Thursday, February 2, 2017

Theory Thursday: Denzel Washington is Winning the Best Actor Oscar for "Fences"

Denzel Washington as SAG Awards
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Denzel Washington wins Best Actor at SAG Awards
Theory: Denzel Washington will win Best Actor at Oscars for Fences.

It has been a pretty predictable awards season. By this point, everyone has marked La La Land down as the Best Picture front runner to beat. No film will likely come close - even with an impressive line-up of films more than worthy of attention. One can go down the line of every last category and find some consistency with awards season. In fact, Emma Stone probably will win Best Actress for La La Land. Viola Davis will win Best Supporting Actress for Fences. There's even the ongoing belief that Mahershala Ali will win Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight. It's a pretty solid group that more than suggests that along with this being one of the most diverse pools of nominees in recent years, the winners will also reflect this as well. 

However, I want to discuss the Best Actor category for a minute. For the past few months, the word has been that Casey Affleck has the Best Actor statue on lock for Manchester By the Sea. I am on that bandwagon and find that the performance is phenomenal. I am proud of his winning streak amid controversies. However, as the awards season continued I became baffled by the belief that he was going to go all of the way. His performance is to portray a manic depressive who is very insular and vapid outwardly. Don't get me wrong. This performance is great. I just think that maybe, just maybe, this is one of those cases in line with Chiwetel Ejiofor's Best Actor nomination for 12 Years a Slave a few years back. He was, in my belief, the best of the bunch. However, the award went to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. Why? It was showy. 

Affleck's performance is far from showy. At best you could admire how he delivers sadness and humor. It's possibly a career best for the actor, but it isn't showy. As much as I want to believe that thespian acting surpasses showy acting, The Oscars don't tend to think that way. Nuance is good, but being able to deliver a memorable, sometimes over the top, scene is best for your awards chances. To go back to McConaughey; he notoriously lost weight and convinced everyone that he was a serious actor. That is showy. So was last year's Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant - of whom had an insufferable campaign story about how he suffered for his art. The only one who has gotten away with this in recent years was Daniel Day-Lewis for his Best Actor win in Lincoln - though even then that was in part because the knowledge of his acting style is very showy during the campaign season.

So if not Affleck, who? To be totally honest, this theory is drenched in an opinion that goes against my own opinion. Affleck is my favorite of the five. Yet I came out of Fences a month ago and had a revelation that should be pretty obvious: it was showy. While I have heard the Davis bandwagon for awhile now, I was surprised with how showy Washington's performance was (admittedly, I don't know the stage show). I wondered why he was losing everything to an insular performance. Even the buzz around Best Actress nominee Natalie Portman (Jackie) was fading once Emma Stone sung and dance her way to the front line in La La Land. The Oscars award showiness, and I have been convinced that this will be an upset year. As it stands, the SAG Awards were the first sign of my theory holding any weight.

A fun awards season is one where everything isn't identical. This may very well be the case, as I find that there's too much of a bad reputation going along with Affleck. For starters, his public persona is taking a hit due to sexual harassment allegations; a move that notoriously derailed The Birth of a Nation's Oscar chances before they started. With Constance Wu bringing it up within days of his Oscar nomination, it does seem like there's intent to shift the tide. The one upside is that Affleck has won almost everything this season, giving him an overall edge. However, it does seem like the next hurdle will be asking the Academy voters to overlook the harassment accusations and give him the award. I for one am in the camp of "separate the art from the artist," but can understand this particular issue being pretty damaging. Add in that it's a depressing film and sad things aren't cool right now, maybe he has more of an uphill battle there as well.

Manchester By the Sea also has one added detriment to the public eye. Since before it was nominated, the complaint has been that it's a "sad white man movie." It is true that this is an epidemic that is at times silly, but I think the context works beautifully within the film. I can only imagine that The Academy want diversity, and that means that they're paying more attention to Moonlight, Hidden Figures, or Fences. There's already an asinine backlash against La La Land for not only being too positive, but being an overwhelmingly white person movie. People have been accused of being racist for loving the movie. It's all unfounded other than people want to see diversity more than what they're getting. As it stands, the sole acting win for Stone may be seen as awkward amid a sea of mostly black winners.

I know that I am largely talking about Manchester By the Sea in a piece about why Fences will win both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, but I feel it is to provide context. There is a hurdle developing against Affleck, and La La Land for that matter, that is suggesting unfortunate timing. Again, the racial politics game is too thorny to get into here. However, it does feel strategic in getting Washington into the lead. The only other major contender of the five Best Actor nominees is Ryan Gosling for La La Land, who was great but may seem like an ineffectual performance compared to Affleck and Washington. Again, showiness is key, and what's more surprising is Affleck ranks near the bottom on that list.

To be honest, Washington is great in Fences. I wouldn't doubt that it gets him more acclaim before Oscar Sunday. I think the narrative is shifting that way, and feel like it may even intentionally be setting up a historical moment in which a black actor has won three Oscars. Of all people, Washington more than deserves it. I even think Fences is good enough to not warrant favoritism. Then again, this may go against him since the idea of awarding a veteran is a tad redundant. Still, nobody who sees Fences can't admit that they saw some charismatic acting, packed with memorable moments that stick with the viewer. Affleck has that too, but it feels more difficult to recall out of context, especially since Manchester By the Sea's strong suit is sporadic riffing. 

I'm sure that this may seem like a bold prediction, and one not totally founded in hard evidence. With that said, it's something that I believe will happen for a variety of reasons ranging from showiness to racial politics. The SAG Awards was what I needed to come forward with my opinion to see what everyone else thinks. I think it makes sense, especially since I feel like Manchester By the Sea has faded in conversation largely compared to Fences and La La Land. That is, unless I am missing the threat of Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Dev Patel (Lion), or Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic). If I am, I would love to know why they're the secret front runner. For now, let's just accept that this is one of the few wrenches in the gears of the awards season, and it's kinda fun to think of what's to come.

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