Only a few years ago, John Hawkes was one of Hollywood's best kept secrets. He'd been acting for decades, and cropped up in dozens of big film and TV projects, but at best was simply one of those "Hey, it's that guy!" character actors. But the mid-'00s saw him edge towards center stage with a lead role in Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know," and as a regular on "Deadwood," and 2010 saw him finally make an indelible mark, as the terrier-like Teardrop in "Winter's Bone," which saw him pick up a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Two years on, he could be heading back, touted for a Best Actor nomination for "The Sessions," which premiered at Sundance in January. The film started rolling out limited release last week, and anyone taking a look will know that Hawkes' performance is the real deal. The part of paralyzed poet Mark O'Brien, who sets out to lose his virginity in his late 30s, might seem Oscar bait-y on the surface, but Hawkes elevates it, becoming vulnerable and snappy and, hell, even a little sexy, all without moving anything below the neck.
Barring a real shock, Hawkes will be a Best Actor nominee. But can he win it? The performance is certainly deserving, but Hawkes faces some very tough competition. We've looked at the acting categories so far — Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress — and all are far from sewn up, but none look to be as fiercely competitive as the leading men.
Hawkes' strongest competition will likely come from two sources — Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis. The former's been getting once-in-a-lifetime reviews for Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," even as the film's Oscar chances start to drop off, while the latter, already a two-time winner, is embodying Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg, and as such has been pencilled into the category since before filming began.
But both do have their potential downsides today. Phoenix is undoubtedly astonishing, and looked like the front-runner, but voters may be given pause after he dismissed the awards circuit as "the stupidest thing in the whole world." He's not wrong but, while people like Marlon Brando and Luis Bunuel have dissed the Academy and still taken home the gold, it could end up giving voters a reason to vote for a performance that's more in their usual wheelhouse. Phoenix is still basically a lock for a nomination, but as with Mickey Rourke a few years back, it could end up making the crucial difference when it comes to the win. As for Day-Lewis, we've talked in depth about some of the hurdles before, and while reviews have been strong, they're not quite the hosannas that greeted his last Oscar-winner, "There Will Be Blood," with Tommy Lee Jones garnering the bulk of the praise for the film's performances (and looking like a good bet to win in Supporting Actor).
Of course it's far from a three-horse race, with multiple actors chasing nominations, and even the win. Last weekend saw "Flight" screen, and while the film got solid but far from ecstatic notices, lead Denzel Washington is picking up his best reviews in a decade for his performance, and given his star-wattage, he's a good bet for a nomination (although we wonder about a win). Bradley Cooper's turn in "Silver Linings Playbook" also wowed punters at TIFF, and while there's no prosthetics or disability (other than mental), his is a big, broad, crowd-pleasing turn. He will certainly be slotting into the final five.
And then there are the unknown quantities. Most imminent is Anthony Hopkins in "Hitchcock," which Fox Searchlight moved into 2012 seemingly mostly in the hopes of competing for acting awards. Hopkins has already won once, but hasn't been nominated in twenty years, so may be seen as due, plus he has the advantage of using prosthetics to play a beloved Hollywood figure (who never won an Oscar himself, bar an honorary one). With all that in mind, he's looking good for a nomination, but we're not convinced from the trailer that it'll be substantial enough. We'll discover how it turns out when it premieres at AFI Fest at the end of the month.
Also a potential threat is Hugh Jackman, the only actor in "Les Miserables" to compete as a lead. Jackman's a favorite thanks to his hosting job at the awards, but has never been nominated, and he's got a doozy of a role here, which spans decades, and gives him the opportunity to showcase his stage musical talents on the big screen for the first time. We won't know until December about the quality of the film, but he's another wild card that could come into play in a big way. Also yet to be revealed are Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained" and Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit," but the genre nature of those films is likely to put voters off, while Matt Damon in "Promised Land" could be a potential too, though it will have to be a truly big surprise to prevent from falling between the cracks.
Of the films we have seen, while Hollywood seems to adore "Argo," we think Ben Affleck's more likely to be recognized for his directing work on the film — he's very good in the lead role, but it's an unshowy performance. Jean-Louis Trintignant might have a better shout for "Amour," but again, his part is less demonstrative than co-star Emanuelle Riva. Suraj Sharma has a little buzz for "Life Of Pi," but probably not enough, unless the film becomes a phenomenon, while Warners will mount a campaign for Tom Hanks in "Cloud Atlas." We're still doubtful that the film will be taken to the hearts of the Academy, given its divisive reviews, but in theory we could see actors (the largest branch) responding to the multi-role nature of the film, and Hanks is beloved enough that he might well end up in the mix.
Bill Murray's early buzz for "Hyde Park On Hudson" faded away pretty fast when the film got poor notices (as with Clint Eastwood and "Trouble With The Curve"), but Richard Gere in "Arbitrage" is building up some steam, and if other performers falter, he could end up with a Richard Jenkins/Demian Bichir-type nomination, and Jack Black is in a similar position for the well-liked "Bernie." If the SAG end up going with one of them, it could give them an all-important boost into the final five. Finally, Jake Gyllenhaal and Liam Neeson are getting campaigns from Open Road for "End Of Watch" and "The Grey," but neither are likely to be wildly successful.
So all in all, it's going to be a tight, tough race both for a nomination and a win, but Hawkes could well end up being one to watch for the victory when the time comes. If we had to pick five contenders right now…
Daniel Day-Lewis – "Lincoln"
John Hawkes – "The Sessions"
Bradley Cooper – "Silver Linings Playbook"
Joaquin Phoenix – "The Master"
Denzel Washington – "Flight"