Best Actor, 2002
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of the corresponding films.)

Adrien Brody
The Pianist


The neophyte in a field of experts—the other four nominees can claim 23 nominations and seven wins among them—Brody approached the role of Wladislaw Szpilman like the most seasoned professional: physical transformation, skills acquisition (he learned to play classical piano), historical research, and a terse underplaying that consistently belies all the effort he contributes. Uniquely in a film about such a powerful and complex world event, Brody's performance is the hinge on which all of The Pianist depends; the Boston Society of Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics have both registered their enthusiasm for the results.

Hasn't won any of the highest profile awards leading up to Oscar, but again, he benefits as the balance of momentum between putative front-runners Day-Lewis and Nicholson changes from week to week. Controversy over Polanski may impact the chances of those affiliated with him, as Woody Allen's personal disasters likely prohibited Judy Davis from a deserved win in 1992. Like Julianne Moore's work in Far from Heaven, Brody's quiet style is crucial for his movie but perhaps not to the more flowery tastes of the Academy.
Nicolas Cage

Funny and inventive in his dual role as Charlie and Donald Kaufman, Cage takes back that credibility as an artist he's been losing in the years since Leaving Las Vegas and stands out as a breath of fresh air on a ballot dominated by sobering sturm und drang.
Still, a mostly comedic performance among four heavyweights is bound to get short shrift, and "stunt" parts like this are usually not the Academy's cup of tea (viz. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, etc.). Frankly, I'm surprised he's made it this far.
Michael Caine
The Quiet American

An early favorite who went toe-to-toe with Harvey Weinstein to get his film released, Caine benefits from the same combination of winning personal candor and consistent career achievement that helped him win his most recent Oscar for The Cider House Rules. To many, The Quiet American has derived especial resonance from the current predicaments of global politics, which may cause some voters to look on Caine's work with increased favor, or at least increased attention.
Miramax, uncharacteristically, hasn't made the most of The Quiet American as a commercial possibility or of Michael Caine as an award prospect—perhaps because they are busy pushing Gangs of New York and Daniel Day-Lewis for the same honors. Probably too soon for Caine to win again, only three years after Cider House, and his film is the least widely seen of the bunch.
Daniel Day-Lewis
Gangs of New York

With a villainous performance already being praised as one for the ages, Day-Lewis' return to the screen has been a subject of incessant fascination and reverie ever since a partial cut of Gangs showed at Cannes ten months ago. Beating Nicholson for the SAG and BAFTA awards has been a notable achievement, and by only having one past Oscar to Jack's three, Day-Lewis seems more ripe for a second helping.
Villains this treacherous are hard to sell to the Academy, especially two years in a row (Denzel Washington barely squeaked by Russell Crowe), and especially when voters have the option of lending support to a sympathetic victim of Nazi occupation. The impression that Day-Lewis is indifferent to his acting career may not provide much incentive to give him an award that others might take more seriously, or cherish more deeply.
Jack Nicholson
About Schmidt

When he won the Golden Globe in January, having recently tied Daniel Day-Lewis for the LAFC prize, and amidst seeing About Schmidt to an inordinately successful commercial run (so far $50 million and counting), Nicholson seemed unstoppable. The PR surrounding his twelfth nomination and the prospect of a record-tying fourth win may help draw supporters. And it goes without saying that this is Jack, in his fifth decade as the self-consciously coolest kid in Hollywood's school. So where is the BAFTA? Where is the SAG Award? Where is the Oscar momentum of About Schmidt? Jack and his movie seem to have reproduced the arc of Ian McKellen and Gods and Monsters four years ago: a front-runner for months, right through the Globes, when all of a sudden, everything slams to a halt. Maybe people just don't think he needs a fourth statuette.

WHO WILL WIN: Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Whatever the hoopla over Roman Polanski does for the film's chances, I think it will do wonders for Adrien Brody, prompting more voters to watch the film and look with favor on a lesser-known actor breaking through to the very highest level. There may not be any straightforwardly sympathetic characters in this batch, but Brody's foppish and arrogant Szpilman comes closest, particularly as civic terror and political disaster grip his life. I expect people will be taken aback, and I expect they may even relate. I'm seeing an upset here.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
My theatrical sense wants to see Adrien Brody pull out a surprise victory for a film I loved, but then I remember the feeling of watching Daniel Day-Lewis, magisterial, stalk through a film I could barely stand. Even in inauspicious circumstances, and with little help from an under-defined supporting cast and a milky co-lead, Day-Lewis very nearly did what De Niro did in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: moving comfortably through Scorsese's fevered vision but also, at key moments, single-handedly stopping the film in its tracks. In short, he owned the screen.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Dario Grandinetti, as a man torn between an extreme susceptibility to emotion and a distrust of the power of those emotions, was exactly the wounded soul around which Talk to Her needed to orbit. Not for a minute was he a player in anybody's forecast of awards, but he is missed here nonetheless.

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