When it comes to Oscars and "sure things," the 6,000-plus Academy voters have had a nasty habit of surprising us in recent years. Remember last year when everyone just knew that Brokeback Mountain had the Best Picture award signed, sealed, and hog-tied? Didn't happen. Crash walked away with that prize. And how many times has Martin Scorsese been tagged to be lugging that 8½-pound goldfella to the after-parties? It has been 26 years since his brilliant Raging Bull somehow managed to lose out to the stupefyingly ordinary Ordinary People, and he has been overlooked five other times since.
This time, maybe, the Academy will get it right and give Scorsese the Best Director statue. The buzz (for what that's worth) is that he's the favorite, mostly because the voters think he's due even if The Departed may not be his finest work. (Others like Clint Eastwood for his Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima or Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu for Babel.)
What I'm really hoping, though, is that Academy voters, who by now have sent their ballots in, haven't turned their backs on Forest Whitaker, an all but certain winner on Feb. 25. Whitaker, 45, is probably the finest little-known actor of his generation, though that could be changing. He has already walked away with a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild trophy for his mesmerizing role as Idi Amin in the small-budget The Last King of Scotland.
Working His Way Up
Academy members, please tell me you haven't screwed this one up. Here's a guy who has toiled for years in lesser roles in TV and film. His long list of TV credits includes multiple guest appearances on E.R. and The Shield—and even a small part in a 1985 episode of Diff'rent Strokes.
He's had his share of movie gigs as well, often as the good-natured sidekick in flicks like Good Morning, Vietnam. He played a samurai-influenced hit man in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and in The Crying Game he was the soldier whose murder set the plot in motion.
Clearly, the guy who got his start in 1982 portraying a football player in Fast Times at Ridgemont High has paid his dues. But nothing in Whitaker's long list of credits prepares you for his intense portrayal of the alternatively messianic and mad Ugandan strong man in The Last King of Scotland. His eyes pierce the screen, his anger shakes you to your knees. And when Amin turns on the British-born medical advisor he has befriended, the evil that Whitaker projects is simply chilling.
This is not the time for the Academy to play games by handing out happy awards to a guy they like, or to one who should have gotten it before, or to an actor who may be getting on in years. I'm a big fan of Will Smith, who is immensely versatile and hugely talented, but his latest attempt at drama with the well-intentioned The Pursuit of Happyness simply didn't force him to stretch the way Whitaker did. And Leonardo DiCaprio, who clearly comes of age in the action drama Blood Diamond, has done better work—including in 2004's The Aviator, for which he justifiably lost out to Jamie Foxx (Ray). At 32, DiCaprio will have his chance again. Yes, Peter O'Toole (Venus) should have won an award by now, and at 74 he may not have many more chances, but that's not justification for stiffing Whitaker. Ryan Gosling's nomination for the little-known Half Nelson was surprise enough.
Rewarding Whitaker would be the ultimate recognition of an actor who has worked his way up through the muck of auditions and callbacks, never earning a giant salary. Heck, the entire budget for The Last King of Scotland was a mere $6 million. Compare that to the $28 million Smith made to battle human-destroying robots in I, Robot.
Of course, I've been fooled and surprised by the Academy before. And hey, I'm just a guy who sits at home and watches far too many movies. Then again, maybe they finally lifted their heads up from their Cobb salads and plates of sushi and pondered the kind of work the movie gods are supposed to reward. Good acting does matter. It's even fine with me if they give Martin Scorsese the award they probably shouldn't have stiffed him on so many years back. Let's just hope they didn't create another injustice this year by stiffing Forest Whitaker.