In a race as tight as the one this year for Best Actress and particularly Best Actor, there were many deserving performances that might have made the cut in any other year but were overlooked because of intense competition. As far as lead acting categories go, this year is one of the most fiercely fought in recent Oscar history. So what was it about the 10 nominated performances in the top two acting categories that sealed the deal with Academy voters? Here’s a look at why they made it to the golden circle.
Bradley Cooper | Silver Linings Playbook
Coming into the project just shortly before production began, Cooper proves a shrewd choice to play Pat Jr., a volatile man just released from an institution, in denial about his dead marriage, and just trying to put his life back together. Mark Wahlberg was cast in the part originally, but after he dropped out, Cooper got the role and ran with it. It’s a delicate balance of comedy and drama that Cooper must navigate, and he creates a wholly original and likable character, a neat trick considering Pat Jr. isn’t always sympathetic. Coming off popcorn movies like The Hangover and The A Team, Cooper finally shows his true acting chops, and his scenes opposite Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence prove he is a talent to be reckoned with. Watching him and Lawrence go toe to toe in the dance competition is worth the price of admission alone. Seeing him try to explain his reaction to a Hemingway novel while his parents try to sleep might be the comic scene of the year.
Daniel Day-Lewis | Lincoln
If ever there were a match made in heaven between actor and role it has to be Day-Lewis channeling Abraham Lincoln at a key moment in his presidency. Many actors have tackled Lincoln before with great success, but the reason Day-Lewis is likely to become the first actor to win three best actor Oscar statuettes, and the first to win for playing a president, is because he shows a complex, human side to the man we only thought we knew. His risk-taking acting choices—including creating a voice for Lincoln, which no other actor has dared attempt—make this more than just the usual standard biopic performance, one that definitely is not an impersonation but a full-bodied three-dimensional Abe for the ages.
Hugh Jackman | Les Misérables
Audiences have been waiting a long time for triple-threat performer Jackman to get his first shot at a big movie-musical. If the man were in his prime in Hollywood’s golden age, when musicals were the norm, he probably would have made 10 or 20 of them. His extraordinary turn as Jean Valjean in this iconic musical, though, was worth the wait. It’s a role that required a 2 ½-octave range in which he had to sing live, a revolutionary idea for a movie-musical that has almost never been attempted onscreen. Jackman gets to the essence of the man with an emotional power he has rarely shown in his other roles. Jackman and Jean are an irresistible pairing, and if he can get past the Lincoln juggernaut, he could become the first actor since Rex Harrison in 1964 to win this prize for a full-on musical role. And how ironic it is that Harrison was the last actor in a major musical who himself attempted live singing on film? A good omen, perhaps?
Joaquin Phoenix | The Master
Almost from the moment The Master started screening, it seemed inevitable Phoenix would be among the year’s best actor nominees, in spite of his early comments about disdain for the Oscar race itself. In a risky performance that recalls the best of Marlon Brando or Al Pacino, Phoenix nails it in a riveting turn as a man searching for answers in a post-World War II America. His scenes opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader trying to lure him in are about as electrifying as screen acting gets these days. However, the Paul Thomas Anderson movie itself has polarized audiences and received its only three nominations in the acting categories, which will make it hard for Phoenix to prevail in the end. If he does, that extraordinary one-on-one encounter with Hoffman at the movie’s end will be the reason.
Denzel Washington | Flight
As an alcoholic, drug-addicted airline pilot who has to summon every ounce of courage and skill he has to crash-land a plane while intoxicated, Washington has one of the stellar roles of his career. As Whip Whitaker, an enormously talented pilot but a man battling his own demons, Washington shows the dark side of an alcoholic that the screen has rarely seen. His character is so despicable and helpless that it makes it especially impressive that some audience members are even rooting for him to get away with it. Washington says he turned to YouTube to study what many drunks are like and incorporated that into his research. Whatever he did pays off in director Robert Zemeckis’ gritty adult drama that has earned this two-time Oscar winner his sixth nomination.
Jessica Chastain | Zero Dark Thirty
Nabbing what has the be the premiere, grittiest, gutsiest, take-no-prisoners female role of the year as a CIA agent who methodically tracks down Osama bin Laden’s hiding place, Chastain continues her remarkable rise to the top tier of film actors. Essaying a role about a woman who is not beholden to a man in any way, personally or professionally, Chastain dominates the film with an impressive mix of toughness, cunning, self-doubt, anger, and power. The moment in which she reveals she is the “motherf—-r” who tracked down bin Laden is priceless, perhaps the most satisfying line of the year. After watching most of her recent films sit on the shelf until suddenly being released one after another last year and nabbing her first Oscar nom in the supporting cast of The Help, Chastain proves she is the real deal as a leading player in Zero Dark, with a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award already on her mantel with obviously more to come.
Jennifer Lawrence | Silver Linings Playbook
As Tiffany, a tough but endearing young widow who wears armor on the outside but is trying to put the pieces of her life back together with the help of Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), Lawrence at age 22 pretty much shocked the industry with an all-knowing and richly rewarding performance that can be compared to Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik in The Apartment or even Cher’s Oscar-winning turn in Moonstruck. Like those actors, she walks the fine line between comedy and drama, delivering a flesh-and-blood, flawed human being we want to root for. In a role designed for an older actress, Lawrence proves she can probably do it all, and her best actress nomination for Winter’s Bone two years ago was definitely not a fluke. If there is a silver lining at all in this year’s Oscar race, it’s that Jennifer Lawrence is a keeper, one to watch for decades to come.
Emmanuelle Riva | Amour
At 85, she is the oldest best actress nominee ever, and in fact, turns 86 on Oscar day, Feb. 24. It would be a nice birthday gift to give this veteran French actress that statuette—and she could get it, even though the film is foreign and in French, and those aren’t usually easy things to overcome. As a wife finding her health failing and the end of her life nearing, Riva is heartbreaking but never drifting into sentiment as she deals with the nightmare of aging, leaving her husband, brilliantly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, to care for her when all she wants is to keep her dignity as life fades away. It was easy to see that this star, previously best known for 1960’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (there’s that word again), would be nominated. Nearly every actor’s branch member I talked to mentioned her name first when I asked who their favorite was. The role—and the player—touched many in a story that hits very close to home.
Quvenzhané Wallis | Beasts of the Southern Wild
At just 9 years old, Wallis is the opposite of Emmanuelle Riva, the youngest best actress Oscar nominee in history. And in truth, she was a total nonprofessional 6-year-old when she tore up the screen as Hushpuppy, a determined girl who must face nature’s cruel ways while trying to keep her life together in the most primitive part of the Delta. It’s about as fierce and nuanced a performance you will see from an actress at any age, never mind a child. Kids are often taken for granted and overlooked in the big Oscar categories, with voters thinking the director might have used a bag of tricks to get the goods. This was a performance that simply couldn’t be ignored.
Naomi Watts | The Impossible
Playing the real-life survivor of the disastrous 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Watts had what she admits is the toughest, most daunting role of her career playing Maria Belon, who struggles to survive and bring her family back together after the waves hit their hotel and separate them. From a physical sense, there are few actresses who have ever had to endure more, and Watts spent the better part of a month being battered around in a water tank to demonstrate her character’s sheer will to live. But physical challenges aside, what makes Watts so effective here is also the essence of great screen acting. She plays it with her eyes, those soulful eyes that tell us so much about what she is going through and who she is. Watts is the sole nominee for this extraordinary film, so she might have an uphill climb, but if voters watch it, she could be the big surprise on Oscar night.