Best Actor, 2000
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)

Javier Bardem
Before Night Falls


Two words: Hilary Swank. Like last year's Best Actress victor, Bardem's citations from critics groups (in his case, the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics awards, as well as a Golden Globe nomination), all made his performance impossible to overlook, and his mention has become something of a cause célèbre among Hollywood types willing to admit that this newcomer showed up most of their hometown pros. Both the character and his circumstances invite huge sympathy, and the tortured-artist theme tends to go over well with Academy voters, who feel that they can relate. Substantial Star-Is-Born potential here.

Two words: Fernanda Montenegro. Even though Bardem doesn't deliver a foreign-language performance, he is, like 1998's Central Station nominee, a virtual unknown to U.S. moviegoers up against some big-time marquee names. Critics awards don't mean anything if voters don't recognize you, and Before Night Falls has had emphatically niche-level appeal. Ed Harris and Geoffrey Rush are approximating the suffering-for-art theme, but with more marquee value attached. A win isn't impossible, but these obstacles are substantial.
Russell Crowe

Though his personal demeanor, amorous imbroglios, and lone-wolf reputation don't make him "popular," his talent as an actor is all but unquestioned. Having failed to laurel Crowe appropriately for 1997's L.A. Confidential (for which he wasn't even nominated) or for last year's The Insider, many in the Academy will feel his time has come. Certainly, Gladiator provided his breakthrough to superstardom, so there's something to celebrate even if it isn't Crowe's finest performance. Also, looking at voter demographics, Gladiator has more appeal outside the Actors branch than Bardem's, Harris's, or Rush's films, which will score him plenty of votes from Academy members in other branches.
The opinion that Maximus isn't Crowe's finest work is all but incontestable, and only the Broadcast Film Critics, who tend toward the starstruck, have officially recognized the work. It's impossible to imagine this nomination as a serious contender in a stronger year, and indeed, voters may be partial to recognizing the more "actorly" contributions of a Bardem or a Harris than so overtly transform the Best Actor Oscar into a People's Choice Award. Likely that Crowe will have more chances to win in the future—he sure is on a roll—and people may be waiting for a more complex vehicle, or a less controversial gossip-column atmosphere, in which to deliver him a trophy.
Tom Hanks
Cast Away

Won the Golden Globe over nearly identical field. Morevoer, for the first time in his career, Hanks won the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actor award, which conferred on both the actor and this performance a degree of highbrow credibility that even his Gump and Philadelphia successes hadn't quite achieved. The conspicuous physical transformations required for the role, all of them unglamorous, as well as the burden of carrying a film with virtually no co-stars, subplots, or musical cues has strengthened the impression of this performance as risky and difficult. Like Crowe, Hanks will acquire further support from voters in the technical wings than the other, less brand-name actors in the category—and as has been more than proven by this point, the Academy loves everything about Tom Hanks.
The same damper applies here that's standing in the way of Dench and McDormand in the supporting categories: why vote for someone who's already one, much less won twice. True, several voters who believe Hanks' Chuck to truly be the best performance will cite him anyway, and at least he's lost once in the interim since his victories, so the reflex of championing him doesn't seem quite so automatic. Still, what's more gratifying: to solidify the emergence of a new, multifaceted star like Crowe, or to endorse a journeyman actor like Ed Harris, who's been denied forever and finally directed himself to a leading nomination, or to toss more trophies at someone who has plenty, and arguably has more than he ever deserved?
Ed Harris

Well-publicized struggles to film Pollock come to good end as Harris—who directed himself, scraped money together from anywhere he could find it for a decade, and pleaded with distributors to pick up the film all the way through the Toronto Film Festival and after—scores a surprise nomination that ignites big buzz around biopic. Sentimental appeal behind this nomination increases because Harris worked with his wife on the project, and also, in portraying Pollock himself, fulfilled a casting idea first proposed by his late father. Previous supporting losses for Apollo 13 and The Truman Show, despite front-runner pretensions both times, solidify the impression that Harris has been overlooked and underappreciated for years. Moreover, he's obviously a hard worker and dedicated professional, qualities which have strong appeal in an Oscar year that threatens to appear light and undeserving.
The big question here, of course, is: will people see the film? Remember that voters don't have to watch the nominated performances to vote, so people who think Ed Harris deserves an Oscar on principle can support him regardless. And the dual nominations for Harris and Harden (plus surprising and unbidden support from fellow nominees like Ellen Burstyn) confirm that the enormous Actors Branch, at least, have gotten around to those Pollock videos. Still, the real pitfall here is that technicians, who have no reason to see Pollock, or sentimentalists, who may be turned off by the coarse character or the frequent squabbles of the screenplay, might prefer to endorse perennial good-guy Hanks.
Geoffrey Rush

Won the Golden Satellites award, and, despite the ever-waning momentum of Quills itself, which was once considered a top contender for Best Picture, Rush has managed to appear on virtually every tally of Best Actor nominees. In other words, his work has remained popular and well-regarded even in quarters where the film as a whole has been dismissed. As if the role of the Marquis de Sade weren't already a plea for attention, Rush plays so grandiloquently that fans of Big Acting, not to mention fans of Big Messages, might gravitate toward his role.
It's over. The Golden Satellite is hardly a reliable Oscar prognosticator (the previous two winners were Terence Stamp for The Limey and Edward Norton for American History X), and the dismal fate of the picture at the box office and among critics groups don't help. Even more discouragingly, Rush is also implicated in the prejudice against recent winners that's scourging so many nominees this year. There's no reason, by Hollywood logic, for a theater-trained Australian who's still unknown in many American households to make off twice with L.A.'s biggest prize.

WHO WILL WIN: It's a race between Hanks, Crowe, and Harris. Hanks is the most popular, but also has the most cluttered mantel. Crowe is the most promising (relative) rookie, but his film is not an acting showcase and his popluarity increasingly split. Harris is an actor's actor, with little celebrity cachet, but everyone respects him, and he's been working for this a long time without much reward so far. Frankly, by the standards of any other year, none of these guys would win, and partially for that reason, I'm going to call for Ed Harris: a surprise upset is exactly what Oscar 2000 needs to redeem itself.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Bardem and Harris are leagues, I think, advanced from their competition (though it's hard to begrudge Russell Crowe anything, especially for single-handedly carrying a stupid film.) Between my two front-runners, I'd ultimately settle for Bardem, whose performance is slightly more controlled, and therefore a bit more difficult. Not only do his concluding scenes pack more punch than the entirety of Tom Hanks' work in Philadelphia, but throughout Before Night Falls Bardem suggests all the political, sexual, and artistic crises undergone by his character without memorializing him out of recognizable humanity. The actor even preserves a gently bemused sense of humor, amidst several situations overwhelmed by horror.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Besides Bardem's and Harris's, the three best performances I'd seen in this category all year were those of Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog, Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me, and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys. I keep oscillating, especially between the first two, about whom I would ultimately vote for, but it's a shame that not a single one of them is a contender. Still, if I may be so churlish, my pleasure at seeing the overpraised Jamie Bell and Sean Connery blocked from this race all but outweighs my disappointment about who else was excluded.

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