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From Bradley Cooper to Clint Eastwood: How Box Office Could Impact the Best Actor Race

This is a year when the Academy could look to honor A-list stars; with the current Best Actor contenders, there's plenty of opportunity.

Bradley Cooper, " A Star Is Born"

Bradley Cooper, ” A Star Is Born”

Warner Bros./YouTube

October sees the wide release of two studio films starring actors vying for Oscars: Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”) and Ryan Gosling (“First Man”). A win for either would fit within Academy tradition: Actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, and Russell Crowe were honored for mass-audience Oscar movies after establishing themselves as commercial successes.

But what is unusual this year is that Cooper and Gosling are just two of at least eight blockbuster veterans who could factor in the upcoming race. In fact, it’s possible all five Best Actor nominees could be actors familiar to moviegoers worldwide, and starring in films that grossed $100 million or more. At a time when the Academy is anxious about audience interest, that’s got to make Academy president John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson happy. It’s a year when many industry folks are rooting for a big studio hit to win.

Here are the major-name best actor contenders who, at a minimum, will see their companies campaign for their inclusion.

Bradley Cooper, "A Star Is Born"

Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”

Warner Bros./YouTube

Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”

Release Date: October 5
Career domestic gross (adjusted): $2.54 billion (excluding voice-only roles)
Previous nominations: Actor (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Sniper”); Supporting Actor (“American Hustle”)
Best Pictures nominees: “Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Hustle,” “American Sniper”

Cooper’s versatility and charm are reminiscent of George Clooney, a two-time Oscar winner. He has excelled in comedies, romances, a war film, dramas, and can be lead or ensemble. Now he adds a musical in which he not only stars but directed and co-wrote. It will gross about $65 million in its first week, with signs of sustained interest that could propel it as high as $200 million domestic.

If nominated, Cooper’s path to a win is complicated. Much more attention has gone to co-star Lady Gaga, and he could be nominated in multiple categories; that would create an uncertain path as to which is the best way to reward him. (James Mason and Frederic March were each nominated for their iterations of the role.) However, the Academy favors actors who move into directing, and he showcases previously unseen musical talents. And he has a hit movie that is getting strong reviews and enthusiastic older-audience response.

“First Man”

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Ryan Gosling, “First Man”

Release Date: October 12
Career domestic gross (adjusted): $887 million
Previous nominations: Actor (“Half Nelson,” “La La Land”)
Best Picture nominees: “The Big Short,” “La La Land”

Gosling’s first nomination was a dozen years ago, with “Half Nelson,” when the Canadian actor was 26. His under-$1 billion lifetime gross speaks to his aversion for franchise films and/or sequels. (The one he’s done, “Blade Runner 2049,” is an exception that proves the rule.)

“First Man” is his first portrayal of a real person. In the last decade, about a third of the nominees played real-life characters. A familiar figure like Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln can add heft. In “First Man,” Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is certainly a major historical figure, but one who shunned the spotlight; even in his prime, he was an easily identified figure.

Two previous NASA-based movies were Best Picture nominees, but neither “The Right Stuff” nor “Apollo 13” yielded Best Actor nominations (both had supporting nominations). “First Man” director Damien Chazelle’s two previous films, “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” each landed acting wins (supporting actor and actress, respectively).

Gosling has the asset of being a serious-minded actor with an active fan base (particularly driven by “The Notebook” early in his career). His model seems to be Leonardo DiCaprio, though without a breakout smash like “Titanic.” However, it took 22 years and five nominations before DiCaprio finally won.

Expected to open to over $20 million, that could make it no better than #4 this weekend, behind “Venom,” “A Star Is Born,” and possibly “Goosebumps 2.” Its key is to hold steady over a period of weeks, which would help its chances in multiple categories. Its appeal to Academy-member sensibilities won’t hurt, either.

L to R: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in GREEN BOOK

“Green Book”

Universal Pictures

Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”

Release Date: November 21
Career domestic gross (adjusted): $2.515 billion
Previous nominations: Actor (“Eastern Promises,” “Captain Fantastic”)
Best Picture nominees: “Witness,” “LOTR: “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “LOTR: “The Two Towers”
Best Picture winner: “LOTR: “The Return of the King”

It’s sort of a cheat to include Mortensen. His ensemble role in Peter Jackson’s epic didn’t get him the acclaim of, say, Ian McKellan, and came after a career of mostly major supporting roles. “Hidalgo” in 2004, post-trilogy, is his one top-billed performance in a movie that (adjusted) reached $100 million.

Other than the LOTR trilogy, he has eschewed sequels and other big-budget titles, favoring smaller-scale films. These include three directed by David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence” the highest grossing). But his nomination in 2016 for the modest “Captain Fantastic” shows that his work gets notice.

“Green Book,” which won the Audience Prize at Toronto last month, is considered one of the top Best Picture contenders. Its story inverts “Driving Miss Daisy” with Mortensen as a New York bouncer working as a chauffeur for an African-American classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) in the 1960s South.

Universal has enough faith in the film to give it an initially wide release just prior to Thanksgiving. That’s prime theater real estate, which will also position it for maximum attention just as key awards groups ponder their choices.

It success will depend on part on how much Mortensen’s acclaimed performance resonates with audiences. This is a greater leap of faith than most of the other stars listed here. But “Driving Miss Daisy” grossed the equivalent of $234 million in 1990 (in an era when studio films dominated the Oscars and general audiences flocked to prime contenders).

