Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave“) leads Oscar odds for Best Actor by a wide margin with 15 Experts predicting him to win. Compare that to only four who are picking his closest rival, Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club“). But Ejiofor is not your typical Best Actor-winner. He’s not a veteran or A-lister; for that matter, a lot of journalists only just learned how to pronounce his name – if you haven’t yet, get cracking.
According to our Experts, “12 Years” is the frontrunner for Best Picture. It’s far from a sure thing, but it dominated the SAG, Golden Globe, and Critics’ Choice nominations. Even though it underperformed with New York and Los Angeles critics’ organizations, it has quietly been racking up wins from regional groups across the country, everywhere from Boston and Chicago to Florida and Kansas City.
You don’t necessarily need to be a household name to win if you star in a strong Best Picture candidate. Few in the U.S. had heard of Jean Dujardin before “The Artist.” Then the film won Best Picture, and he won Best Actor. The film doesn’t even need to win the top Oscar for a lesser known leading man to win, as long as it’s nominated: consider Geoffrey Rush in “Shine,” Roberto Benigni in “Life is Beautiful,” and Adrien Brody in “The Pianist.”
But Ejiofor hasn’t come completely out of nowhere. He’s been working consistently for years, and many would be surprised just how many films they’ve already seen him in: “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Love Actually,” “Kinky Boots,” “Inside Man,” “Melinda and Melinda,” “Children of Men,” “Talk to Me,” “American Gangster,” all the way up to this year’s TV movie “Phil Spector.”
That resume has put him in the employ of directors like Spike Lee, David Mamet, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, and Alfonso Cuaron. He was already a SAG nominee, three-time Golden Globe nominee, and an Independent Spirit winner before “12 Years” ever happened. I became a fan after seeing him in Joss Whedon‘s “Serenity” eight years ago. In hindsight, it’s surprising it took so long for people to learn his name.
Also helping Ejiofor is the fact of Robert Redford‘s diminishing Oscar chances, mostly because of his surprise snub at the SAG Awards. Sure, Christoph Waltz won a supporting Oscar last year for “Django Unchained” without a SAG bid, but “Django” screened late, as opposed to “All is Lost,” which voters had months to see and rejected anyway.
But while SAG hurt Redford it also gave a big boost to McConaughey, They predictably nominated him and his supporting co-star Jared Leto individually for their performances, but they also nominated the film for Best Ensemble, which could mean there’s a lot more support for the film than we realized. I think McConaughey is the man now best positioned to beat Ejiofor, and he’s been steadily rising on our charts.
That’s the real question going forward. With Ejiofor and McConaughey competing against each other at several upcoming precursor awards, we’ll finally see their relative strength on the awards stage. If one of them starts to win consistently, it’ll be hard to bet against him. Will Ejiofor hold on to his frontrunner status?