Who’s Ahead in Best Actor?

At the start of this week, I surveyed the state of this year’s Best Supporting Actress race this far out (given that some of the major contenders are finally being seen), and though I intend to cover every acting category like this multiple times throughout the season, I felt that, following the premieres of The Whale and The Son, the topic everyone wants to talk about is “Brendan Fraser vs. Hugh Jackman” (with maybe Austin Butler thrown into the mix, due to those WILD first reactions to The Son?) so why not kick off the rest of this series-of-sorts with a peek at who’s ahead in Best Actor in September – and who could potentially crash this supposed “two-horse race” between now and March? Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Who Are The Contenders?

Gold Derby Best Actor 2023 Odds

Based on the combined odds of the predictions of experts, editors, and users on Gold Derby, these are supposedly the top ten likeliest Best Actor nominees at the 95th Academy Awards as of September 7, 2022. Few will be surprised to see Brendan Fraser and Hugh Jackman at the top of the list – and the same goes for Austin Butler for his tremendous transformation into the “King of Rock and Roll” in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis – and following The Banshees of Inisherin‘s spectacularly received screening at the Venice International Film Festival, I agree that Colin Farrell is likely in a great place to finally earn that Oscar nom that’s evaded him for decades. That fifth spot is where things get a bit trickier. Many – myself included – are going with Bill Nighy‘s tender turn in Sony Pictures Classics’ Living given the great reviews he’s received, the strong campaign for the film on the festival circuit (with screenings at Sundance and Telluride, so far), and Nighy’s status as an un-nominated acting legend (with considerable support from the British voting contingent). SPC could have their hands full with The Son, but unless someone undeniable shows up, Nighy’s in a good spot for now (though I will be keeping an eye on Tom Cruise – my current alternate – as Top Gun continues to overperform at the box office).

Beyond that though, I do disagree with quite a few of the “second tier” contenders on this list. First of all, after BARDO‘s critical reception cratered this weekend following its premieres at Venice and Telluride, I wouldn’t even have Daniel Giménez Cacho in my top ten anymore (even the positive reviews haven’t been overly passionate about his performance). Additionally, Brad Pitt is not going to be a part of this year’s Best Actor race – he may be a bigger name in Babylon than newcomer Diego Calva, but Calva’s character is the actual lead. I think Pitt (and female lead Margot Robbie) will have a showier part, but Calva should be in your top ten if you think Babylon is gonna be as big as I (and pretty much everyone) do. I would keep Song Kang-ho and Adam Driver, even if their films may be that big overall (Broker was passed over by both South Korea and Japan as a submission for Best International Feature Film, while White Noise is a bit of divisive title with critics and crowds), while I’d add Empire of Light‘s Micheal Ward (GoldDerby has him in the supporting category and Colin Firth in lead, but following the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, it was made clear that Ward is a co-lead with Olivia Colman) and yes, even Amsterdam‘s Christian Bale. No matter what the Internet thinks about the film (or writer/director David O. Russell), Russell gives his actors good material, and Bale is beloved – count him out completely (especially at SAG) at your own risk.

Who Benefits From The “Best Picture Stat”?

I’m not someone who thinks that stats tell the whole story (if they did, CODA wouldn’t have won Best Picture last year), but I do think they tell us some of the story, and they can’t be disregarded entirely, especially the more recent ones that have only taken hold in the era of the “expanded Best Picture line-up” – one of which happens to be the correlation between a film featuring an actor who wins Best Actor and it receiving a Best Picture nomination. This is a stat that has held every single year (except for 2009) since the Best Picture line-up expanded from five nominees to ten (and then to a fluctuating number between five and ten, and then back to ten again), as you’ll see below:

  • 2009: Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart (No Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2010: Colin Firth – The King’s Speech (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2011: Jean Dujardin – The Artist (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2012: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2013: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2014: Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2015: Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2016: Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2017: Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2018: Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2019: Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2020: Anthony Hopkins – The Father (Best Picture Nomination)
  • 2021: Will Smith – King Richard (Best Picture Nomination)

Even in years like 2013 and 2017 where the prospective Best Actor frontrunners (Matthew McConaughey and Gary Oldman) didn’t star in films that seemed like “sure things” in Best Picture (Dallas Buyers Club and Darkest Hour), their movies still made it in at the last minute thanks to the pull of their performances, and even when it seemed like Chadwick Boseman had an undeniable and unbeatable narrative in Best Actor in 2020, the fact that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom didn’t get a Best Picture nomination turned out to be a sign that support was with Anthony Hopkins instead (whose film The Father did get a Best Picture nod). So while you don’t need to star in a film that gets a Best Picture nomination to get a Best Actor nomination, it sure seems like you do have to if you want to get that win. With that being said, which of our aforementioned 2023 contenders star in the strongest films across-the-board this year? Here’s what Gold Derby views as the top ten likeliest Best Picture nominees as of today:

