Can anyone beat Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour“) for Best Actor at the Oscars? At this point it might take a miracle for anyone to upset the SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Critics Choice winner. But if anyone can do it, it might not be who you’re thinking. After losing last year for “Fences” (2016) Denzel Washington could get retribution the same way he did 16 years ago when he cashed in an Oscar IOU for “Training Day” (2001). Can he beat the odds to snag his third trophy for playing a legal savant in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”?
Washington won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for “Glory” (1989). Twelve years later he became the first black performer since Sidney Poitier (“Lilies of the Field” in 1963) to win in the lead category, thanks to his role as a corrupt detective in Antoine Fuqua‘s police drama (incidentally, that was on the same night Poitier received an honorary statuette). But that victory was a bit of a shock considering he had won no precursors aside from the LA, Boston, and Kansas Film Critics prizes. He had lost SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Critics Choice Awards to Russell Crowe for “A Beautiful Mind.”
A likely contributing factor to Washington’s victory over Crowe was an incident at that year’s BAFTAs. Crowe attacked the ceremony’s director, Malcolm Gerrie, after his acceptance speech was cut short for time purposes on the BBC’s tape-delayed broadcast. The altercation happened as Oscar ballots were in hand, so it probably tipped the scales for voters who may have already been on the fence about giving Crowe a second Best Actor trophy only a year after his first for “Gladiator” (2000) — only Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks had ever won consecutive Best Actor Oscars before that.
Sean Penn (“I Am Sam”), Will Smith (“Ali”) and Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom”) were also nominated that year, but Washington emerged as the clear alternative for voters jumping ship from Crowe in large part because of two high-profile Best Actor losses. Washington won big at the early critics prizes — including New York, Boston and Chicago — for his performance as the title Civil Rights leader in “Malcolm X” (1992), yet was bested at the Oscars by Al Pacino (“Scent of a Woman”). Seven years later he snagged the Golden Globe for playing wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “The Hurricane” (1999), but lost to Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”) at the Academy Awards. By the time “Training Day” came around he was due. Also, voters were likely impressed by the actor’s ability to step outside of his comfort zone by playing a winking devil after years of portraying mostly heroic characters.
At the same time there had been an outcry about the lack of diversity amongst Oscar winners, a sort of antecedent to #OscarsSoWhite. Before 2001 only six black performers had ever won an acting prize: Poitier, Washington, Hattie McDaniel (Supporting Actress for “Gone with the Wind” in 1939), Louis Gossett Jr. (Supporting Actor for “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1982), Whoopi Goldberg (Supporting Actress, “Ghost” in 1990) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Supporting Actor for “Jerry Maguire” in 1996). That was a paltry number, and the academy definitely seemed to take that to heart as they awarded Washington Best Actor and also made more history by choosing Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”) as Best Actress, making her the first black winner in the history of that category.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” finds Washington in similar circumstances. Like in “Training Day” he’s playing against type as an awkward and introverted legal savant who may be on the autism spectrum. And once again he’s coming off of a controversial Oscar loss: he was nominated for Best Actor last year for “Fences” (which he also produced and directed), but the Oscar went to Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”). Affleck has been the subject of sexual harassment allegations, which were already public knowledge during last year’s awards season, but given the #MeToo movement that has brought issues of harassment and assault to the forefront, it’s possible some voters wish they could retroactively award that trophy to Washington instead.
And though there has been no #OscarsSoWhite controversy this year, the academy has continued its efforts to expand and diversify its voting membership, and nominated films like “Get Out” and “Mudbound” — plus a potential future nominee like “Black Panther” — have kept issues of Hollywood representation on the forefront. So it’s possible the academy may want to honor at least one person of color in a major category to avoid another backlash.
Do you agree that Gary Oldman should watch out for Washington, or does the front-runner have this all wrapped up?
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