The Early Gems: Actors, Daniel Day-Lewis, etc.

Last week, we started to warm up for the Oscars by taking a look at "The Early Gems" -- some of the best of the early roles (or most interesting/notable) of the supporting actor and supporting actress nominees, and the early films of the directing nominees. Now that the long weekend's finally over, we're continuing right where we left off, with a look at some early highlights from this year's crop of Best Actor nominees.

It's a pretty starry line up in the category this time around; two previous winners, a brace of bona-fide A-listers, and some of the most acclaimed actors of their generation. The result on Sunday might be almost pre-ordained (any result bar Daniel Day-Lewis would be hugely surprising), but it's an enormously talented bunch, as is demonstrated by the five performances from early in their careers below. Let us know your own favorites from the quintet, and come back tomorrow for our look at the best actress line-up.

Wedding Crashers Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper - "Wedding Crashers"
Most of the competition in this category -- even a first-time nominee like Hugh Jackman -- are pretty well established, but Bradley Cooper is the notable for only just having cemented his dramatic bona-fides with "Silver Linings Playbook." We've liked Cooper in the past, certainly, but his choices hadn't always been especially impressive, and his performances sometimes disappointing, his true potential shown mainly with his TV parts in "Alias" and the little-seen "Kitchen Confidential." But Cooper had shown the slightly unhinged comic talents he displays in David O. Russell's film somewhat earlier, albeit in broader form, in David Dobkin's "Wedding Crashers." The actor plays the villain of the piece, Rachel McAdams's character's boyfriend, a deeply loathsome, ambitious, philandering douchebag who makes it his mission to destroy Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn's titular crashers, particularly when he realizes Wilson has set his heart on McAdams. It's not a particularly nuanced turn (and owes a little to his first notable screen role in "Wet Hot American Summer"), but Cooper, in a wholehearted departure from his sweet, hopeless-in-unrequited-love character in "Alias," goes all out. Tackling Vaughn, shooting him in the ass, wearing a rugby shirt, being called Sack; there are no lengths to which Cooper won't go to be a truly hissable bad guy, and he's very, very funny doing it. In fact, Cooper's performance is so wildly unlikable that it's probably one of the reasons we struggled to warm to him on screen, at least until "Silver Linings Playbook" came along; the shadow of Sack was a long one...

My Beautiful Launderette
Daniel Day-Lewis - "My Beautiful Launderette"
Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor at the Oscars at his first time at bat for "My Left Foot," but the actor had already impressed long, long before that. Early roles in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Gandhi" were followed by an impressive stage debut in "Another Country," before a supporting turn in "The Bounty" with Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson. But his first lead role came in 1985's excellent "My Beautiful Launderette," a film that marks something of a watershed, not just in its depiction of Pakistani and gay life in 1980s Britain, but also as a showcase for director Stephen Frears, writer Hanif Kureshi, producers Working Title (who'd go on to dominate British film for the next three decades), and, of course, Day-Lewis. The actor plays Johnny, a right-wing skinhead who reconnects with his old school friend Omar (Gordon Warnecke). Omar's been asked to run a launderette for his uncle, and enlists Johnny, who was his lover when he was younger before his political makeover, to help, the two rekindling their romance in the process. Day-Lewis is really playing second fiddle to Warnecke (who sadly failed to get the same boost), but dominates the film with a performance of immense intensity and charm, rolling up all of Johnny's many contradictions and creating a human being that makes absolute sense. It was all the more impressive because it arrived in U.S. theaters (having been originally made for TV in the U.K.) only a month after Day-Lewis' wildly different performance as the repressed, snobbish Cecil Vyse in "A Room With A View." A star was born, and on Sunday, Day-Lewis looks likely to become the first actor in history to win three Best Actor trophies.