Tom O’Neil explains why Mahershala Ali is suddenly the new Oscar frontrunner

Over the past 10 days, Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) has not only jumped ahead of Timothee Chalamet (“Beautiful Boy”) in the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor, but Ali seems to have established a firm lead among the Experts making predictions at Gold Derby. Fifteen out of 25 Experts pick Ali; 6 predict Chalamet will prevail.

See the Experts’ latest rankings per category and racetrack odds in the 15 top races.

Up until recently, Chalamet consistently held a modest lead in this race. On Oct. 19, for example, 10 Experts picked him to win, 8 backed Ali. Chalamet seemed like the obvious fave because, well, for starters, a lot of people think he should’ve won Best Actor last year for his breakout performance in “Call Me By Your Name.” Now he’s got an even flashier part in “Beautiful Boy”: the kind of big, wigged-out, bug-eyed, high-kicking, grandstanding role that academy voters often adore. He plays a drug addict, sympathetically. Bingo.

By comparison, Ali’s role is quite subdued, reserved. No grandiose theatrics. So what’s going on here? Why is he suddenly pulling ahead of Chalamet by such a significant margin?

Timing is part of the reason. “Green Book” is now screening widely to industry audiences across Hollywood, enjoying fresh, happy buzz as word spreads that it might be the next Best Picture winner and, watch out, pay attention: Viggo Mortensen could win Best Actor, too. Really! And Peter Farrelly for Best Director. (What?!) Meantime, “Beautiful Boy” just opened in limited theatrical release to modest reviews (68% at RottenTomatoes). Currently, our Experts predict it will be nominated in only one category (Supporting Actor); however, it’s a player in a few more. Steve Carell could break into the Best Actor contest (he’s in 10th place) and it’s ranked seventh for Best Adapted Screenplay.

But, wait: Didn’t Ali just win two years ago for playing a drug dealer in “Moonlight”? So haven’t voters already taken care of him?

Yes, and one Oscar might be considered enough for an actor who was relatively unknown until recently. But Ali is still within that honeymoon period with voters. It’s like Sally Field says: when they like you, they really, really like you. They’ll give you two victories within a short period of time if they’re smitten enough, as Jason Robards learned when he bagged Best Supporting Actor consecutively in 1976 (“All the President’s Men”) and 1977 (“Julia”). Only three years separated Christoph Waltz‘s victories for “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Django Unchained” (2012).

Voters love to dole out Oscars in pairs: Michael Caine (“Hannah and Her Sisters,” “The Cider House Rules”) Cate Blanchett (“The Aviator,” “Blue Jasmine”), Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump”), Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Million Dollar Baby”), Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Bullets Over Broadway”) and Fields, etc.

Ali has already proven to us that he can win at least one Oscar for an emotionally understated role. His performance in “Moonlight” as Juan, a streetwise drug dealer, was so notable because of its quiet intensity. Juan had a steel gaze, but audiences could see behind his eyes that he had a warm heart eager to comfort a terrified gay boy. Just because it was the right thing to do in a cruel world.

Now in “Green Book,” Ali’s character is emotionally subdued again as he portrays Don Shirley, a prim, haughty classical pianist, but there’s that old fire in Ali’s eyes again. But this time things are different. This time it’s Ali’s character who desperately needs comfort. How powerfully he conveys that to us in the audience may be the stuff of new Oscar gold.

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