The vaunted Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has begun voting on who wins what at the Oscars, and if one race is still slightly clouded in mystery, it’s the one for best actor. This contest — among Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), Denzel Washington (“Fences”), Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”), Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”) and Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”) — has been an odd one to watch.
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Let’s start with the long shots. Garfield and Mortensen have always been low-probability candidates. The former had yet another great year, with acclaimed performances in both “Hacksaw Ridge” and Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” Still, he’s young, and oddsmakers have seen him as having only an outside shot at winning the Oscar. Mortensen’s role — in a quirky film presumably pitched as “‘Little Miss Sunshine’ but for preppers” — got him a seat at the table but no major awards buzz.
Gosling is in a difficult position. He’s in a film tied for the most-ever Oscar nominations but is nominated in a super competitive category. While his co-star Emma Stone’s Oscar prospects were initially similar, she managed to win some prestigious awards this season that set her apart from the pack; Gosling has a Golden Globe for best lead actor in a musical or comedy, the participation trophy of acting. An Oscars win for Gosling would be a massive surprise, and the only universe where that looks like it’s in the cards is the one with a total “La La Land” sweep: Based on odds published by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, he has the lowest odds of winning of any “La La Land” nominee.
Now we get to the real competition: Washington, who plays the lead in a film he directed, and Affleck, the gruff Bostonian who utterly transformed in the film “Manchester by the Sea” to play a dour New Englander. Washington received the top male acting honor from the Screen Actors Guild, and Affleck won just about everything else.
The numbers are pretty unambiguous here: In 18 of the past 22 years, the actor who won at SAG went on to win the Oscar. The best actor SAG award is one of the most historically predictive shows in our database of 25 years of critic and guild prizes. (Our model for tracking the main Oscar races assigns points to Academy Award nominees for nominations and awards they receive at those pre-Oscar critic and guild awards based on how predictive each is.) Last weekend’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, where Affleck won,1 has a batting average of about .500. So one contender won the one highly predictive award, and the other won a series of somewhat predictive awards. Our Oscars model — and oddsmakers — give the advantage to Affleck, but this race is close.
This contest is such a wild card partly because we have no idea whether Affleck’s PR counteroffensive is convincing academy members to consider his performance over allegations that he sexually harassed women who worked on his 2010 film “I’m Still Here.” The accusations alternately won’t stick, will sink him, should not be considered and so on. He’s denied the allegations, hasn’t been charged with anything and settled the lawsuit brought by his accusers for an undisclosed amount — and all that further muddies the waters. It’s very difficult to get a read on how this affects the performer’s chances at the Academy Awards.
Washington’s SAG win could be interpreted as a sign that the academy’s largest branch is not behind Affleck. It could also be interpreted as a sign that Washington is way more famous than Affleck, had never won a SAG Award and was overdue, and was in a very good film. Affleck’s win at the BAFTAs could be interpreted as a sign that the insiders who vote on the Oscars are comfortable voting for him. It could also be interpreted as a sign that Affleck can win, but only when he’s not competing against Denzel.
Affleck will have a lead going into Oscar night, sure, but it’s important to remember that a 40-some-odd percent chance of losing, mixed with uncertainty about voters’ perception of you, doesn’t make for a sure thing.