GoldDerby 2023 Best Picture Predictions

The Son could be in jeopardy after some divisive reactions following its Venice premiere, but it’s still got a lot going for it – it’s writer/director Florian Zeller’s follow-up to his debut feature film The Father (which, as we just said, got its lead actor an Oscar, hint hint), and it seems like a solid bet for several acting noms and a Best Adapted Screenplay nod (given that its based on Zeller’s highly acclaimed play of the same name) – so that bodes well for Hugh Jackman. Who else benefits based on this list? Well, look at that – The Whale is also in this prospective line-up! Granted, it’s at #9 – and if it does make it into Best Picture, I also suspect at this present moment that it will be a lower-tier contender (early word out of Venice, even amongst the raves, is that its a small and “stagey” film, which can sometimes hurt your Best Picture chances, like with the previously mentioned Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), but passion for Brendan Fraser‘s performance can certainly push it in, along with likely nods in Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Oh, and is that Top Gun: Maverick? Well, as I said at the start of this piece, should Top Gun: Maverick continue to overperform commercially and critically all year long (and it sure looks like it will) a Best Picture nomination could be the very thing that allows Tom Cruise to leapfrog Bill Nighy.

What isn’t here? The Banshees of Inisherin for one, though given that the almost unanimously rave reactions for that film following its Venice premiere came as a slight surprise to many film fans and awards pundits, it’s likely just taking awhile for GoldDerby to catch up, and I’d certainly have it in a prospective Best Picture line-up this far out in the place of something like BARDO (since it seems to be strong for two – and maybe even three – acting nominations and a screenplay nod), which should then help make Colin Farrell‘s case in Best Actor even stronger (though he has enough positive reactions that his performance can squeak in even if Banshees isn’t as big in Best Picture as we’re starting to believe). Meanwhile, Elvis should probably be in a “top twenty” for your Best Picture predictions right now (I mean, for its potential strength below-the-line alone), but despite its commercial dominance, I wouldn’t say its anywhere near a “lock” in this category, which could be the thing that prevents Austin Butler from credibly challenging the likes of Jackman and Fraser (though his transformation is so towering that it could be the one that breaks this stat).

So, based on their films’ strength in Best Picture, Brendan Fraser, Hugh Jackman, Colin Farrell, and Tom Cruise look the best on paper right now, while Elvis being a compelling contender elsewhere (and sporting such a tour de force lead performance) should keep Austin Butler in the conversation, too. And that’s a pretty solid line-up, though individual passion for sterling performances in smaller films (like Bill Nighy in Living or Song Kang-ho in Broker) can push someone else into the fifth spot, probably at Cruise’s expense (with the “least conventional” Best Actor performance in contention here) – and don’t count out big names and former nominees like Christian Bale and Adam Driver, even if their movies get mixed reception.

Who Has “The Transformation”?

Brendan Fraser in The Whale and Austin Butler in Elvis

“Transformations” are celebrated in every acting category at the Oscars, but there seems to be a particular affinity for them in Best Actor. Last decade, six Best Actor-winning performances (from Daniel Day-Lewis, Matthew McConaughey, Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman, Rami Malek, and Joaquin Phoenix) required “physical transformations” (extensive makeup and/or weight gain/loss) while two of the other four actors (Colin Firth and Leonardo DiCaprio) still played “real people,” and only two actors (Jean Dujardin and Casey Affleck) won for playing entirely original characters. That seems to give an edge to Brendan Fraser (going through a major transformation by playing a 600-pound man thanks to extensive prosthetics and makeup) and Austin Butler (going through a transformation and playing a real person) while putting Hugh Jackman at a disadvantage (but hey, Florian Zeller wrote one Oscar-winning original character already with The Father, so…).

Something else that could help Fraser or Butler is if their film wins the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award, which usually goes hand-in-hand with an Oscar-winning transformative performance. Just last year, this put Jessica Chastain ahead in Best Actress for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, while in Best Actor this past decade, both Dallas Buyers Club and Darkest Hour won Best Makeup and Hairstyling a few hours before Matthew McConaughey and Gary Oldman took home their Oscars at those respective Academy Awards ceremonies. Right now, The Whale seems to be the frontrunner in Best Makeup and Hairstyling (did we mention Brendan Fraser was made up to play a 600-pound man already?), but Elvis looks to be a strong contender at the same time, especially for how terrific Austin Butler’s transformation is specifically in the later years of Elvis’ life – most notably towards the very end (as this meme can attest).

Who Has “The Narrative”?

