Heading into the Oscars this weekend, every acting race except for Best Supporting Actor is essentially “too-close-to-call” (and even in Best Supporting Actor, presumed frontrunner Ke Huy Quan isn’t a sweeper, after losing the BAFTA to The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Barry Keoghan). However, while I’ve personally settled on Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Michelle Yeoh in Best Actress and The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Kerry Condon in Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor is probably the category I’ve gone back-and-forth on the most, where a battle is brewing between Elvis‘ Austin Butler (the new kid) and The Whale‘s Brendan Fraser (the comeback kid). But, ultimately, I’m going to be leaning towards Butler in the end, and here’s why:
The “Best Picture Stat”
If you follow the Oscars at all, you’re already familiar with this stat, but regardless, I’ll run through it again. Since 2010 – the second year of an expanded Best Picture line-up – every single Best Actor winner has starred in a Best Picture nominee:
- 2010: Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
- 2011: Jean Dujardin – The Artist
- 2012: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
- 2013: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
- 2014: Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything
- 2015: Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
- 2016: Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
- 2017: Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
- 2018: Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
- 2019: Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
- 2020: Anthony Hopkins – The Father
- 2021: Will Smith – King Richard
Between Butler and Fraser, Butler is the one who stars in a Best Picture nominee, and not just that, but one that earned eight nominations total. How many did The Whale receive? Three, not including Picture, which had been widely predicted for it, especially after its surprise PGA nomination a few weeks earlier. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the film was also widely predicted to receive a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination too after nods from the Critics Choice Awards and BAFTA Awards, but was snubbed there as well, demonstrating a further lack of widespread support that Elvis clearly had.
What recent Best Actor hopeful/frontrunner was starring in a film that shockingly missed nominations in Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, which should’ve signaled that his support was waning compared to his competition’s? Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘s Chadwick Boseman, who not only had one of the most seemingly undeniable narratives I’ve ever seen (in light of his tragic and surprising passing a few months prior) but had also swept all of the Best Actor precursors (the Golden Globe Award, the Critics Choice Award, the SAG Award) except for BAFTA, which went to The Father‘s Anthony Hopkins. Ultimately, Hopkins went on to win the Oscar as well, and what did The Father have that Ma Rainey didn’t? A Best Picture nomination.
The Failure of the “Comeback Narrative”
Let’s talk about “narratives” some more, and in particular, “the comeback narrative” – or, more specifically, the failure of “the comeback narrative” to result in acting wins. Brendan Fraser’s campaign is banking on two things: 1) his mind-boggling transformation into a 600-pound man and 2) his endearing comeback narrative centered around an actor who has been wronged by the industry and is returning to it once more and making a new future for himself on his own terms. It’s almost impossible to root against, and Fraser’s impassioned acceptance speeches have only further left many voters and viewers moved, often to tears. But, for as affecting as this narrative may seem on the surface, when you look at Oscar history, The Academy… doesn’t really tend to fall for it.
