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The Toronto Film Festival has just about given its last gasp, though not quite. The People’s Choice Award will be announced on the 15th. This year, like almost every year, Best Actor is packed.

From Venice/Telluride/Toronto:
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Michael B. Jordan, Just Mercy
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name

From earlier in the year:
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Adam Driver, The Report

Coming soon:
Robert De Niro, The Irishman
Daniel Kaluuya, Queen & Slim
George MacKay, 1917

Both Adam Driver and Adam Sandler have secured their place in the lineup at both Telluride and Toronto. They join a jam-packed field with way too many contenders. Every day, someone pops up with a new “so-and-so COULD WIN THIS YEAR” article. That is less so for the actresses (which we will do next), but Best Actor feels so wide open at the moment because there hasn’t been a Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour yet, i.e., those unequivocal Oscar turns that can’t be denied because of the transformation the actor has undergone. We don’t have one of those this year. Instead, it appears we have a lot of actors playing roughly their own age.

The most transformational performances I’ve seen would be Jonathan Pryce, who becomes and embodies Pope Francis, and Edward Norton, who manifests Tourette’s Syndrome (which works better for some than for others) in Motherless Brooklyn. Leonardo DiCaprio could be seen as someone who transforms himself in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with an accent and all. But has anyone gained 50 pounds or lost 50 pounds? Has anyone become unrecognizable with makeup? Well, maybe one has. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker has transformed himself the most. So does that make him the frontrunner? Not necessarily.

As we wait for this year’s inevitable shitstorm to rain down, we can see pretty well set our clocks by one of the truisms of the Oscar race: Best Actor is married to Best Picture, especially in the era of the expanded ballot. To date, Jeff Bridges is still the only Best Actor winner without a corresponding Best Picture nomination. Best Actor nominations always tend to be linked more frequently with Best Picture for nominations than Best Actress, especially in the era of the expanded ballot. As in:

2018 – 4/5
2017 – 4/5
2016 – 4/5
2015 – 2/5 (outlier)
2014 – 4/5
2013 – 5/5
2012 – 3/5
2011 – 3/5
2010 – 4/5
2009 — 2/5 (outlier – Jeff Bridges won)

The only winner since 2009 who did not turn in a transformative performance (e.g., lost weight, worked with a disability, endured tremendous physical trauma, wore makeup, etc) was Casey Affleck, who won for Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck really had no “transformational” challengers that year. The closest you got was Denzel Washington who was magnificent in Fences. But he also directed Fences, and it’s very rare for an actor to win when he’s also directing himself (only happened twice in Oscar history).

2016 feels a little like this year in that, at least so far, we don’t have an Oldman or a Day-Lewis in play. That might mean that the strength of Best Picture might carry a Best Actor hopeful through to a win, either because that film is winning Best Picture, or because it is close to winning (Manchester).

We know that since 2009, no Best Actress winner has matched with Best Picture, but by contrast, two Best Actor winners have matched Best Picture in that same period (though not since 2011). It’s rare.

It does seem like a pretty safe way to go to imagine your Best Actor winner will be in a Best Picture nominee. Once we figure out which films are going to the Big Show, we will have a better idea of whom our winner might be. Can these rules be broken? Of course they can. Nothing says history will always repeat itself.

If you’re following along, you’ll now know that if you’re thinking Joaquin Phoenix or Adam Sandler might win this year – or even Jonathan Pryce – you have to figure in their movies also getting nominated for Best Picture. But if you are just looking at nominations, it doesn’t matter as much. Adam Driver for Marriage Story (and The Report) and Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seem like pretty safe bets at this time for a Best Actor nomination.

Remember, this was true when Matthew McConaughey was up for Dallas Buyers Club, when Eddie Redmayne was up for The Theory of Everything, and when Gary Oldman was up for Darkest Hour. All of those films at the time seemed like long shot Best Picture nominees, but once they were nominated, you knew the die was cast.

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