Winning an Oscar is usually never just about how good your performance is. In a just world, it probably should be. But that’s not how this game works. No, you’ve got to have that narrative. That additional impetus to vote for you. That emotional oomph. In some cases, the best performance does win simply for being widely seen as “the best performance,” no matter what other compelling narratives abound (such as when voters opted for Anthony Hopkins over the late Chadwick Boseman), but usually, it’s the “overdue” actor finally given their time to shine who takes home the gold or the once-celebrated star making their triumphant “comeback” – and both of those descriptions can actually apply to our two main contenders this year. So, let’s stop beating around the bush and start taking a look at the “winning narratives” for a few of the top contenders for the 2023 Best Actor Oscar already.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale

  • Brendan Fraser: For most of the past two decades, Brendan Fraser has been on the sidelines in Hollywood after being one of the industry’s biggest stars in the late 1990s/early 2000s, as a result of suffering from several injuries (sustained while working on The Mummy franchise), subsequent surgeries, the death of his mother, and a brutal divorce. However, worst of all was when Fraser revealed that he was sexually assaulted by former Hollywood Foreign Press Association (yes, that Hollywood Foreign Press Association) president Philip Berk in 2003, and upon speaking out about it, believed himself to be blacklisted by more than a few major players in the industry. Now, he’s back and better than ever, as Darren Aronofsky – who famously “reintroduced” Mickey Rourke to the masses in 2008’s The Wrestler – has given him the greatest acting showcase of his entire career with The Whale (complete with an unbelievable – and unbelievably baity – transformation and everything). However, while everyone seems to be happy to have Fraser back (that six-minute standing ovation!), let’s remember that Rourke’s comeback narrative didn’t actually result in an Oscar win (though Fraser hasn’t burnt near as many bridges as Rourke did) nor did Michael Keaton’s with Birdman.

Hugh Jackman in The Son

  • Hugh Jackman: Surprisingly, Hugh Jackman is one of the only major contenders for the Best Actor trophy this year who’s a prior Oscar nominee (Tom Cruise, Christian Bale, and Adam Driver are as well, but they’re in the hunt more for noms than wins). That was in 2012 for Les Misérables (when no one was taking down Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, despite Jackman winning a Golden Globe), so in a way, there’s a bit of a “is this finally his moment?” narrative to Jackman’s campaign this year. And unlike Fraser, he’s never stepped out of the spotlight, having a strong presence in the blockbuster space (thanks to X-Men and Wolverine), the indie sphere (The Front Runner, Bad Educationand on stage (The Boy from OzThe Music Man). He’s an industry darling with support from so many different sectors, and Sony Pictures Classics can easily frame this season as a “career coronation” for Jackman after so many solid performances since the mid 90s. And there’s a case to be made that The Son may be his best work yet in any medium – Florian Zeller has already proven to be able to get near career-best performances out of the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, and if early word from Venice is to be believed, he might’ve done it again with Hugh (no matter what some think of the movie itself).

Austin Butler in Elvis

  • Austin Butler: Some are already floating the idea that this could be a year like 2002 in Best Actor, where the older industry icons and bigger names (Daniel Day-Lewis/Jack Nicholson and Brendan Fraser/Hugh Jackman) split the vote, allowing the hot young newcomer with a showy powerhouse performance (Adrien Brody and Austin Butler) to swoop in at the least second and snatch that Oscar. It’s not a perfect parallel, but there is indeed a world where Butler does become the industry’s fave in Best Actor this year and crash the Fraser vs. Jackman competition simply because his show-stopping transformation into Elvis Presley is that damn spellbinding – frankly, it feels like something you’ve never seen before. I’m waiting to see if a few other factors fall into place first (Is Elvis getting a Best Picture nomination? Is Elvis winning Best Makeup and Hairstyling?), but if anyone can surmount those stats, it’s someone like Butler, who is giving what is potentially one of the most undeniable “star-is-born” performances… ever? At the moment, I’m looking at Butler as the “Andrew Garfield” of this year (the “biggest” performance and the one from a “musical” movie but also the one by the youngest actor in the line-up, which puts them at a disadvantage) while Jackman/Fraser are the Smith/Cumberbatch (the jury’s still out on who’s who), but let’s see what SAG does. This is acting that is right up their alley, and they could sway the race.

What Are My Present Predictions?

It’s still early days, so I feel like my predictions can shift at almost any minute, but taking all of this into account – and aligning my pick with my broader read of the race this awards season – here’s what I have at the moment:

1. Brendan Fraser – The Whale (A24)

2. Hugh Jackman – The Son (Sony Pictures Classics)

3. Austin Butler – Elvis (Warner Bros.)

4. Colin Farrell – The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight Pictures)

5. Bill Nighy – Living (Sony Pictures Classics)

6. Tom Cruise – Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount Pictures)

7. Christian Bale – Amsterdam (20th Century Studios)

8. Micheal Ward – Empire of Light (Searchlight Pictures)

9. Adam Driver – White Noise (Netflix)

10. Diego Calva – Babylon (Paramount Pictures)

I’ve done my best to cut through the chaos of this category this year, but we’re not gonna find our winner any time soon – it is still September, after all. However, one thing is clear: this is gearing up to be a Best Actor race for the ages.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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