Let’s Hear it for the Boys: It says something about the depth of the male performances this Oscar season that a number of amazing portrayals could not be recognized by the Academy thanks to the five-nominee cap in the acting categories. There was justifiable uproar when David Oyelowo’s powerful reenactment of Martin Luther King in Selma was not included in the final cut for Best Actor, but he was in pretty good company, most significantly Ralph Fiennes, in his wry and wonderful turn as the concierge in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as Timothy Spall’s iconoclastic depiction of the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in the beautifully shot period piece, Mr. Turner.
Personally, I found Bradley Cooper in American Sniper the weakest (though by no means undistinguished) link in a field that’s notable for a couple of performances — by Steve Carell and Michael Keaton — that go against the grain for the actors in question. An unrecognizable Carell, so familiar for his comedic talents in other venues, left me more than surprised by his haunting transformation into John du Pont in Foxcatcher, playing the troubled heir to an American fortune whose privileged life culminated in grisly tragedy. Michael Keaton was also an unexpected revelation as the washed-up, middle-aged actor seeking artistic validation in Birdman. It’s difficult to find humor in schizophrenia and desperation, but Keaton managed to balance the pathos with a deft sense of absurdity that verges on the transcendent.
The two Englishmen, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who round out the list of Best Actor nominees, are also wonders to behold. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne crafts a performance that is so inordinately difficult at its core: having to convey both wrenching physical disability as well as soul-stirring emotion through indelible facial expressions that serve as windows into the complex personality of the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. And Cumberbatch, as the ingenuous computer scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, brings a breathtaking intelligence to a role that, in lesser hands, may have proven distantly academic, but instead lingers by way of its human dimension.
Add to this overcrowded list of brilliant male performances that of J.K. Simmons, left, nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the pathological music instructor in the stunning film, Whiplash. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Simmons was moved to the supporting category in order to ensure a win (though I’ll also issue a shout-out to Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, who probably would have won had it been any other year). There’s nothing “supporting” about Simmons’s performance, which is front and center and indescribably overpowering as a jazz professor whose idea of pushing (or shall we say, punishing) his students towards greatness leaves a lot to be desired. (And gosh, some remarkable — and not nominated — work as well by Miles Teller, as the main object of Simmons’s sadistic derision.)
So who will win on Sunday? Doesn’t matter. There’s not a loser in this bunch.