"Concussion," a biopic starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovers a brain disease affecting NFL players, premiered at the AFI FEST on Wednesday and established itself as a red-hot Oscar contender. In this film by writer/director Peter Landesman ("Parkland"), this Hollywood superstar gives one of the best performances of his career. And while he currently has odds of just 50-to-1 to win Best Actor according to our Oscar experts, expect his stock to rise in the coming weeks as more of them see his riveting performance prior to Columbia releasing the picture on Christmas.
In both trade reviews, Smith's performance was singled out. Variety critic Andrew Barker says he delivers a "fine, understated performance" and that he "nails the accent without ever calling undue attention to it." And Stephen Farber of the Hollywood Reporter notes, "Smith transforms himself impressively [and] submerges his usual wise-guy persona into the character of this slightly stiff and arrogant doctor."
Smith is already a two-time Best Actor nominee for films where he played real-life people: "Ali" (2001) for his portrayal of boxer Muhammad Ali and "The Pursuit of Happyness" (2006) in which he took on the role of homeless salesman Chris Gardner. In "Concussion," he embodies the forensic pathologist, complete with a physical transformation and a Nigerian accent.
Smith should get an Oscar boost for playing a real-life character. The list of recent Best Actor champs plays like a who's-who of history: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking ("The Theory of Everything"), Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln"), Colin Firth as King George ("The King's Speech"), Sean Penn as Harvey Milk ("Milk"), Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin ("The Last King of Scotland"), Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote ("Capote"), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles ("Ray"). Hollywood just can't get enough of these male-driven biopics.
Also in Smith's favor is the fact that his character is on a personal crusade to make a change for the better, going up against many obstacles along the way including, in his case, the NFL. In that respect, it's a similar role to other Oscar-winning performances like Penn in "Milk" (2008), Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich" (2000), Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi" (1982) and Sally Field in "Norma Rae" (1979).
And the actor also gets to show the softer side of the man as he woos his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and builds friendships with other doctors (played by Alec Baldwin and scene stealer Albert Brooks).
While sports-themed films have a spotty history at the Oscars, three recent movies that looked at the lives of those on the sidelines did make it into the expanded Best Picture race: "The Blind Side" (2009) won Sandra Bullock an Oscar for her performance as the adoptive mother of a football player; "The Fighter" won for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as the brother and mother of the title character; and "Moneyball" (2010) earned bids for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill as baseball execs.
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Photo Credit: Sony/Columbia