If anyone still thinks that the 2016 Oscar race hasn't yet started in earnest, they got a wake-up call last week with the release of Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead." It's his creative take on the life of jazz legend Miles Davis, which premiered last fall as the closing night of the 2015 New York Film Festival. As Davis says to the journalist: "If you're gonna tell a story, come with some attitude." Cheadle does that in "Miles Ahead," and then some, but is it enough to land him an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor early next year?
Cheadle, who serves as the film's co-producer, co-writer, director and star, focuses on two eras of Davis' life — the early 1950s, where, as a sharply-dressed jazz trumpeter on the rise who meets the love of his life, dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Davis has to put up with racial prejudice on the streets of New York; and the mid-1970s, where the pajama-clad, chain-smoking jazz trumpeter has to deal with a severe case of writers' block as well as putting up with pushy journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), who seems determined to write his comeback story.
New York Times readers woke up on Friday to this quote by critic A.O. Scott: "Anyone who wants to get a jump on possible Oscar nominees, check out 'Miles Ahead,' directed by Don Cheadle who also stars as the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis…as witty and knowing as Mr. Cheadle's sly, whispery performance."
So Oscar nomination talk for Cheadle has already started. For his part, Cheadle does a masterful job of linking his two Miles Davis characters — one with his whole career before him wooing his beloved, and the later Miles, burned out with the music industry but knowing that there's something he still has to express.
Can Cheadle manage to thread the needle and make his way to a Best Actor Oscar nomination all the way over to next January? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of a Cheadle nomination.
1. In the past two decades, musical biographies have proven to be a reliable vehicle to get leading actors Oscar nominations, whether they be about singers (Jamie Foxx in 2004's "Ray" [win], Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in 2005's "Walk the Line" [Reese win], Marion Cotillard in 2008's "La Vie en Rose" [win]) or musicians (Emily Watson in 1998's "Hilary & Jackie", Geoffrey Rush in 1996's "Shine" [win] and Adrien Brody in 2002's "The Pianist" [win]).
2. Cheadle is no stranger to the Oscars, having been considered part of the club with his 2004 Best Actor nomination for "Hotel Rwanda." Couple that with his multiple SAG and Golden Globe victories for film and television work, and Cheadle is certainly on the radar of the academy's acting branch.
3. "Miles Ahead" is being released by Sony Pictures Classics, one of the savviest releasing companies in creating effective Oscar campaigns, particularly for underdogs. Among their most recent triumphs has been guiding Cate Blanchett to a Best Actress win for 2013's "Blue Jasmine," an early release in July.
1. But April is not July, and SPC is going to need "Miles Ahead" to have solid legs to keep it in theaters throughout the spring. A well-timed DVD release in the fall will be important in an effort to keep Cheadle's performance in the front of Oscar voters' minds.
2. Recent history is not kind to potential Best Actor nominees whose films are released this early in the year. In the past two decades, only Richard Jenkins, nominated for 2008's "The Visitor," was tapped for a film with an April release, and you'd have to go back to Russell Crowe in 2000's "Gladiator" to find a Best Actor winner in any pre-summer release.
3. Though Cheadle's reviews were largely glowing, there was less enthusiasm for "Miles Ahead" itself (currently only 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). It's more difficult to get Oscar voters to pop in a screener for a film with mixed reviews than it is for one which has garnered raves.
We will not have an Oscars predictions center event for a few months, but Cheadle is on the Emmy ballot for "House of Lies." Will he be nominated for Best Comedy Actor again this summer? Make your early Emmy predictions starting with Best Comedy Actor using the menu to the right or below.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics