What a difference a day makes. Tuesday, Robert Redford, 77, made his East Coast premiere at Lincoln Center as the totally screwed solo sailor adrift on the Indian Ocean in J. C. Chandor’s "All Is Lost." This nameless adventurer is so lonely you almost wish Somali pirates would board his sailboat like they did in "Captain Phillips."
And, on the same night, Alexander Payne’s "Nebraska" premiered with Bruce Dern, also 77, as Woody, an irascible Midwesterner who goes on a road trip from Montana to the Cornhusker State in search of lottery winnings with his reluctant son (Will Forte). The father-son pair discovers more ghosts from the past than that couple in "The Conjuring."
So where do these sons of 1936, Redford and Dern, stack up in an extremely vigorous Best Actor Oscar race?
Tour de Force
The Academy loves an acting show of strength, which gives the edge to Redford. He's all alone for his drama’s 107 minutes of edge-of-your-seat action, trying to stay alive and pausing only very occasionally for one-word expletives while pulling (his still matinee-idol thick head of) hair. Think Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," without the soulful styling of Wilson the soccer ball. Remember: Hanks got an Oscar nom in 2001 – and a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild win. And Wilson got a nod as Best Inanimate Object at the Critics' Choice Awards.
Sure Redford goes through hell as "Our Man" without a proper name, but he's still fit and handsome with that full head of Hollywood golden waves. Wrinkled, yes, but wrinkled in a manly way. Dern, in contrast, may be the same age off-camera but he looks two decades older in "Nebraska." His colorless hair floats in a few cotton candy wisps on his bald head and a gristly gray beard covers half his face and most of his neck. He hunches his shoulders, lowers his head on his neck like a bald eagle and walks with splayed feet to accommodate bad hips. This is the kind of unglamorous role that earned Jack Nicholson an Oscar nom for his curmudgeon in Payne’s "About Schmidt," also set in Nebraska.
Matching Head Wounds
At one point in both stories, the leading man clocks his head. In "All Is Lost," the sailor sustains a head wound in a fall when waves toss his tiny ship. While the water rises within the vessel, he finds the first aid kit and splashes his forehead with hydrogen peroxide (it stings!), then holds the gash together with trembling fingertips while applying butterfly bandages. In contrast, Woody falls face first into the shabby motel room he shares with his son after a late-night tavern visit. Next stop: the emergency room where a medical tech patches the old man up with dark thread and we feel every stitch even if Woody is too anesthetized on booze to feel much pain. Woody then walks through the rest of the movie with a Frankenstein seam on his forehead, adding to the battered look already provided by the wispy hair and beaten posture.
While "All Is Lost" is "Gravity" at sea in 2D (or "Gilligan’s Island" without the laugh track), "Nebraska" is another one of Payne’s bittersweet humanist dramedies that inspire laughs and tears. His movies improve with age, like both Dern and Redford. As Woody travels from Billings to Lincoln on foot and then in a suburban Subaru, nothing more earth-shattering happens than that self-induced bonk on the head: no sharks, no holes in the hull, and no tempests at sea. And, yet, this broken-down Midwesterner shambling along with modest dreams and trailing emotional baggage without the benefit of rolling wheels becomes larger than life by the movie’s end. He’s as American as Mount Rushmore, a tragic figure at the center of a shaggy comedy, a good drunk that would share the last toilet paper roll on earth with a stranger, if that stranger asked nicely enough.
[Related: Bruce Dern Bags Best Actor Prize at Cannes]
In the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby," Dern’s Tom Buchanan and Redford’s Jay Gatsby fought over Mia Farrow’s Daisy, but neither man got an Oscar nomination. Redford won a Best Director statuette for "Ordinary People" in 1980 and an honorary Oscar in 2002. Dern, in contrast, received a sole nomination in 1979 for his supporting role in "Coming Home" over three decades ago. Additionally, he enters this year’s race with a high honor recognizing his achievement in a lead role that finally meets and challenges his acting talents: the Best Actor award at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival for "Nebraska."
Point: Dern, by a hair.
The winner: There are those who believe Redford is a lock for a win, but I’m betting my money on Dern to show in a crowded field that already includes a clutch of younger contenders: Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave"), Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station"), Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Forest Whitaker ("The Butler"), and even Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”). The real question is whether the market will bear two septuagenarians in a competitive field – and who won’t make the final cut?
Watch the trailer for "All is Lost"'