Best Actor Oscar battle: 5 reasons why Denzel Washington (‘Fences’) will win over Casey Affleck (‘Manchester by the Sea’)

One year ago at this time, Leonardo DiCaprio was basking in Golden Globe glory after his Best Actor conquest for “The Revenant.” It was obvious to everyone that he was on his way to finally winning the Academy Award. Even Best Actor hopefuls like Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” and Matt Damon in “The Martian” realized that no one on Earth (or Mars) could beat DiCaprio. As happy as most of us awards nuts were for Leo, we couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed that the lead actor Oscar race would have zero suspense.

After Casey Affleck’s recent Globe victory for “Manchester by the Sea,” I’ve heard some observers claim that this year’s Best Actor contest is pretty much decided, too. Well, before settling down for a long winter’s nap until February 26th, you better think again. Here are five reasons why Denzel Washington in “Fences” can still win the Best Actor Oscar over Affleck.

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1.  Washington has a much more dramatic role.
This is Academy Awards 101. Showy performances almost always prevail over subdued ones. In “Fences,” Washington has two hours of non-stop, in-your-face, over-the-top ACTING. Every line that he delivers seems almost custom-made for a Best Actor Oscar montage. Self-indulgent? Perhaps. Scenery chewing? Without a doubt. But this is exactly the type of theatrics that voters eat up, especially when compared to restrained renderings like Affleck’s. In competitive Oscar matches in recent years, the flashier performance has usually been rewarded over the unflustered one.

Think Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” over Sissy Spacek in “In the Bedroom,” Sean Penn in “Mystic River” over Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation,” Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” over Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake,” Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” over Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica,” Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” over Julie Christie in “Away from Her,” Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” over Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right,” Jean Dujardin in “The Artist” over George Clooney in “The Descendants,” Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady” over Viola Davis in “The Help,” and Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook” over Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour.”  While there are always exceptions, history would appear to be on Washington’s side.

2. Washington will win the SAG Award.
Let me repeat this. Washington WILL win the SAG Award. Remember that SAG-AFTRA members aren’t film critics. They’re over 100,000 professionals who work in various capacities in the film/television/entertainment/media industries. Of the five names on the ballot for Outstanding Male Actor in a Motion Picture, “Denzel Washington” arguably carries more weight than the other four nominees combined. His screen credits span four decades, beginning with his six-year run on the popular TV drama “St. Elsewhere” back in the 1980’s. Since then, he’s headlined more than three dozen films and won two Academy Awards. Considered by many to be one of the world’s last true movie stars, his pictures have generated well over three billion dollars globally. And most importantly, he’s a respected (if not revered) actor.

So why hasn’t this thespian god managed to earn a SAG trophy yet? He likely lost his first bid for 1999’s “The Hurricane” to Kevin Spacey due to the “American Beauty” groundswell that also pulled Bening to victory over eventual Oscar winner Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry.” His 2001 bid for “Training Day” was a tough sell to SAG. It wasn’t initially perceived as an awards vehicle, and the early autumn release didn’t help. (In those days SAG members didn’t get screeners.) Russell Crowe was on a roll with “A Beautiful Mind” – it didn’t take a mathematical genius to predict his SAG success. As for Washington’s 2012 SAG nomination for “Flight” – competing against Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” was the awards equivalent of crashing after takeoff.

This year, SAG members will finally have a chance to honor Denzel for “Fences” – a film that they clearly admire. It’s hard to imagine them opting for the less-familiar Affleck for such a quiet role. Watch for Washington to get a standing ovation AND give a show-stopping acceptance speech. Like a key moment in a political campaign, the SAG outcome will completely change the derby dynamics. No SAG Best Actor champ has lost the Oscar since Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” 13 years ago. If good luck shines on Denzel at SAG, Casey’s Oscar chances may suddenly be cursed.

3. Washington already has a Tony Award for “Fences.”
To date, eight people have received the Academy Award after taking the Tony for the same role: Jose Ferrer in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” Yul Brynner in “The King and I,” Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker,” Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady,” Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons,” Jack Albertson in “The Subject Was Roses” and Joel Grey in “Cabaret.” Recognition by Broadway’s highbrows undoubtedly helped many of these performers overcome major Oscar obstacles, including fierce competition in several of those races. Even stage actors tackling original film roles benefit from a Broadway background – like Kathy Bates in “Misery,” Mercedes Ruehl in “The Fisher King,” and Spacey in “The Usual Suspects.” Just last year, three-time Tony champ Mark Rylance pulled off an Oscar upset for “Bridge of Spies” over the heavily favored Sylvester Stallone in “Creed.” Don’t think that academy members won’t consider Washington’s Tony triumph when marking their Best Actor ballots.

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4. Support for Affleck may be softer than we realize.
Yes, he’s won the lion’s share of the critics’ prizes. And yes, he did just take the Golden Globe for Best Drama Actor. But put these awards aside, and ask yourself what makes Affleck the Oscar frontrunner. He’s not playing a real person. He isn’t physically transformed on screen. The Boston accent was hardly a stretch for him. He delivers a very subtle performance, without a traditional “killer” scene. He isn’t considered overdue for Oscar recognition. “Manchester by the Sea” isn’t likely to sweep the Academy Awards in a way that will carry him across the finish line. As excellent as he is, can he really be considered an Oscar lock? I can’t help but think back to the famous 2001 Best Actress race. Exactly 15 years ago this month, Spacek had just accepted the Golden Globe for another New England family drama, “In the Bedroom.” I asked Gold Derby Editor Tom O’Neil if Spacek had the Oscar in the bag. “No,” he confidently told me. “We shouldn’t assume that being the awards juggernaut means anything. Sure, she’s out front now – but she’s dangerously out front. If there’s any change in the race, her lead vanishes.” Indeed, O’Neil demonstrated his brilliance then like he still does today. Berry in “Monster’s Ball” ended up shocking at SAG, ultimately leaving Spacek and “In the Bedroom” in the cold on Oscar night.

5. Washington may be due for a third Oscar.
The academy has already honored him with a Best Supporting Actor statuette for 1989’s “Glory” and a Best Actor trophy for 2001’s “Training Day.” Would a third time be too much of a charm? Not necessarily. Oscar voters have increasingly shown that they’ll reward and repeat, providing that the individual really deserves it. Alejandro G. Iñárritu just won back-to-back Best Director Oscars for “Birdman” and “The Revenant.” His acclaimed cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, made it three in a row after his first victory for “Gravity.” And of course, recent prizes for Streep in “The Iron Lady” and Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” put them in the same exclusive three-or-more Oscar club as Walter Brennan, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Jack Nicholson. With 15 years having now passed since Washington’s last win, the Academy may decide that it’s time to tear down the fences, and make Denzel part of a most magnificent seven.

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