Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
To get into the big tournament, Dern won a play-in game: he edged out Robert Redford (All Is Lost) in the subcategory of favorite 77-year-old giving a career-capping performance. In part, that's because Redford didn't really campaign for the nomination. But Nebraska, in which Dern plays his usual ornery coot with a crazy dream, remains the least seen of the nine Best Picture nominees, taking in only $16.5 million at the domestic box office. And in this deadpan Plains-state comedy, the actor never gets to tear a passion to tatters — an implicit prerequisite for an Acting Oscar. Instead, his performance is a long aria of alterkocker grumbles.
(READ: our review of Nebraska)
Dern's other handicap: his Woody Grant is a fictional character in a category that usually rewards the stars of bio-pics. Six times in the past nine years, the Best Actor Oscar has goes to actors playing real people: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Colin Firth as King George VI and Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. The characters inhabited by Dern's four rivals may not have the brand recognition of a President, a king or an African tyrant, but they are all inspired by actual heroes or brigands — which makes you wonder how Tom Hanks, as the Somali kidnappers' stalwart captive Captain Phillips, missed the cut.
Bale's Irving Rosenfeld was really Mel Weinberg, a con artist who fronted the FBI's Abscam sting in order to avoid a prison sentence on 10 counts of fraud. The Welsh actor, known for his brooding or explosive intensity, managed to make Irving both hulking and delicate, menacing and poignant. He well earned his Academy nomination, which is only his second, and both in David O. Russell movies (the first was The Fighter, three years ago). It's not Bale's fault — indeed, it's one of the strengths of this ensemble film — that he is outdazzled by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, nominees for Actress and Supporting Actress respectively.
(READ: our review of American Hustle)
DiCaprio's dazzle as Jordan Belfort, the stockbroker guru-grifter in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, is exhaustive and exhausting: he races through this three-hour movie like a sprinter in a marathon. His fourth actor nomination in 20 years — after What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Supporting), The Aviator and Blood Diamond — is surely the busiest work of this suave blond movie star's career. It's also the flip side of DiCaprio's other starring role last year, as the aristo-crass gangster in The Great Gatsby. He'll win an Oscar some day — just not next Sunday.
(READ: our review of The Wolf of Wall Street)
In a tally of year-end awards from film critics' groups, Ejiofor received three times as many Best Actor nods (18) as his closest competitor (McConaughey). His Solomon Northrup, the free black American kidnapped into servitude in 1841, has the high degree of sanctity and outraged justice that the Academy loves; the role is closest to Brody's Nazi-dodging Jew in The Pianist. Ejiofor brings the power of restraint to Northrup's 12 years of suffering. And yet, if he is not the Oscar favorite, it's because this performance is one of passion rendered as passivity; Ejiofor endures betrayal and torture no less than Jim Caviezel's Jesus in the Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ. Also, though the movie's story is dreadfully compelling, this excellent Afro-British actor lacks the backstory of the man who will win...
(READ: our review of 12 Years a Slave)
Three years ago, the phrase "Matthew McConaughey, Best Actor" would have been laughable. In his early-prime career as a pearly voiced rom-com stud, the lanky Texan received nominations only for things like the Teen Choice Awards for Best Movie Liplock. (And he lost, twice.) Then, as if in rehab from mediocrity, he took more demanding roles in weird indie films — Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud — to prove that a Movie Star Lite could also be a gifted actor, without losing a smidge of his old watchability. His first substantial prize from any serious group was a New York Film Critics Circle citation for Best Supporting Actor at the end of 2012, for Bernie and Magic Mike. The McConaissance was officially underway.
His Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club has an Academy-truckling aspect: he lost 30 to 40 pounds to play the good-ol'-boy homophobe who contracts AIDS. (Gaining 40 pounds as Jake La Motta didn't hurt Robert De Niro in capturing an Oscar 33 years ago in Raging Bull.) But the stunt was just part of McConaughey's commitment to the character; he dug into Woodroof's wily outlaw tenacity on the road to achieving grace. The movie also benefitted from great timing. Not to suggest any cynicism in the actor's grand plan, but it's as if his previous indie roles had served as the primary battles in a campaign that would come to fruition with Dallas Buyers Club, and whose Election Day is Mar. 2.
(READ: Our review of Dallas Buyers Club)
In a way, McConaughey has continued to campaign with his smartly creepy work as Rustin Cohle in HBO's True Detective series; he gets a new chance to impress the voters each Sunday night. (He admits to watching each episode two or three times. "I'm seeing something different every time," he said last week on The Queen Latifah Show — "and I made it!") And in January, as he piled up wins in televised award ceremonies (the Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics, Screen Actors Guild), Academy members noticed something else they liked: the guy gives excellent acceptance speeches — quirky, charming, well-delivered. Don't be surprised if the voters let him give one more smooth performance, as Matthew McConaughey, on Oscar night.