season — in addition to the fact that she delivers a perfectly modulated, devastating performance — but the actress’s controversial #OscarsSoWhite comments have likely put a stop to her momentum.
The Dark Horse: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
When I ask Oscar voters what will win Best Picture, I hear the same three movies over and over — The Revenant, Spotlight, and The Big Short — but quite often, a voter will volunteer, “But what I really loved was Brooklyn.” It’s not likely that the little movie that could will prevail in Best Picture, and the Adapted Screenplay category it’s also nominated in is awfully crowded, but the movie’s star Saoirse Ronan is well liked, and if enough Brooklyn fans get behind her, she could see a surge.
The Front-runner: Brie Larson, Room
Still, it’s hard to go with anyone but Brie. Once J.Law’s Joy disappointed — and a clutch of potential Best Actress spoilers like Alicia Vikander and Rooney Mara chose to campaign for Best Supporting Actress — the path was clear for this 26-year-old to coast to victory for her complicated performance. Larson hasn’t been in Los Angeles all that much to campaign (she’s busy shooting a King Kong movie down under), but she’s expert at forging a connection with Academy members when she is here, and they’ll happily give up their vote for her.
The Long Shot: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Glowing notices at Telluride led some to pronounce that Fassbender had become the Best Actor front-runner, but after the film crashed and burned at the box office, Fassbender seemed like a borderline shot just to get nominated. He managed that, at least, and deserves it. Still, while his co-star Kate Winslet actually has some renewed awards-season heat, nobody is talking about Fassbender in the same terms.
The Veteran: Matt Damon, The Martian
Another movie that initially had Oscar pundits crowing, The Martian came out of the fall film festivals with such firepower that some figured it could win Best Picture. The first sign that this outer-space mission had a problem? When SAG snubbed lead Matt Damon and the film’s starry cast. While Damon managed to make the Oscars’ final five without that SAG nod, a concurrent Oscar snub of director Ridley Scott weakened The Martian’s overall Oscar chances even further: Out of its seven nominations, it’s not tipped to take home any trophies.
The Recent Winner: Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
If Redmayne hadn’t just won last year for The Theory of Everything, might he have a better shot this year for his performance in The Danish Girl? Almost certainly … but only two men have ever taken home back-to-back acting Oscars: Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy. Well-liked as he is, Redmayne isn’t at that level.
The Dark Horse: Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
An Emmy winner several times over, Cranston is a popular pick in the industry, a charming party presence, and he fronted a movie that got a lot of love from SAG (and that’s notable since actors comprise the Academy’s biggest branch). He’d have a better shot if Trumbo had picked up even a single other nomination, though a better shot ain’t all that much when you’re up against …
The Front-runner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
After several near-misses, Leonardo DiCaprio is finally going to get his Oscar, and we’re all going to have to come up with new jokes. While his Revenant character was put through the ringer, DiCaprio himself has had an easy go of it this season, winning nearly every major award without any significant competitors gumming up the works. Predictable as his victory may be, at least it means we’re going to get a hell of a reaction shot from Kate Winslet.