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The virtues of 'Vice' shine in Oscar acting categories

The virtues of 'Vice' shine in Oscar acting categories
Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney in "Vice." (Annapurna Pictures)

Adam McKay’s last movie, the blistering broadside “The Big Short,” earned five Oscar nominations, including best picture, adapted screenplay (for which it won) and a supporting nod for Christian Bale’s turn as a socially awkward money manager who anticipates the 2008 global economic collapse.

Bale is back in McKay’s follow-up, “Vice,” a scathing look at the life of Dick Cheney and the sobering consequences of his actions as the most powerful vice president in U.S. history, as well as the American indifference that enabled the damage to occur.

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“It’s a crazy idea, isn’t it?,” Bale said of his casting at a Q&A following the first public screening of the film just before Thanksgiving. “It seems like a typo to say Christian Bale as Dick Cheney.”

It’s no typo and, sure, the makeup and 40-pound weight gain helped, but Bale’s work as the shrewd Cheney is bone-deep. I’d give him the Oscar just for being willing to go spelunking for the better part of a year into the dark recesses of this political schemer’s head space.

So, yes, put Bale at the head of the pack for lead actor. Here’s how all the Oscar acting races are shaping up at this early date.

LEAD ACTOR

Christian Bale, “Vice”

Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”

Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”

Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”

On the cusp: Ryan Gosling, “First Man”; Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”

In the mix: Lucas Hedges, “Boy Erased”; Robert Redford, “The Old Man & the Gun”; John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”; Steve Carell, “Beautiful Boy”; Hugh Jackman, “The Front Runner”; Stephan James, “If Beale Street Could Talk”; Ben Foster, “Leave No Trace”

Not yet seen: Clint Eastwood, “The Mule”

Analysis: Hawke has four Oscar nominations — two as a supporting actor (“Boyhood” and “Training Day”) and two for his writing contributions to “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” His deeply committed turn as the lost, tormented priest in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” should place him in the lead category for the first time in his lengthy career. Hawke already has momentum: He won a Gotham award in late November. Expect a cavalcade of critics prizes in coming weeks.

Lady Gaga is a lead actress contender for "A Star Is Born."
Lady Gaga is a lead actress contender for "A Star Is Born." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

LEAD ACTRESS

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Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”

Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”

Glenn Close, “The Wife”

Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”

On the cusp: Viola Davis, “Widows”; Emily Blunt, “Mary Poppins Returns”; Julia Roberts, “Ben Is Back”; Nicole Kidman, “Destroyer”

In the mix: Toni Collette, “Hereditary”; Saoirse Ronan, “Mary Queen of Scots”; Joanna Kulig, “Cold War”; Elsie Fisher, “Eighth Grade”; Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Kindergarten Teacher”; Rosamund Pike, “A Private War”; KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Analysis: Gaga and Colman feel inevitable, and probably Close too, though the passion for “The Wife” doesn’t feel strong enough to give the six-time nominee her long-overdue Oscar.

This is another year in which the women outshine the men, meaning there are far too many worthy performances to fit in this category. That means, as always, the story behind the performance is almost as important as the work. Nobody has a better tale than Aparicio, an unknown who had never acted and ended up carrying Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” with a graceful, almost silent performance. With the academy adding so many international members the past three years, a nomination for this newcomer isn’t as much of a stretch as it might have previously been.

Sam Elliott has been winning strong reviews for "A Star Is Born."
Sam Elliott has been winning strong reviews for "A Star Is Born." (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born”

Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”

Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”

Timothée Chalamet, “Beautiful Boy”

On the cusp: Sam Rockwell, “Vice”; Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”; Steve Carell, “Vice”

In the mix: Daniel Kaluuya, “Widows”; Russell Hornsby, “The Hate U Give”; Brian Tyree Henry, “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Widows”; Jonathan Pryce, “The Wife”; Hugh Grant, “Paddington 2”

Analysis: How many scenes do you need to earn a nomination this year? Henry pretty much has just one in “Beale Street,” but it’s a beaut, a 10-minute kitchen-table conversation between two men (Henry and lead Stephan James) about the corrosive, crippling effects of incarceration and a life controlled by oppressors and not one’s own self-determination.

But Henry is up against several actors with much larger roles. Ali, Chalamet, Grant and, to a lesser extent, Jordan function as co-leads (or, at least 1B to 1A) in their respective films. Driver does too in “BlacKkKlansman,” playing a Jewish detective forced to think about his identity while investigating the Klan. I don’t think the category would be complete without him, though you could say that about several of the actors here.

Three-time Emmy winner Regina King might earn her first Oscar nomination for "If Beale Street Could Talk."
Three-time Emmy winner Regina King might earn her first Oscar nomination for "If Beale Street Could Talk." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Amy Adams, “Vice”

Emma Stone, “The Favourite”

Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”

Nicole Kidman, “Boy Erased”

On the cusp: Claire Foy, “First Man”; Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians”

In the mix: Marina de Tavira, “Roma”; Elizabeth Debicki, “Widows”; Margot Robbie, “Mary Queen of Scots”; Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”; Thomasin McKenzie, “Leave No Trace”; Natalie Portman, “Vox Lux”

Analysis: It would be a welcome surprise to see voters recognize Yeoh’s work as the protective mother in “Crazy Rich Asians,” a commanding performance laced with a heartbreaking vulnerability. The film would have been a shoo-in nominee for the academy’s scrapped best popular film category. Nominating the deserving Yeoh would be a terrific way to honor it.

For “The Favourite,” Fox Searchlight is campaigning Colman in lead and Stone and Weisz in supporting, though their categories could easily be flipped. The strategy makes sense. The last time two women from the same film were nominated in lead came in 1992 with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon for “Thelma and Louise.” (Both characters’ names are in the title, for crying out loud.)

Since then, there have been nine occasions when one movie boasted two supporting actress nominees, the last being Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer for “The Help” in 2012. (Spencer won.) Expect that number to roll over to 10 this year with Stone and Weisz.

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