Like many of my fellow pundits and derbyites, I just don’t know what to make of many of this year’s top Oscar races. Best Picture? Wide open. Best Actress? No idea. Best Actor? Slam dunk. Just kidding. There’s no slam dunk yet, as far as I can tell. However, there is someone who I think might be a frontrunner – someone that many people could be underestimating — Johnny Depp in “Black Mass.” Below, my five reasons why this three-time Oscar also-ran could finally prevail this year.
1. He plays a real person AND is physically transformed onscreen.
This has proven time and time again to be the classic Oscar formula. We all know that there’s a long history of actors winning for portraying real-life individuals, dating back to the earliest days of the award.George Arliss won Best Actor for playing British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1929’s “Disraeli.” A few years later, Charles Laughton took the trophy for carrying the title role in 1933’s “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”
Getting back to this century, seven of the last 10 Best Actor recipients have won for playing real people. Sure, several of this year’s other major contenders also portray notable nonfictional men. That’s where Depp benefits from his dramatic physical transformation in “Black Mass.” He’s virtually unrecognizable as the notorious crime boss Whitey Bulger.
It’s the same type of transformation that helped the likes of Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Nicole Kidman in “The Hours,” Charlize Theron in “Monster,” Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” and Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club” – all part of the Academy Award winners club now. If Depp was also playing someone with a disability (like reigning Best Actor Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything,”) he might have had everything all sewn up. Ironically, he has something which might be just as valuable. See my next point.
2. He plays a crazy killer.
As crazy as it seems, the academy has shown a penchant for rewarding actors who portray murderous psychopaths. Look at Kathy Bates in “Misery,” Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland,” Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” and Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.” Depp is chilling in “Black Mass,” without any of the egregious overacting you might have expected from this type of role. He has an added advantage in that he also shows off Bulger’s sympathetic side – particularly in those scenes dealing with his son’s illness. Of course, it’s the slayings that you remember. Those slayings might help him slay his Oscar competition.
3. He could win the Golden Globe/SAG combo.
I know that it’s way too early to know these outcomes for certain, but it’s a real possibility. It’s no secret that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. adores Depp. He’s earned an impressive TEN Golden Globe nominations over the years, starting with his nod for “Edward Scissorhands” 25 years ago. His sole victory came for Best Comedy/Musical Actor for 2007’s “Sweeney Todd.” Due to the Writers Guild of America strike that year, the Golden Globe ceremony was canceled and Depp was denied the opportunity to finally thank the group. Two years ago, the star reaffirmed his goodwill with the HFPA by attending the Globes to present the Best Drama Picture award. It may be hard for members to resist rewarding Depp this time.
As for SAG – remember that Depp has four decades’ worth of screen credits in both film and television. He pulled off a SAG shockeroo when he claimed Best Actor for 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of Black Pearl” over eventual Oscar winner Sean Penn in “Mystic River.” Depp’s SAG prospects could be boosted this year by his film’s September release. More SAG voters will have seen it than many of 2015’s later entries. Final point on the subject: if SAG members liked him in “Black Pearl,” they’ll love him in “Black Mass.”
4. He’s overdue for Oscar recognition.
Depp received three nominations in five years last decade, during the height of his popularity. Unfortunately, each of those performance seemed to have a problem. “Pirates” – too silly. “Finding Neverland” – too subtle. “Sweeney Todd” – too song-heavy. With “Black Mass,” Depp might have finally fixed the “Goldilocks” problem. He has a serious dramatic role. Excellent box office. Positive reviews. In other words, it’s finally the Depp performance that’s “just right” for the Oscar.
5. His chief competitors face disadvantages.
There currently seem to be as many Best Actor contenders as there are GOP presidential candidates. I have personally been rooting for Depp’s one-time “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in the upcoming “The Revenant.” Still, I worry that it’s not the type of role that generally leads to Oscar. Some are predicting that Eddie Redmayne will become the first person to win back-to-back trophies since Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump”) pulled it off more than 20 years ago. But Redmayne is no Hanks, and “The Danish Girl” is no “Gump.” Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” appears to be the current favorite for his portrayal of the celebrated and surly Apple co-founder. As fabulous as Fassbender is, did he really do the job when he looked and sounded nothing like the real “Jobs?” After struggling to make a decision, voters might look at Depp’s name and finally say…“Here’s Johnny.” Indeed, Johnny could ending up shining on Oscar’s big night.
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