Here are just a few cases of actors who were making publicized comebacks and earned Oscar buzz as a result of these campaigns, only to falter at the end, always to – you guessed it – someone in a Best Picture nominee:
- Lauren Bacall – The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)
- Won: Golden Globe, SAG Award
- Lost: Critics Choice Award (to The Crucible‘s Joan Allen) and BAFTA and Oscar (both to The English Patient‘s Juliette Binoche – starring in a Best Picture nominee and future Best Picture winner)
- Burt Reynolds – Boogie Nights (1997)
- Won: Golden Globe
- Lost: Critics Choice Award (to A Simple Plan‘s Billy Bob Thornton) and SAG Award, BAFTA, and Oscar (all to Good Will Hunting‘s Robin Williams – starring in a Best Picture nominee)
- Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls (2006)
- Won: Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award, SAG Award
- Lost: BAFTA, Oscar (both to Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin – starring in a Best Picture nominee)
- Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler (2008)
- Won: Golden Globe, BAFTA
- Lost: Critics Choice Award, SAG Award, and Oscar (all to Milk‘s Sean Penn – starring in a Best Picture nominee)
- Michael Keaton – Birdman (2014)
- Won: Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award
- Lost: SAG Award, BAFTA, and Oscar (all to The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne – starring in a Best Picture nominee, though Keaton was in the Best Picture winner)
- Sylvester Stallone – Creed (2015)
- Won: Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award
- Lost: SAG Award (to Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba), and BAFTA and Oscar (both to Bridge of Spies‘ Mark Rylance – starring in a Best Picture nominee)
- NOTE: Stallone wasn’t even nominated at SAG or BAFTA
It could be said that some of these actors – notably Reynolds, Rourke, and Stallone – might have lost out in the end due to some “bad blood” remaining in the industry, which Fraser, for his part, doesn’t seem to have, as most everyone is “on his side” at this point in time and he hasn’t burnt the same bridges they did. Still, this is pretty damning evidence that when you’re banking on a comeback narrative and going head-to-head with a formidable contender in a Best Picture nominee, you don’t tend to come out on top.
And while many have recently compared Butler vs. Fraser to Rourke vs. Penn, noting how Rourke (who lost) had the same awards Butler now has (the Golden Globe and the BAFTA) while Penn (who won) had the same awards Fraser has (the Critics Choice Award and the SAG Award), it’s important to remember that that race wasn’t determined by “who won what,” but instead that, at the end of the day, Penn was in a Best Picture nominee and Rourke wasn’t. And that’s an advantage Butler enjoys here.
The Correlation Between Acting and Makeup Wins
As of this writing, Elvis is the frontrunner to win the Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar. It won the Critics Choice Award (even though The Whale‘s Brendan Fraser won Best Actor there – curious, don’t you think?). It won two awards at the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards (Best Period and/or Character Make-Up and Best Period and/or Character Hair Styling) while The Whale only picked up one (Best Special Make-Up Effects). And it won the BAFTA Award in this category. Should Elvis ultimately prevail over The Whale here, that puts Butler in the prime position to win Best Actor over Fraser as well, since films sporting acting winners (for “transformations”) typically pull ahead in this category, and if Fraser were strong enough to win his Oscar, his film should be winning here too. But it hasn’t been.
Here are all the times the Best Makeup and Hairstyling winner has correlated with an acting winner:
- 1984: Amadeus (F. Murray Abraham in Best Actor)
- 1989: Driving Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy in Best Actress)
- 1994: Ed Wood (Martin Landau in Best Supporting Actor)
- 2007: La Vie en Rose (Marion Cotillard in Best Actress)
- 2011: The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep in Best Actress)
- 2013: Dallas Buyers Club (Matthew McConaughey in Best Actor and Jared Leto in Best Supporting Actor)
- 2017: Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman in Best Actor)
- 2021: The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain in Best Actress)
So, here’s the thing. If you’re predicting Brendan Fraser to win Best Actor, you really shouldn’t be predicting it to lose the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, as, when a “transformative” performance wins an acting award, these two typically go hand-in-hand. The only thing is that it doesn’t make sense to predict The Whale to win Best Makeup and Hairstyling when it hasn’t been able to win that award anywhere yet, even at an awards body that also gave Brendan Fraser their Best Actor trophy (Critics Choice).
I don’t deny that Brendan Fraser has one helluva narrative – and maybe one of the best the Oscars have ever seen. But in a world where Chadwick Boseman can inexplicably lose the Best Actor Oscar with an even more “seemingly foolproof” narrative, anything is possible if voters like another contender’s film more than yours – and in the case of Elvis vs. The Whale, it’s all-too-obvious which one voters adored and which they did not. I don’t think the online hatred for The Whale is representative of what The Academy as a whole thinks, but I think what is clear is that they do vastly prefer Elvis (as has every guild and awards body this season). And in the end, I think that will make all the difference.