Throughout awards season, which began way back with Toronto last summer, the leading actor race seemed like a foregone conclusion. With Nate Parker out of the picture, there was only one man sweeping up all the awards.
Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea has put him head and shoulders above the pack as the Oscar favourite, and when you look at the stats it’s hard to disagree. He has picked up almost every award he was eligible for. Only one major prize eluded him, and it may have turned the campaign completely on its head as we prepare for one of the biggest Oscar turnarounds in recent memory.
Following the rapid demise of Nate Parker amid the storm surrounding his historical rape allegations, Fox Searchlight all but abandoned their campaign for Birth of a Nation. They purchased the distribution rights at Sundance in January 2016 for a record $17.5 million and it immediately became the awards season frontrunner. However, since their irreparable PR scandal, Denzel Washington has taken his adaptation of the Tony winning play Fences into the heart of the Oscar race, capitalising on a sentiment towards diversity and delivering a powerful film that voters can proudly embrace.
Denzel Washington is no stranger to the Academy, having won two Oscars previously for supporting actor (Glory) and lead (Training Day), and they sure do love an actor who braves the world of directing. Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood have all won directing Oscars, so a film that is so racially and politically charged by one of today’s most loved Hollywood actors turned directors was bound to turn heads.
But this isn’t about Washington as a director. He wasn’t even nominated unlike Mr. Gibson whose Hacksaw Ridge has put him firmly back in the game. This is about his ability to overturn the most bankable Oscar prediction of the season and beat Casey Affleck to Leading Actor, winning his third Academy Award.
Critics have turned on Affleck in droves following the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where they too turned to Denzel Washington. The significance of this should not be understated; every SAG leading actor since 2004 has subsequently won the Oscar for the same role.
But rules can be broken, and patterns can change.
The difference this year is the screen actors guild has refuted the trend throughout the season, rather than endorsing it, which poses a mind-boggling dilemma. On the numbers game it is all Affleck, but in terms of conversion rates and proximity to the Oscars, Washington looks to be edging it.
Compound this with the inevitable dominance of La La Land – a film which has recently suffered an attack of its own for being too white, too male and too anything else that springs to mind. This won’t drastically affect its chances in many categories – picture, director, actress, cinematography, score and song are already locked – but it may prompt voters who are already voting La La Land in most categories to champion diversity in others. Therefore, would they be more inclined to vote for another white guy related to a former Oscar winner who has also had some unfortunate allegations made against him, or do they vote their black friend and colleague and not only make the popular choice but arguably the morally justifiable one?
That said, Casey Affleck has had many opportunities for a backlash and it’s never happened. He could have lost momentum at any moment in the past year, but he hasn’t. And he could have been ruled out completely after the SAGs, but he wasn’t.
If there is any category that you should be watching closely tonight, it’s leading actor. The result could say a lot about Oscar voting behaviour, or it could just be an anomaly, but whatever happens a large number of people will call it a shock result.
The only thing we can say with utter certainty, is if Mortensen wins our heads will explode.