Home Theater Oscar Best Actor Race: Bradley Cooper May Have Edge After Broadway Triumph

The Best Actor race is probably the one most talked about some 10 weeks before the Oscars. Everyone has a theory about what’s going to happen, and who’s making final cut of Five.

I do think right off the bat you’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne playing respective British math geniuses in “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything.” They are in, with Cumberbatch slightly leading Redmayne.

Then what? David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in “Selma” seems like a sure thing. But then so does Michael Keaton in “Birdman” and Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher.” All three could make it.

For a while, there was solid talk of Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year.” Oscar is thisclose to having an Academy Awards career. But I don’t think it’s with this picture. I was also very high on Bill Murray in “St. Vincent.” The movie has done very very well, and Murray is superb. But the momentum has not materialized.

One actor poses a threat to one of those three — Oyelowo, Keaton and Carell. It’s Bradley Cooper, who opened to raves last Sunday night on Broadway in “The Elephant Man.” His performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” is the real thing. I saw that  movie on Thanksgiving weekend– three weeks ago– and Cooper has not gone out of my head since that screening.

Seeing him on Broadway with the sensational Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson reaffirmed my opinion. Yes, you say that Cooper has two Oscar nominations thanks to director David O. Russell. And when he was on Broadway several years ago with Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd he was the rainmaker in “Three Days of Rain.”

A lot of people may not realize this but Bradley Cooper did study at the Actors Studio. He’s serious about his craft. As John Merrick, the Elephant Man, he twists his body and face, all the while maintaining a convincing British accent and a witty sense of humor. He has a long scene with Nivola in Act 2 that crystallizes the whole play. You walk out of the Booth Theatre and it’s almost impossible to shake John Merrick off.

Same thing for Cooper’s Chris Kyle. Kyle was basically a legit hit man for the Navy, a sniper who doesn’t just pick off obvious bad guys. Clint Eastwood’s film is deceptive. You want to dismiss it, and Kyle as a redneck who loved guns. But nothing is that simple. “American Sniper” is not a rah-rah red state tribute to guns and violence.

Eastwood peels back Kyle’s life layer by layer. On screen Kyle develops with a personal arc into a three dimensional character. Cooper, beefed up, does his best work since “Limitless.” (I’m not counting the Russell movies.) Since Kyle was a real person whom just about no one in film criticism would know or relate to, Cooper pulls off a coup. He really makes us care about this guy. And that’s the task at hand.

So far “American Sniper” — which opens Christmas Day– has had a funny ride in awards season. The National Board of Review went overboard for it. Then the Golden Globes snubbed it entirely. WTH? What does this mean? In the end, nothing. Those two groups are all about the subjective, and who owes whom what.

Don’t forget — “Sniper” is on the AFI List of Best Films of 2014. That’s the only list you should care about. I agree. It’s one of the best films of the year. Luke Grimes, who was kind of a weasel on TV in “Brothers & Sisters,” makes a huge impression supporting Cooper here. But Bradley Cooper really comes into his own this winter with “Sniper” and “Elephant Man.” This can’t be ignored. I think he’s a surprise nominee.

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