Christian Bale, "Vice"

Christian Bale, “Vice”

Greig Fraser/Annapurna Pictures

Christian Bale, “Vice”

Release Date: 12/25
Career domestic gross (adjusted): $2.971 billion
Previous nominations: Actor (“American Hustle”), Supporting Actor (“The Big Short”)
Previous win: Supporting Actor (“The Fighter”)
Best Picture nominees: “The Fighter,” “American Hustle,” “The Big Short”

He’s three for three in being nominated for his films that made it into the Best Picture category. As yet unseen is “Vice,” with Bale as Dick Cheney in a $60-million period film directed and written by Adam McKay (“The Big Short”). But its already strong pedigree has been enhanced by this week’s release of a film still featuring a nearly unrecognizable Bale as Cheney.

Leaving aside Academy-friendly politics, this role is catnip for acting Oscars. Bale is a latter-day Robert De Niro in his physical transformations, often an Academy draw, and a feature of his role here. Slated as a wide release on a prime date, it suggests Annapurna has faith in reviews as well as audience appeal.

His three Christopher Nolan-directed “Batman” titles skew his total gross, accounting for about half the take. However, “American Hustle” and “The Fighter” both ended up over $100 million (adjusted), and “The Big Short” was strong for a film about intricate financial misdeeds. Still, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was an expensive dud, while “Hostiles” earlier this year managed about $30 million. That’s not bad for a Western with mildly favorable reviews and Bale its main draw (the film opened for a week late in 2017 for awards qualifying, which came up empty).

TimothŽe Chalamet as Nic Sheff and Steve Carell as David Scheff star in BEAUTIFUL BOY

“Beautiful Boy”

Francois Duhamel

Steve Carell, “Beautiful Boy”

Release Date: October 12
Career domestic gross (adjusted): $1.809 billion (excluding voice-only roles)
Previous nominations: Best Actor (“Foxcatcher”)
Best Picture nominees: “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Big Short”

Outside his regular efforts in animated titles (particularly the “Despicable Me” films), Carell has charted a course of more independent work since “Anchorman 2” five years ago. It’s been uneven: Despite weeks of awards play, “Foxcatcher” only achieved a modest $13 million, about the same as his more widely played “Battle of the Sexes” last year. And Amazon, also releasing “Beautiful Boy,” couldn’t get “Last Flag Flying” to even a million last year.

“Boy” pairs Carell with last year’s Best Actor nominee Timothee Chalamet as a father struggling with his son’s addiction. It will go into platform release and is likely go wide.

In most years, a performance like Carell’s might leap to the forefront. This year, the competition may drown out Carell’s quieter but strong work.

Hugh Jackman in “The Front Runner”

Hugh Jackman, “The Front Runner”

Release Date: November 7
Career domestic gross (adjusted): $3.117 billion (excluding voiceover roles)
Best Picture nominee: “Les Miserables”

Jackman portrays U.S. Senator Gary Hart in Jason Reitman’s latest film. Positioned with prime festival showings at Telluride and Toronto, and opening as an initial platform release, Jackman might qualify as a default nominee. That’s particularly true after the stunning success of “The Greatest Showman” last year, which opened Christmas week and wasn’t on the radar of Academy prognosticators. “The Front Runner” is his first film since. Its early November date is meant to reactivate initial (and somewhat lukewarm) festival notice, with a spotlight on Jackman’s performance likely its most marketable aspects.

Robert Redford as "Forrest Tucker" in the film THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“The Old Man & the Gun”

Photo by Eric Zachanowich

Robert Redford, “The Old Man and the Gun”

Release date: September 28
Career domestic gross (adjusted): Over $5 billion
Previous nominations: Actor (“The Sting”), Picture (“Quiz Show”)
Previous wins: Director (“Ordinary People”), 2001 Honorary Award
Best Picture nominees: “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “All the President’s Men”
Best Picture winner: “Out of Africa”

Five years ago, Redford was considered a near lock for “All Is Lost,” but he wasn’t nominated. This year, with a suggestion that this might be his final film role and Fox Searchlight behind him, Redford is contending again with “The Old Man and the Gun.” Playing a clearly elderly character for the first time (in a true story about a veteran bank robber), it is in limited release.

In most years, this might be an easy route to a nomination. This year, the path is trickier, and more so since Redford (who spends little time in Los Angeles or mixing with the Academy crowd) is unlikely to spend much time campaigning.

"The Mule"

“The Mule”

Warner Bros./YouTube

Clint Eastwood, “The Mule”

Release Date: December 14
Career domestic gross (adjusted): Over $5 billion (for films in which he appeared)
Previous nominations: Actor (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”), Picture (“Mystic River,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “American Sniper”), Director: (“Mystic River”)
Previous wins: Best Picture (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”), Director (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”), Irving Thalberg Award

Few people would consider Eastwood an overlooked Oscar contender. But as someone who is 88 and whose film career began the year Elvis Presley broke out, he still has one award goal left — a Best Actor Oscar.

In his first leading role since “Gran Torino,” he plays a 90-year-old man who becomes an unlikely drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Like Redford’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” it’s a true-life crime story.

As a director, films like “American Sniper” and “Sully” show he still has commercial appeal. But it has been a controversial decade for him politically, the film is a late-year release, and SAG-AFTRA notably has yet to give him its Lifetime Achievement award. But with the trailer now out and receiving rave reviews, there are expectations of a bravura, crusty, energetic — again, perhaps last — performance.

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