Can you think of a poorly received film which produced a Best Actor Oscar nominee? I couldn’t, either, but then the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Denzel Washington for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” got me thinking about it.
The movie, in which Washington plays a disheveled, hand-to-mouth lawyer working for disenfranchised folks in Los Angeles, received a score of 49 out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes. In the last 30 years, there have been only two movies with a lower score there that received Best Actor nominations: the 1990 “The Field” (43/100) for Richard Harris; and the 2001 “I Am Sam” (35/100) for Sean Penn.
Like Washington, Harris received both SAG and Globe nominations while Penn’s pre-Oscar run got him just a SAG nomination.
“The Field,” a rather dreary movie about a hardscrabble Irish farmer’s attempt to buy a rental farm being sold out from under him, was a box office bomb. But “I Am Sam,” the sentimental and unlikely tale of a man with the brain of a seven-year-old raising a daughter about that actual age, was a big hit for Disney.
At the time of their nominations, both Harris and Penn were in the top tier of actors’ actors — that is, actors highly respected by their peers in the academy — and that is certainly true of Washington, an Oscar nominee last year for “Fences.” So, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he shows up on the Academy Award ballot. But should he?
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is neither sentimental nor a commercial success, and the title character is not much of a challenge for a first-rate actor. And other actors know that. His academy peers may watch and admire him, but they have better choices from much better movies.
On our Best Actor Oscar predictions chart, Washington has odds of just 80/1 to win and sits behind seven other actors : Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill in the biopic “Darkest Hour”(odds of 7/4) ; Timothee Chalamet in a career-making star turn in “Call Me By Your Name” (7/2); Daniel Day-Lewis, the gilded star of “Phantom Thread” (6/1); James Franco in the audacious celebration of a bad movie “The Disaster Artist” (17/2); Daniel Kaluuya as the unsuspecting subject of a supernatural white supremacist plot in “Get Out” (14/1); Tom Hanks doing yeoman’s duty as Ben Bradlee in “The Post” (16/1); and Jake Gyllenhaal, in peak form as a Boston Marathon bombing victim in “Stronger” (50/1).
Which three of those would you throw out to make room for Washington?
Adding to the odds against Washington is this nugget: Eight times since the Screen Actors Guild initiated annual awards in 1995, an actor has had the Globe and SAG nominations combo without making it onto the Oscar ballot.
They were big stars in lesser movies (Jim Carrey in “Man on the Moon,” Russell Crowe in “Cinderella Man,” and Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar”), actors punching above their weight class (Paul Giamatti in “Sideways” and John Hawkes in “Sessions”), and one who should have been positioned for a supporting nomination (Richard Gere, “Chicago”) and one who was arguably robbed.
The latter was Tom Hanks, playing the title role of the well-reviewed (93/100) and commercially successful “Captain Phillips.” DiCaprio, who won the Globe award but was left off the SAG ballot, out-pointed Hanks in the Oscar race for his showier, far less authentic portrayal of a living person in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Nowhere in all of this do we find a good argument for including Washington in this year’s ballot. But go ahead, it’s your toothpick. Take him at 80/1.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank Oscar contenders in this and the other top races. Use the drop-down menus at the top of each page to see the other categories. Then take a look at the most up-to-date odds before you make make your Oscar nomination predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.