Year after year, there is an actor that truly seems to rise above the rest. Past winners, such as Daniel-Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs” and Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” were all shoo-ins for the award no matter whom they were up against. The 2014 Academy Award for Best Actor, however, is a crowded field of deserving nominees. Bruce Dern, Christian Bale, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey are nominees. It could go to any one of these stellar actors, and nobody would be surprised.
Through a career that has spanned over 50 years, Bruce Dern has played many neurotic characters. His role as Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” is truly one for the ages. In one of the funniest performances of the year, Bruce drunkenly bumbles his way from Montana to Nebraska to a claim a prize he insists is worth millions of dollars. The interplay with his wife, played by June Squibb, and his son, played by Will Forte, is priceless and hilarious. The humor is quite a departure for a man known for playing psychotics.
Perhaps one of the last true method actors around, Christian Bale puts his heart, soul and stomach into every role. Whether he is melting down to 110 pounds for his landmark role as an insomniac in “The Machinist,” gaining as close to the perfect masculine form in “American Psycho” or packing on the pounds for his role in the hugely popular “American Hustle,” Bale’s dedication to his roles can never be questioned. Fortunately, he has the acting chops to back up his physical dedication. Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time scammer and counterfeit art trader who gets roped into a large-scale political takedown by an overambitious FBI agent looking to make a name for himself. Through it all, Irving balances the insanity going on around him while managing the feelings of his forelorned lover and emotionally fragile wife. It is a tremendous balance of fragility and confidence, physically demonstrated as well by his disgusting pot-belly and ridiculous comb-over.
Although he has played many notorious characters, such as Howard Hughes, Calvin Candie and Frank Abignale, Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio has never played such a shallow, morally decayed person as Jordan Belfort as portrayed in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Taking advantage of the excess, greed and ambition of the 1980s, Jordan manipulated and controlled the people around him to build a financial empire. As Belfort, DiCaprio dances, parties, boozes and dopes his way through the decade. Watching the movie, it is clear that DiCaprio is at his best in this role. He may very well win his first Oscar with his tip of the cap to, and indictment of, the decade that served his character best.
While his hunky good looks and relaxed drawl led him to be typecast as an actor fit only for romantic comedies and lighthearted dramas, Matthew McConaughey showed his acting chops early in his career in films like “A Time to Kill” and “Amistad.” His recent dedication to serious endeavors has led him to starring roles in serious award contenders like “Mud,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His nomination for this last film is heralded as the best of his career. He plays AIDS-suffering Ron Woodruff, who helps others suffering from the disease receive the treatments they need. Ron overcomes his own bigotry and ignorance to go beyond his own sickness to help others in spite of his own weakness or need. It is a tremendous breath of fresh air and the second chance McConaughey deserved to prove his worth as a true actor.
By far the least-known name on this list, Chiwetel Ejiofor may also be the owner of the most demanding and diverse roles. In “12 Years a Slave,” Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man in the pre-Civil War North who is tricked by new associates and sold into the South as a slave. Through years of torture, abuse, starvation, brutality and empty hope, Solomon keeps his hope alive. His performance tugs at the heartstrings of everyone who sees the true tale of survival in the most inhumane of circumstances. This is truly one of the most convincing performances, not only of 2013, but in the history of cinema. This is even more amazing considering that the vast majority of the audience had barely heard of or experienced his refined talent before “12 Years a Slave.” If the Academy is in its right mind, Chiwetel Ejiofor wins the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, hands down.
The list of Best Actor nominees is especially talented and diverse for 2014. With so many excellent performances, the Academy voters have an extremely difficult time in choosing the eventual winner. Each of these performances would have garnered Oscar wins for their performances in other years, but in this year, it seems that Chiwetel Ejiofor is most deserving.