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Oscars 2017: Why Mahershala Ali Will Beat Jeff Bridges for Supporting Actor

Oscar voters were leaning toward Mahershala Ali, but the U.S. Muslim Ban could push the proud Muslim to a win for "Moonlight."

Mahershala Ali Moonlight

Daniel Bergeron


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As the Hollywood guilds lay out their winners, a clear frontrunner has emerged in the Supporting Actor category. We dig into the final five contenders, listed in order of likelihood to win the Oscar:

Mahershala Ali popped out at Telluride and Toronto from Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (A24) ensemble in the beating-heart role of the Cuban-born drug-dealer who nurtures the young boy “Little.” Ali stood out in part because he was better-known than the film’s other actors, enjoying a breakout year as a swath of projects hit screens.

Dauntingly, he shot three of them at the same time. In New York, he was violent New York gangster Cottonmouth on Marvel’s Netflix series “Luke Cage.” In Baltimore, he continued the fourth (and, voluntarily, his last) season of his Emmy-nominated role as Remy Danton, the slick former communications director for Frank Underwood, in “House of Cards.” And in Miami, on three successive weekends, he shot his pivotal supporting part in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” (The fourth was SAG-ensemble winner “Hidden Figures,” in which he wooed a NASA math whiz played by Taraji P. Henson.)

In “Moonlight,” Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer who takes the fatherless Little under his wing. Little lives with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and is bullied at school for being “different,” but Juan and his wife (Janelle Monáe) offer Little a place to feel safe. Juan becomes a much-needed role model, teaches Little how to swim, gives him advice about the world, and offers him acceptance and validation.

“I have had that same experience,” Ali told me, “where there are several people who have come up in my life at the right time and have made critical contributions to how I see the world and how I see myself. At that moment in time when we feel like the other, we were not the person embraced, not one of the cool kids, not in the club — when you’re that person, it makes you feel smaller, and when they persecute you as a result, that’s a difficult position to be in.

“Who is that person that comes around and says, ‘You are ok, you are worthy, you are special’? That makes all the difference in the world for many of us. Those are the people we appreciate the most.”

So far the Globe and BAFTA nominee has won the Gotham, New York, and Los Angeles film Critics, Critics Choice, and SAG awards, where he gave a moving speech identifying himself as a Muslim. While he was heading for a win anyway, that moment will only help push him over the top.

 

Jeff Bridges earned critics’ raves at Cannes for “Hell or High Water” (Lionsgate/CBS Films), which became the highest-grossing indie of 2016. Directed by David Mackenzie, the modern frontier heist thriller earned high praise partly because the story couldn’t be more timely. After the lingering effects of the mortgage crisis, brothers Tanner and Toby (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) are driven to rob several local banks to keep from losing their East Texas family ranch, chased by aging Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). These characters reflect the disenfranchised and unhappy electorate that voted for Donald Trump. And Taylor Sheridan‘s layered story digs into how and why men fail to communicate honestly with each other.

See More ‘Hell or High Water’: How David Mackenzie Shot the Indie Hit of the Year

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s a good movie for these times.'” Bridges told me. “Isn’t it always ‘these times’? We’re such a selfish species. That’s how we roll, man. Either what’s best for us personally, or our family, or our party.”

See More ‘Hell or High Water’ Music Video: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Share ‘Comancheria’ Clip

Bridges earned Critics Choice, SAG, Globe and BAFTA nominations. He is popular with the Academy; this is his seventh Oscar nomination, and he won Best Actor for “Crazy Heart” in 2010. But that may be a tad too recently for him to win again quite so soon.

 

Lucas Hedges. Emerging at Sundance was Wes Anderson discovery Hedges (“Moonrise Kingdom”) for his performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea.” As Patrick, Hedges (son of director Peter Hedges) switches on a dime from a son mourning his father (Kyle Chandler) and fighting with his uncle (Casey Affleck) to flirting with high school girls. A star is born.

Lonergan initially struggled with the script. He changed the nephew from a younger child to a teenager. “I thought the idea of a kid who’s having a very good life despite what he’s been through is interesting,” Lonergan told IndieWire. “One character is in a lot of trouble, and one has a pretty good life going. He’s a resilient, tough kid with a lot of love for his father and his family, he’s been hit hard in a lot of ways, but he’s having one of those rare good high school experiences and he doesn’t want to lose it. That’s the main conflict of the story.”

Hedges won the Critics Choice Rising Star Award, and nabbed SAG and Indie Spirit nominations as well as a BAFTA nod for Rising Star.

Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck at ‘Manchester By The Sea’ Sundance premiere.

Photo by Chelsea Lauren/REX/Shutterstock

Dev Patel. In Venice and Toronto, the “Slumdog Millionaire” star won kudos for his moving performance in “Lion,” as the adult Saroo Brierley, who doggedly pursues the family he lost at age five, using Google Earth. With support from director Garth Davis, Patel digs into his emotions in this meaty role, playing an Australian.

Co-star Nicole Kidman, who plays his Australian adoptive mother, was impressed that he nailed the accent. “It’s really tough,” she said. “He nailed it. Now he’ll be considered for just leading men. It breaks down — you don’t see Dev as an Indian man, you see him as man. As it should be.”

In the seven years since the London actor, 26, starred in “Slumdog Millionaire,” he’s often been typecast as the office computer nerd (he was Emmy-nominated for HBO’s “The Newsroom”), but also starred in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel (total: $225 million worldwide). But rich leading roles are tough to find. “The world sucks in that sense of color barriers,” said screenwriter Luke Davies, “and for Dev himself, a role like this doesn’t come along. A film like this could change everything.”

Patel was in a “puddle of tears” when he read the script, he told me. “It’s the role I’ve been yearning for. You want to show people you are versatile, but you can only go so far with the roles you’re given. I trust my instincts on film roles; it has to have a joy behind it, a real authentic triumph to it.”

So far Patel has landed Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA nominations.

 

Michael Shannon. For “Nocturnal Animals,” Academy actors went with Michael Shannon’s Texas cop Bobby Andes over his bad-ass villain co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who won a Golden Globe is a BAFTA nominee. That’s because Shannon steals the movie by bringing much-needed humor to writer-director Tom Ford’s sordid and violent kidnapping-movie-within-a-movie.

While this marks Shannon’s second supporting nomination after 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” like that film, many Oscar voters may not have seen this film.

Read more: Michael Shannon’s Career-Spanning Interview

“Nocturnal Animals”

Focus Features

Contenders:

1. Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”)
2. Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”)
3. Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”)
4. Dev Patel (“Lion”)
5. Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”)

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